Overview of Perfluorochemical and Health: Environmental Health - Minnesota Dept. of Health

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Health

Also referred to as Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFCs are a family of manmade chemicals that were used for decades to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.  PFCs are extremely stable and do not breakdown in the environment. Common uses of PFCs include 1) nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, 2) coatings on some food packaging (especially microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers), 3) components of fire-fighting foam, and 4) many industrial applications.

Our understanding and ability to detect PFCs in the environment has evolved since the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) began investigating them in 2002. Laboratories at that time only identified a few PFCs and could not detect very low concentrations. The science in the past also suggested that exposure to very small amounts of PFCs were not a health concern. We are now able to measure extremely small amounts (parts per trillion in water) of a number of PFCs and newer studies suggest that long-term exposure to PFCs in this range might affect the most vulnerable members of the population. MDH continues to monitor the growing body of science about PFCs and we will adjust our health advice as needed.

What do we know about PFCs in the environment?

  • In the environment: Because PFCs are so stable, they may be found in soil, sediments, water or other places. Studies show some PFCs travel through soil and easily enter groundwater, where they may move long distances. Some experts suggest PFCs also travel long distances in air. PFCs have been released to the environment through spills and disposal in the past. For information about where PFCs have been found in Minnesota, see the MPCA Perfluorochemicals webpage.
  • In wildlife: PFCs have been found in many species of wildlife around the world, including fish, bald eagles, and mink in the mid-western U. S.
  • In fish: PFOS is a specific PFC that accumulates to levels of concern in fish. Most fish have low levels of PFOS. However, fish in some Minnesota lakes have levels of PFOS that require restrictive fish consumption advice of only one meal of fish per month. Information about PFCs in fish and site-specific meal advice are available on the MDH Site-Specific Meal Advice for Tested Lakes and Rivers webpage.
  • In Minnesota lakes and rivers: PFCs may be present in lakes and rivers at very low levels. MDH has determined that exposure to PFCs through swimming is not of concern. PFCs are poorly absorbed through skin and swallowing small amounts of water while swimming will not result in significant exposure. Also, because there is little evaporation of PFCs from water into the air, breathing them in while swimming or bathing is not a health concern.
  • In people: Studies show nearly all people have some PFCs in their blood, regardless of their age. The PFCs most commonly found in human blood are PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, and PFNA. People are exposed through food, water, dust or consumer products. Some PFCs can build up and stay in the human body for many years. They can also slowly decline if the exposure stops. MDH has conducted three studies that measured PFCs in the blood of East Metro residents. Results showed that PFC levels in the blood of longer-term residents dropped between 2008 and 2014 after public health interventions were put in place to reduce drinking water exposures. For information about the studies, see the MDH PFC Biomonitoring: East Metro webpage.

Are PFCs harmful to people?

Scientists are actively studying whether PFCs cause health problems in people. Researchers have found links between PFCs and some human health outcomes. In some studies, higher levels of PFCs in a person’s body were associated with higher cholesterol, changes to liver function, reduced immune response, thyroid disease, and increased kidney and testicular cancer. More work needs to be done to determine if PFCs or other factors caused the health outcomes.

There are several different PFCs and health effects are different for each PFC. For specific information about PFCs with MDH health-based values, use the links in the table below. Following is a summary of PFC health effect information. In laboratory animal studies, effects of PFC exposure included changes such as developmental delays (e.g., lower body weight, delayed mammary gland development) and accelerated male sexual development. Other effects of exposure included changes in cholesterol levels, increased kidney and liver weight, cellular changes in the kidney and liver, reduced immune response, and decreased thyroid hormone levels.  At this time, MDH considers the existing data to be inadequate to assess the possible cancer effects of some PFCs.

  • While we believe the immediate health risks for people exposed to PFCs are low, the latest information indicates that fetuses and infants are more vulnerable. Long term exposure to PFOA and PFOS leads to a buildup of these chemicals in women of child bearing age that results in more exposure to the fetus and breastfed infants. Breastfeeding provides many health benefits to both a mother and infant. MDH recommends that women currently breastfeeding, and pregnant women who plan to breastfeed, continue to do so. For information about breastfeeding, see the MDH Breastfeeding Your Baby:  The Benefits of Breastfeeding webpage.
  • Bottle-fed infants are also of concern because they drink more water per body weight than adults. If you are concerned about exposure through bottle feeding, consider using bottled water as your water source until you have filtered drinking water. This can lower exposure to PFCs for your infant.
Water with PFC levels above health concern is safe for bathing, showering or washing clothes and cleaning, but should not be used for drinking or cooking.

What levels of PFCs are safe to drink?

MDH is responsible for ensuring safe drinking water for all Minnesotans. One way we do this is through regular testing of public water supplies for contaminants. MDH also works with the MPCA to investigate situations where groundwater contaminants may affect private drinking water wells.

MDH has developed health-based guidance values to represent levels for various PFCs in drinking water that MDH considers safe for people, including sensitive populations.  The guidance values apply to short periods of time as well as over a lifetime of exposure.  The table below shows the PFCs that the MDH Public Health Laboratory can test for and the health-based drinking water guidance values (in parts per billion, or ppb) MDH uses to evaluate drinking water samples. More information can be found on the MDH Guidance Values and Standards for Contaminants in Drinking Water webpage.

Table of Health-based Values for PFCs

PFCs Detected in Minnesota
PFC Specific Information Sheet Available

Drinking Water Guidance Value
pb or µg/L)

perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS)

PFBS and Drinking Water (PDF)


perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS)


perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)

PFOS and Drinking Water (PDF)


perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA)

PFBA and Drinking Water (PDF)


perfluoropentanoic acid (PFPeA)

Not established

perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA)

Not established

perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)

PFOA and Drinking Water (PDF)


1 MDH recommends using the health-based value for PFOS (0.027 ppb) as a surrogate for PFHxS until more toxicological research on PFHxS is available.

Water samples often contains multiple chemicals. Chemicals in combination may cause effects that would not be predicted based on separate exposures to the individual concentrations of each chemical present.  When more than one PFC for which guidance values are available are present in drinking water, MDH evaluates their “additive” risk.

How can I reduce my exposures to PFCs?

Completely stopping exposure to PFCs is not practical, because they are so common and present throughout the world. If you live where drinking water sources are contaminated, you can take the steps below to lower your exposure to PFCs.

  • Reverse osmosis and activated carbon filter treatment systems can reduce the levels of PFCs in drinking water in your home. The MDH website has information about inexpensive and easy to use systems you can install in your home to reduce your exposure to PFCs through drinking water. You may choose to use bottled water for drinking and cooking for a short time, but long-term bottled water use will be more expensive than installing a treatment system.
  • You may choose to use bottled water for drinking and cooking for a short time, but long-term bottled water use will be more expensive than installing a treatment system.
  • PFOS may also be present in the fish people catch and eat. The MDH website provides Site-Specific Meal Advice for Tested Lakes and Rivers for eating fish, including fish caught in areas affected by PFOS.
Ingestion of household dust can also be a significant route of exposure, especially for infants and young children. Dust household surfaces regularly to lower the amount of dust in the house.

Printable Information Sheet

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Health (PDF)

Contact MDH

Minnesota Department of Health
Site Assessment and Consultation Unit PO Box 64975,
St. Paul, MN (zip) 55164-0975
(phone) 651-201-4897 or toll-free 1-800-657-3908

Updated Tuesday, April 17, 2018 at 02:15PM