Overview of Perfluorochemicals and Health

What are Perfluorochemicals?

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are…

  • A family of manmade chemicals that have been used for decades as an ingredient to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water.
  • Extremely resistant to breakdown in the environment.

Common uses include:

  • nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics
  • coatings on some food packaging (especially microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers)
  • as components of fire-fighting foam
  • many industrial applications

PFCs include:

perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS; C8F17SO3),
perfluorobutane sulfonate ( PFBS; C4F9C03),
perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA; C8F15O2H),
perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA; C4F7O2H), and
perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS; C6F13SO3).

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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 in other places. Studies indicate that some PFCs travel through soil and easily enter groundwater where they may move long distances. Some experts suggest that PFCs can also travel long distances in air, deposit on soil and leach into groundwater.
  • In wildlife: PFCs have been found in the blood of many species of wildlife around the world, including fish, bald eagles and mink in the mid-western United States.
  • In fish: PFOS is the PFC that accumulates to levels of concern in fish. Most fish have low levels of PFOS. However, some lakes have levels of PFOS that require restrictive fish consumption advice of only one fish meal per month. For information on the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) fish consumption guidelines, visit Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Fish.
  • 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 incidental ingestion of surface water while swimming will not result in a significant exposure. Also, because there is very 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 that nearly all people have some PFCs in their blood, regardless of age. The PFCs most commonly found in human blood are PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS. People are exposed through food, water, or from using commercial products. Some PFCs stay in the human body for many years.
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Are PFCs harmful?

While researchers are studying this question, there is not scientific agreement yet on whether PFCs cause illnesses in people. Studies in animals have found some health effects, including changes in liver and thyroid function, increased tumors in certain organs, and reproductive problems.

Scientists are investigating a number of health outcomes in people exposed to high levels of PFOA in a West Virginia/Ohio community. Full scientific findings have not been published yet, so we do not know how the results will inform our understanding of the effects PFCs may have on human health in Minnesota. A panel of 3 scientists chosen as part of a legal settlement was charged with making a determination about whether there is a “probable link” – whether it is “more likely than not” that a link exists – between exposure to PFOA and disease in the Ohio River Valley community. The panel found that there is a “probable link” for a small number of health conditions, and that there is not a “probable link” for many others. These findings are part of a court settlement and not a definitive scientific conclusion. More work needs to be done to determine if the links are truly cause-and-effect or if they are due to other factors.

MDH will continue to monitor the growing body of science about PFCs.

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What levels of PFCs are safe to drink?

MDH is responsible for ensuring safe drinking water for all Minnesotans. One way MDH does this is through regular testing of public water supplies for contaminants. MDH also investigates situations where groundwater contaminants may affect private wells.

Because PFCs are known to be in the environment in Minnesota, MDH has developed drinking water criteria, known as Health Risk Limits (HRLs) for PFOA, PFOS, PFBA, and PFBS.  HRLs represent levels of chemicals in drinking water that MDH considers safe for people, including sensitive subpopulations.

The HRL values for these four PFCs are:

PFOA: 0.3 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
PFOS: 0.3 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
PFBS: 7 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
PFBA: 7 micrograms per liter (µg/L)

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set similar short-term provisional health advisory values for PFOA and PFOS of 0.4 and 0.2 ug/L, respectively. These EPA advisory levels for drinking water are guidance values only. 

MDH continues to follow ongoing research activities on other PFCs of concern and may develop guidance if sufficient toxicological data becomes available. Levels of these other PFCs have been very low in area groundwater samples.

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How can I reduce my exposures to PFCs?

At this time, removing PFCs from water and following the fish consumption advice are the steps that people can take to reduce exposures to PFCs.

  • Filters containing activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes have been shown to be effective at removing PFCs from water supplies. MDH has information about water treatment devices on: “Home Water Treatment Units:  Point of Use Devices.” Use a reliable installer to insure proper installation, operation and maintenance of the water filter system which will work best for your needs.
  • People can reduce their exposure to PFCs in fish by following the MDH’s Fish Consumption Advice. Fish are an excellent source of low-fat protein and most fish are healthy to eat. Special cleaning and cooking precautions used to reduce contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that concentrate in fat are not effective with PFOS.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started an initiative called the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program to phase out use of PFOA entirely by 2015. In 2012, EPA signed a Significant New Use Rule for PFCs to limit their use and continues to evaluate the exposure to PFCs on children and other populations which are more likely to be more sensitive to PFC exposures. PFOA and PFOS production were eliminated by 3M in 2002.

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Additional information:

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For more information, please contact us.

This information was prepared with partial support from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). This statement does not imply that ATSDR has endorsed this information.

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Updated Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 04:08PM