Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) 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 commonly detected in Minnesota include:

perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS; C8F17SO3),
perfluorobutane sulfonate ( PFBS; C4F9C03),
perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA; C8F15O2H),
perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA; C4F7O2H),
perfluoropentanoic acid (PFPeA; C5F9O2H), 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.

      For more information about where PFCs have been found in Minnesota, see the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Web page: Perfluorochemicals.

  • 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, the fish in 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 the Fish Consumption Guidance: Minnesota Fish: Benefits and Risks. Information about PFCs in fish and site-specific meal advice are available.

  • 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.

        MDH conducted studies that measured PFCs in the blood of East Metro residents. For more information about the studies, see PFC Biomonitoring Projects.

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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 and, if they do cause illness, what levels in the body are of health concern. Researchers are actively evaluating whether a range of health effects in different groups of people are associated with exposure to PFCs. PFCs may be toxic to the liver and thyroid gland and may also affect development.

Scientists investigated a number of possible health effects in people exposed to high levels of PFOA in a West Virginia/Ohio community. 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. For example, the panel found that there was a probable link between exposure to PFOA and diagnosed high cholesterol but not between exposure to PFOA and hypertension or coronary artery disease. 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 and adjust our health advice if needed.

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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 works with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to investigate 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 populations.

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 advisory levels for drinking water are guidance values only and are currently being re-evaluated by the EPA. 

Due to limited toxicological research on the other PFCs for which MDH's Public Health Laboratory currently tests, there is not enough scientific information to develop HRLs. 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.

MDH information about Health Risk Limits:
Health Risk Limits (for Groundwater) (Explanation)
Perfluorobutyrate (PFBA)
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and salts
Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and salts
Perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) and salts

Environmental Protection Agency: Perfluorinated Chemical (PFC) Research

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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. Other types of common water treatment systems, such as water softeners, are not likely to remove PFCs. Boiling water will not remove PFCs. 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 Guidance. 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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Printable Information Sheet:

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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 Thursday, January 28, 2016 at 06:41PM