Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a group of approximately 5,000 human-made chemicals that are manufactured for their oil and water-resistant properties. Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used in a wide range of consumer products, industrial processes, and in some fire-fighting foams (called aqueous film-forming foam or AFFF). This has resulted in PFAS being released into the air, water and soil.

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Background and Sources of PFAS

PFAS are made up of chains of carbon and fluorine linked together. The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the shortest and strongest bonds in nature and does not easily break down under natural conditions. For this reason, PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals.”

PFAS are mobile in soil and groundwater. These chemicals have been shown to bioaccumulate, or build up, in blood and organs over time, and may pose risks to human health.

The two most common and best-studied compounds in the PFAS family are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they have been replaced with other PFAS alternatives such as hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (used in GenX technology) and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS). PFOA and PFOS are still used in manufacturing in other countries so consumer goods imported to the United States may contain PFOA or PFOS.

PFAS are used in many industrial and consumer processes to make everyday items non-stick, or water-, oil-, or stain-resistant.

  • Food packaging - fast food containers, lunch meat paper, disposable plates and bowls, and oil-, water- and grease-resistant coatings on food packaging
  • Commercial household products - non-stick coated cookware (Teflon), cleaning products, waxes, polishes, and adhesives
  • Clothing and fabric textiles - stain- and water-resistant carpeting and upholstery, water repellant clothing, tents, umbrellas, shoes, and leather goods
  • Cosmetics and personal care products - shampoos, conditioners, sunscreens, cosmetics, and dental floss
  • Building and exterior use products - paints and sealants
  • Industrial use - metal plating and finishing, wire coatings, automotive fluids, and the manufacture of artificial turf
  • Firefighting foam - aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF)

Given the presence of PFAS in consumer products, disposal of these items into municipal solid waste landfills may be a significant source of PFAS transport into the environment. In the landfill, PFAS can migrate into the liquid waste (leachate) collection system. Leachate is either  treated onsite or taken to a wastewater treatment facility to be treated. Disposal of personal care products down home wastewater drains is also a source of PFAS to municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Wastewater treatment is not designed to remove PFAS and the use of wastewater biosolids as agricultural fertilizers may distribute PFAS into the environment, leading to the contamination of soil, surface water, and groundwater. When released to surface water, PFAS may bioaccumulate in freshwater fish and waterfowl. Likewise, plants, livestock, and wildlife in areas irrigated with PFAS contaminated water or treated with PFAS containing biosolids may take up PFAS, but the amount of uptake varies depending on many factors.

The production of PFAS, as well as use in manufacturing and industrial processes, contributes to the release of PFAS in air, soil and water. PFAS compounds are used both as raw materials to develop, treat or coat products, and as processing aids used in certain activities such as electroplating where it is necessary to reduce harmful aerosols. The release of PFAS from industrial sources can be from direct waste streams from the facility, fugitive emissions to the air, spills, or from disposal of materials containing PFAS.      

Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) are Class B commercial firefighting foams historically produced with PFOS or polyfluorinated precursors that break down to PFOA. These foams are used at airports, military installations, petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing plants for fire and flammable vapor suppression as well as for training purposes. They have long shelf lives and despite newer products being available, may still be stored and used at these sites. When used, AFFF has the potential to contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water. Newer products, referred to as “modern fluorotelomer foams,” are available and are not made with PFOS or PFOA precursors, but rather with PFAS analytes that contain fewer carbon atoms. These modern foams can breakdown to PFAS compounds that may be less toxic.


Routes of Exposure

PFAS has been measured in indoor air, outdoor air, dust, food, water, and various consumer products. Occupational exposure to PFAS for some individuals, such as those working in PFAS manufacturing facilities, installing or treating carpets, or firefighters using PFAS containing firefighting foams, may be higher than the general public. Potential routes of PFAS exposure include ingestion, dermal, and inhalation. Current scientific literature indicates that most exposure to the general public is through ingestion of food and water.

Ingestion

The general population is primarily exposed to PFAS through the ingestion of contaminated food, water, dust, and hand-to-mouth contact with PFAS treated products, such as carpets and textiles or cosmetics and lotions containing PFAS. Infants and toddlers have higher exposure to PFAS due to having a single source of nutrition (breast-feeding or formula-feeding), by hand-to-mouth transfer due to being in contact with treated carpets and furniture, and have greater indoor dust ingestion. Once swallowed, PFAS can enter the bloodstream due to its ability to bind to blood proteins such as albumin, and typically distributes to the liver, kidneys, and blood.

Food grown in water or soil contaminated with PFAS, and food packaging treated with PFAS can cause PFAS to transfer to food, directly exposing people to PFAS upon consumption. PFAS has the ability to biomagnify through trophic levels meaning that its concentration increases as it moves upward through the food chain.  This becomes a concern for humans because of the variety of foods that we eat including fish, livestock and wildlife. Ingestion of PFAS contaminated drinking water, including some bottled waters, may be a primary source of PFAS intake into the body.

Dermal

PFAS chemicals are not easily absorbed through the skin; therefore, dermal exposure is considered a less significant route of exposure for the general population. In individuals with high occupational exposures, this may pose a risk.

Inhalation

Both outdoor and indoor air may contain PFAS. PFAS in outdoor air may be attributed to manufacturing releases. Clothing, textiles, and carpets treated with PFAS may result in higher concentrations of some PFAS in indoor air. Toxicity studies conducted to determine levels at which no adverse effect occurs from the inhalation of PFAS have not yet determined a valid concentration for harmful effects from exposure via inhalation.

Ways to Reduce Exposure

Preventing all exposure to PFAS is not practical due to the widespread historic and current use of PFAS, which are commonly used in consumer products throughout the world. Exposure can be reduced by avoiding or limiting exposure with some products, as follows:

  • Use non-stick coated cookware according to manufacturer guidelines (not all non-stick coatings contain PFAS).
  • Use stainless steel or cast-iron cookware in place of non-stick coated items.
  • Avoid oil and water-resistant food packaging.
  • Avoid stain resistant coatings on carpet, furniture and clothing.
  • Avoid water repellants on clothing.
  • Use personal care products without “PTFE” or “Fluoro” ingredients.
  • Use water filters designed to remove PFAS.
  • Dust household surfaces with a damp cloth regularly.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends consumers eat a varied, well-balanced diet, noting that results from initial PFAS testing in the general food supply did not support needing to avoid certain foods due to PFAS contamination. More information may be obtained from the Food and Drug Administration

For Private Water Well Users

PFAS does not have any taste, color or odor in drinking water. The only way to confirm the presence of PFAS is through proper sampling and analysis at a laboratory certified to perform United States Enivornmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) Method 537.1 or 533. Sample collection should be done by someone who is specifically trained in collecting samples for PFAS analysis to avoid contamination from contact with items such as clothing, food and beverage packaging, and personal hygiene products.

If you have a private water well and are concerned with PFAS in your drinking water, consult your local health department or a private laboratory for testing options as testing is the only way to determine the presence of PFAS in your water.

A searchable list of accredited laboratories is available through the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference (NELAC). 

Home Water Treatment Options

Household removal of PFAS from drinking water requires the use of products such as granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis (RO), or anion exchange filters. These may be point-of-use treatments installed underneath the kitchen sink or countertop pitcher options that are refilled by the consumer as needed; both options require the filters to be changed at regular intervals. For private water well users who do not receive water from a community water supply, certified whole home treatments may be an option. When choosing a treatment, consider water usage, which faucets are used for water for drinking, cooking and making ice, and the type of PFAS identified through testing. Refrigerators with water and ice dispensers may need to be connected to the treatment source.

Treatment options should be tested by an independent third party to show effectiveness of reducing PFAS. NSF International has a list of filtration systems that have been certified to remove PFOA and PFOS. Products can be certified through NSF Protocol P473, NSF/ANSI Standard 53 (filters), or NSF/ANSI Standard 58 (reverse osmosis) to ensure the uniform testing of treatment filters to effectively reduce and remove PFOA and PFOS. Since other PFAS vary in their chemical makeup, they may not be removed as efficiently. 

It is important to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to property maintain and change filters for the type of treatment you choose. Used filters should be disposed of in household trash.

The cost of treatment depends on the type of treatment chosen. Initial costs can range from $100 - $1,200 with annual media (filter) replacement costs around $200 each year.

Bottled Water

Check to make sure you are obtaining bottled water from a supplier who is testing for PFAS in their water supply, or that your bottled water is treated through a process to remove PFAS such as reverse osmosis.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) has established the following limits for their members providing bottled water to consumers:

  • 5 parts per trillion for one PFAS
  • 10 parts per trillion for more than one PFAS

A list of IBWA members can be found on their website.  Please note that this group does not represent all bottled-water manufacturers. Also, look on the bottled water label for information about reverse osmosis or activated carbon filtration methods as they are the two technologies most commonly used for PFAS removal.

Health Effects

General

PFAS are bioaccumulative, meaning they build up in the body over time. They have long half-lives and take several years to be eliminated from the body.  Exposure to PFAS does not necessarily mean that a person will get sick or experience an adverse health effect. Researchers continue working to fully understand the effects on human health. While research on the effects of PFAS exposure on human health is ongoing, current scientific studies have identified possible adverse health effects such as increased cholesterol levels, increased risk for thyroid disease, low infant birth weights, reduced response to vaccines, liver and kidney toxicity, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. 

Cancer

Several studies of occupational and community exposure of PFAS have been conducted. The studies have found increases in the risk of kidney and testicular cancers associated with PFOA. Studies for other PFAS indicate suggestive evidence of a risk of cancer associated exposure. Laboratory studies in animals also suggest an increased risk of pancreatic, liver and thyroid tumors due to exposure from PFAS. PFOA is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has a webpage of information about the health effects of PFAS. 

For Pregnant & Nursing Women

PFAS can be transported through umbilical cord blood and breast milk to the unborn fetus and infant child. Given the bioaccumulative nature of these chemicals, it is important to minimize exposure before, during and after pregnancy. Pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant may consider taking steps to reduce their overall exposure to PFAS, which may include using a household drinking water treatment certified to remove PFAS or an alternative drinking water source that is tested for PFAS if sampling indicates that PFAS is present in your drinking water. This step along with those in the Ways to Reduce PFAS Exposure section may reduce overall exposure to PFAS.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends nursing mothers continue breastfeeding, noting that the benefits outweigh the risks associated with potential PFAS exposure.

For bottle-fed infants, if sampling indicates that PFAS is present in your drinking water, consider using a household drinking water treatment or bottled water that has been filtered using reverse osmosis when preparing formula. Bottled water treatment will typically be found on the bottle label.

For Children

Children are more sensitive than adults to the effects of PFAS and have greater exposure. They tend to drink more water relative to body weight than adults. They have higher exposure to contaminated soils and household dusts from playing outside near the ground and on treated carpets, leading to more ingestion from hand to mouth transfer than adults. Children also do not eliminate chemicals from the body as easily as adults, meaning it will take longer to remove the chemical compared to an adult.  In addition to the general health effects listed above, animal studies have indicated that PFAS may be linked to growth, learning, and behavior effects.

For Pets & Other Animals

Although most research has been geared toward human health, pets are also susceptible to the health effects of PFAS through the same routes of exposure. It is important to remember that screening levels are developed based on the average body weight and water consumption rate of an adult human. Pets tend to weigh less and consume more water on a daily basis than the average adult human; therefore, pets may experience these harmful effects at lower doses. It is recommended to use the same precautions for your pets that you are taking for yourself to reduce exposure. Consult with a veterinarian for any concerns regarding the health effects on pets.       

Testing Your Blood for PFAS

Most Americans have been exposed to PFAS due to widespread use of these chemicals. A blood test for PFAS can tell how much of each PFAS is in your blood, but it is not able to tell if that exposure has caused your health condition. Many of the health problems associated with PFAS are also linked to a variety of other factors including lifestyle, genetics, and environment. A PFAS blood test is not a routine test and health insurance may not cover the cost of testing. You may need to contact a private laboratory directly to arrange testing.

If you are concerned about PFAS exposure, we recommend that you first consult with a health care professional for further guidance.

Regulatory Status

United States EPA Actions to Address PFAS

In June 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) updated the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) to include 172 PFAS chemicals. U.S. EPA’s TRI tracks the management of certain toxic chemicals that may pose a threat to human health and the environment. Certain industry sectors must report annually how much of each TRI chemical is released into the environment and/or managed through recycling, energy recovery and treatment. A release of a chemical includes emission into the air or water or disposed in a landfill. PFAS are not currently listed as a hazardous waste by the U.S. EPA.

The U.S. EPA regulates drinking water standards for more than 90 contaminants by setting Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for the individual contaminants. MCLs are numeric enforceable drinking water standards set as close as feasible to health-based benchmark levels, using the best available analytical and water treatment technologies while taking into consideration costs for treatment.  The U.S. EPA has not set MCLs for any PFAS chemicals.  In 2016, U.S. EPA did set Lifetime Health Advisory Levels for PFOA and PFOS of 0.07 micrograms per liter (µg/L or ppb), both individually and combined. A Health Advisory Level is a non-enforceable value provided as guidance for evaluating the prevalence and occurrence of unregulated drinking water contaminants.

State Actions

Community Water Supply Sampling

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a statewide investigation into the prevalence and occurrence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in finished drinking water at all 1,749 community water supplies in Illinois. Data gathered as part of this investigation will aid in the possible development of future state-only Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) regulatory standards. The statewide investigation is expected to take an estimated 12 to 15 months to complete. Illinois EPA has provided direct notice  to each of the community water supplies and appreciates their cooperation in this important project. If PFAS chemicals are detected, Illinois EPA will work with community water supplies to ensure residents are informed and to determine next steps to reduce exposure.

Groundwater Standard Development

The Illinois Environmental Protection Act establishes various aspects of groundwater quality, including method of classification of groundwaters, nondegradation provisions, standards for quality of groundwaters, and various procedures and protocols for the management and protection of groundwaters.  These regulations are codified in 35 Illinois Administrative Code (IAC) 620.  Illinois EPA is drafting and will propose to the Illinois Pollution Control Board amendments to the Part 620 regulations that update toxicity data for various listed chemicals and provide new groundwater quality standards for five PFAS chemicals.

Maximum Contaminant Level Development

The Illinois EPA generally relies upon and adopts U.S. EPA developed MCLs for drinking water and does not typically establish state-only MCLs.  Illinois EPA intends to perform sampling for PFAS at community water supplies across Illinois.  Along with monitoring regulatory developments on the federal level, the sampling will provide Illinois EPA with data to determine future state actions needed to be protective of community water supplies.  When MCLs exist for a contaminant, the Illinois EPA will compare analytical results to the MCL to determine if any additional actions are needed to respond to potential contaminant concerns.  Where no MCL exists, the Illinois EPA must turn to reference levels like U.S. EPA's Lifetime Health Advisory and others developed based on current health and toxicity data.  In addition to U.S. EPA's Lifetime Health Advisory, the Illinois EPA will be comparing analytical results to screening levels it has developed for five PFAS compounds. These reference levels (the U.S. EPA's Lifetime Health Advisory and the Illinois EPA's screening levels) are not enforceable numeric standards.  The reference levels will be used to evaluate whether additional investigatory actions are necessary along with evaluating treatment or process alternatives.

Contacts

Illinois EPA

epa.pfas@illinois.gov

Barb Lieberoff, Office of Community Relations
217-524-3038

 

Illinois Department of Public Health
Brian Koch, Division of Environmental Health
brian.koch@illinois.gov
217-782-5830

Additional Resources

PFAS specific websites
 
Risk Assessment information
 
Other Illinois information
 
Other states and organizations have a variety of information on PFAS
Michigan information on In-Home Water Filtration Systems