Frequently asked health questions
We asked CHEM Trust to answer the most frequently asked questions about 'forever chemicals' and the effects on humans.
What impacts do PFAS have on human health?
Exposure to the most studied PFAS has been linked to an array of adverse health effects, including thyroid disease, liver damage, reduced birth weight, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and reduced response to routine vaccination, and an increased risk of breast, kidney and testicular cancer. There is also growing evidence suggesting impacts on fertility as well as development and behavioural problems.
It should be noted that many of the thousands of PFAS currently in use are lacking proper toxicological data.
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How do PFAS end up in humans?
We are exposed to hundreds of PFAS simultaneously via some of the products we use every day and materials in our homes and workplaces, as well as via environmental routes such as drinking water and certain food.
Diet is recognised as the major source of PFAS exposure for most of the European population, in particular fish, fruits, meat and eggs.
Because it is extremely challenging for water treatment plants to remove PFAS from water, contamination of drinking water with PFAS is a rising issue.
Intake in children is almost double than that of adults; babies are born with PFAS already in their bodies from prenatal exposure, are fed PFAS-contaminated breast-milk or formula, and ingest significant quantities of PFAS in contaminated house-dust.
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What can we do to stop or reduce PFAS from being in humans?
The main thing is to call for the ban of all PFAS to stop additional PFAS ending up in our bodies and in the environment.
In the meantime, there are some steps you can take to reduce your own and your children’s exposure to PFAS via everyday products:
Food: Avoid using non-stick cookware and favour home-cooked meals over fast-food and takeaways.
Textiles: Check for PFAS- or PFC-free labels.
Cosmetics: Avoid product containing chemicals with “fluoro” or PTFE in their name (check the ingredient list). Also avoid dental floss with PTFE coatings.
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Is it true that breastfeeding can transfer PFAS from the mother to the baby?
Yes. PFAS can transfer via the placenta during development in the womb, and via breastmilk.
One study in Norway found that the daily PFOA intake of a 6-month-old breastfed infant is 15 times the intake of adults.
However, a Spanish study which measured concentrations of PFAS in breastmilk, formula milk and baby food found PFAS in all samples tested.
Even though it is known that breastmilk is one route by which bioaccumulative chemicals from the mother are transferred to the baby, breastfeeding of babies is acknowledged to be the best option for their health.
- Thomsen, C. et al., 2010. Changes in concentrations of perfluorinated compounds, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and polychlorinated biphenyls in Norwegian breast-milk during twelve months of lactation. Environmental Science & Technology, 44, pp. 9550 –9556.
- Lorenzo, M., et al., 2016. Perfluoroalkyl substances in breast milk, infant formula and baby food from Valencian community (Spain). Environmental Nanotechnology, Monitoring & Management, 6, pp. 108-115.
- World Health Organization: Breastfeeding
Is there a threshold level of how much PFAS is safe for humans to consume? If so, where are we now in relation to this level?
In 2020, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) set a safety threshold for the sum of the main PFAS that accumulate in the body: PFOA + PFOS + PFNA + PFHxS. The threshold, or tolerable weekly intake (TWI) is of 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per week.
It should be noted that for the sole PFOA, the 2020 safety threshold represents a 2,000-fold reduction compared to the previous threshold set in 2008. This is the results of increasing knowledge regarding PFAS toxicity.
In their 2020 assessment, EFSA concluded that parts of the European population will exceed the new tolerable weekly intake levels due to the widespread contamination of food and drinking water.
It also concluded that toddlers and other children are the most exposed population groups due to exposure during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
In 2022, the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative HBM4EU reported results indicating that over 14% of the European teenagers analysed had PFAS levels in their bodies exceeding EFSA’s health-based guidelines.
Do PFAS stay in your body for longer than other substances we’re exposed to?
PFAS are bioaccumulative chemicals which means they can build up in the human body because they are absorbed by our organism and are not excreted (unlike chemicals such as Bisphenols which are not bioaccumulative). PFAS are unusual because they bind to proteins, e.g. in blood; most bioaccumulative chemicals (for example PCBs) accumulate in fatty tissues.
However, because of their varying structure, not all PFAS will behave in the same way. For instance, in humans, long-chain PFAS are eliminated slowly, on the scale of years (e.g. PFHxS has a half-life in blood of up to 8.5 years) and tend to accumulate in protein rich compartments like blood, liver, kidney and bones. In contrast, short-chain PFAS are eliminated more quickly (e.g. PFBS has a half-life in blood of 26 days) and appear to accumulate in different organs and tissues such as the lungs, kidneys and the brain.
Are there any consumer products that lead to a particularly high exposure to PFAS? If so, what are they?
We’re not aware of studies comparing PFAS intake from various consumer products treated with PFAS.
The everyday products known to potentially contain PFAS include (non-exhaustive list):
- Stain and waterproof clothing, carpets and upholstery in general.
- Cosmetics, including mascara, shampoo, face cream, foundation powder etc.
- Greaseproof paper, cardboard and molded plant fiber takeaway food packaging.
- Non-stick cookware.
- Certain dental floss.
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