U.S. EPA Contaminated Site Cleanup Information (CLU-IN)


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. EPA Technology Innovation and Field Services Division

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)

Overview

The objective of these pages is to provide an overview of the current understanding of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), particularly perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), regarding their major historical and current uses; scientific information about their sources, chemistry and analysis, potential human exposure and associative adverse health outcomes, and environmental fate and transport; and progress in site investigation techniques and cleanup alternatives for environmental media affected by PFASs at levels of concern.

Many PFAS precursors (such as alcohols, amides) can be degraded to perfluroroalkyl acids (PFAA) (OECD 2007, Buck et al. 2011, and Suthersan et al. 2016). The most studied PFAAs to date are PFOA and PFOS (OECD 2013); hence, PFOS and PFOA are the primary focus of these pages.

There are variations in terminology, names, and abbreviations to describe PFASs. As a result, researching and reviewing the scientific literature for these substances can be confusing. Buck et al. (2011) discusses the need for harmonized terminology, names, and abbreviations that describe each PFAS compound clearly and specifically. A fact sheet (NIEHS 2012) notes some commonly used terms for PFASs:

  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
  • Perfluorochemicals (PFCs).
  • Perfluoroalkyls (PFAs).
  • Perfluorinated alkyl acids (PFAAs).
  • Polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
  • Polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

Buck et al. (2011) recommends that PFAS be adopted as the name of choice because it more specifically addresses this class of chemicals. Buck et al. (2011) also notes that the abbreviation PFC has been used in official Kyoto Protocol documents since its adoption in 1997, specifically to designate greenhouse gas perfluorocarbons (United Nations 1998) as another reason for preferring PFAS to PFC. Greenhouse gas perfluorocarbons have very different chemistry and behaviors compared to PFASs discussed here.

Many PFASs are acids and can exist in a protonated or anionic state. The same abbreviation is generally used to represent either state. For example, PFOA can represent the protonated state [(C7F15COOH) CAS number 335-67-1] or the anionic state [(C7F15COO-) CAS number 45285-51-6].

By convention among all nonpolymeric PFASs, "long-chain PFASs" refers to (i) PFCAs with 7 and more perfluoroalkyl carbons, such as PFOA (with 8 carbons, or C8 PFCA) and PFNA (with 9 carbons or C9 PFCA); (ii) perfluoroalkyl sulfonic acids (PFSAs) with 6 and more perfluoroalkyl carbons, such as PFHxS (with 6 perfluoroalkyl carbons, or C6 PFSA) and PFOS (with 8 perfluoroalkyl carbons or C8 PFSA); and (iii) substances that have the potential to degrade to long-chain PFCAs or PFSAs, i.e., precursors such as PASF- and fluorotelomer-based compounds (OECD 2013).

Fluorotelomer-based substances have their own naming protocol. C8F17CH2CH2OH, for example would be named 8:2 fluorotelomer alcohol where the 8 represents the number of carbons in the perfluorinated backbone and the 2 is the number of carbons in the functional group, which in this case is an alcohol.

PFAS fluorine-carbon bonds are very stable and give these substances high thermal and chemical stability and are therefore persistent in the environment (ASTSWMO 2015 and Buck et al. 2011). Many PFASs are found worldwide in the environment, wildlife, and humans (Houde et al. 2006 and 2007, Lau et al. 2007, Lindstrom et al. 2011, and USEPA 2016a).

PFAS applications have made use of their unique surfactant properties. Their alkyl tails make these substances both hydrophobic (water-repelling) and oleophobic/lipophobic (oil/fat-repelling). Because of these properties, PFASs have been used extensively in surface coating and protectant formulations. Major applications have included protectants that enhance water, grease, and soil repellency for paper and cardboard packaging products, carpets, leather products, and textiles. The compounds also have been widely used in industrial surfactants, emulsifiers, wetting agents, additives, and coatings. PFASs have been used in fire-fighting foams because they are effective in extinguishing hydrocarbon-fueled fires. They are also used as processing aids in the manufacture of fluoropolymers, such as nonstick coatings on cookware, membranes for clothing that are both waterproof and breathable, electrical wire casing, fire- and chemical-resistant tubing, and plumbing thread seal tape (OECD 2013 and Buck et al. 2011).

The manufacture and import of PFOA was phased out in the United States as part of the PFOA Stewardship program (USEPA 2016b). In 2002 the only major U.S. manufacturer voluntarily agreed to phase out production of PFOS. Exposure to PFOS in the United States remains possible due to its legacy uses, existing and legacy uses on imported goods, degradation of precursors, and extremely high persistence in the environment and the human body. PFOS and related compounds continue to be produced in other countries and could enter the U.S. as imported products (USEPA 2016c).

References

ASTSWMO (Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials), 2015. Adobe PDF LogoPerfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs): Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) & Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) — Information Paper. 68 pp.

Buck, R.C. et al. 2011. Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in the Environment: Terminology, Classification, and Origins. Integrated Environmental Assessment & Management 7(4):513-541.

Houde, M. et al. 2006. Biological Monitoring of Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: A Review. Environmental Science & Technology 40(11):3463-3473.[Abstract]

Houde, M. et al. 2011. Monitoring of Perfluorinated Compounds in Aquatic Biota: An Updated Review PFCs in Aquatic Biota. Environmental Science & Technology 45(19):7962-7973. [Abstract]

Lau, C., K. Anitole, C. Hodes, D. Lai et al. 2007. Adobe PDF LogoPerfluoroalkyl Acids: A Review of Monitoring and Toxicological Findings. Toxicological Sciences 99(2):366-394.

Lindstrom, A.B., M.J. Strynar, and E.L. Libelo. 2011. Adobe PDF LogoPolyfluorinated Compounds: Past, Present, and Future. Environmental Science & Technology 45(19):7954-7961.

NIEHS (National Institutes of Health). 2012. Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs). 4 pp.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 2007. Adobe PDF LogoLists of PFOS, PFAS, PFOA, PFCA, Related Compounds and Chemicals That May Degrade to PFCA. Environment, Health and Safety Publications Series on Risk Management No. 21, ENV/JM/MONO(2006)15, 157 pp.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). 2013. Adobe PDF LogoSynthesis Paper on Per- and Polyfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs). OECD/UNEP Global PFC Group, Environment, Health and Safety, Environment Directorate, 60 pp.

Suthersan, S. et al. 2016. Making strides in the management of "emerging contaminants". Groundwater Monitoring & Remediation 36(1):15-25.

United Nations. 1998. Adobe PDF LogoKyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

USEPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2016a. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) under TSCA. EPA website, accessed June 1, 2016.

USEPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2016b. Fact Sheet: 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program. EPA website, accessed June 1, 2016.

USEPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2016c. Adobe PDF LogoDrinking Water Health Advisory for Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS). Office of Water, EPA 822-R-16-004, 88 pp.

Top of Page

Additional Resources

Fact Sheets: PFOS and PFOA
Emerging Contaminants Website, commissioned by Rijkswaterstaat Environment (the Netherlands) and OVAM (Public Waste Agency of Flanders), 2016

The following web-based factsheets about PFOS and PFOA are available in English: introduction to the properties; production, use, and sources; international developments and policy; toxicology; and behavior in soil and water.

Adobe PDF LogoLists of PFOS, PFAS, PFOA, PFCA Related Compounds and Chemicals That May Degrade to PFCA
OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Environment, Health and Safety Publications Series on Risk Management No. 21, ENV/JM/MONO(2006)15, 157 pp, 2007

The annexed lists of PFOS, PFAS, PFOA, their related chemical substances, and chemicals that may degrade to PFCA are based on member country responses to the OECD surveys; OECD member country inventories; reviews by international agencies or regulatory bodies; and published literature. In this document, PFAS is a generic term used to describe any fully fluorinated carbon chain length sulfonate compound, including higher and lower homologues as well as PFOS. PFAS-related substances may be salts of PFAS, or polymers that contain PFAS as a portion of the entire structure.

Adobe PDF LogoPerfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs) — Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) & Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) — Information Paper
ASTSWMO (Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials), 68 pp, 2015

This introduction to PFOA and PFOS contains brief discussions of manufacturing and uses, environmental fate and transport, health and environmental effects, and analytical and treatment methods.

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in the Environment: Terminology, Classification, and Origins
Buck, R.C., J. Franklin, U. Berger, J.M. Conder, I.T. Cousins, P. de Voogt, A. Astrup, et al.
Integrated Environmental Assessment & Management 7(4):513-541(2011)

This paper provides an overview of PFASs and recommends clear, specific, and descriptive terminology, names, and abbreviations for the compounds. Particular emphasis is placed on long-chain perfluoroalkyl acids, substances related to the long-chain perfluoroalkyl acids, and substances intended as alternatives to the use of the long-chain perfluoroalkyl acids or their precursors. The text contains a brief description of the two main PFAS production processes—electrochemical fluorination and telomerization (important for compound branching and chemical analysis)—and shows how the principal families of PFASs are interrelated as industrial, environmental, or metabolic precursors or transformation products. The Supplemental Data Table lists 42 families and subfamilies of PFASs and 268 selected individual compounds, providing recommended names and abbreviations, structural formulas, and Chemical Abstracts Service registry numbers.

Adobe PDF LogoPolyfluorinated Compounds: Past, Present, and Future
Lindstrom, A.B., M.J. Strynar, and E.L. Libelo.
Environmental Science & Technology 45(19):7954-7961(2011)

This overview highlights recent interest in PFASs and briefly explores the history of PFAS production, occurrence in the environment, human exposure, refining of analytical approaches to enable PFAS detection at very low levels, and PFAS studies that might be undertaken in the near future.

Adobe PDF LogoPotential Designated Chemicals: Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)
California Environmental Contaminant Biomonitoring Program, 22 pp, 2015.

This summary covers chemical identity and example structures, exposure or potential exposure to the public or specific subgroups, known or suspected health effects, and results of biomonitoring studies of some PFAS subclasses.

Adobe PDF LogoSynthesis Paper on Per- and Polyfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)
OECD/UNEP Global PFC Group, Environment, Health and Safety, Environment Directorate, 60 pp, 2013

Separate chapters provide overviews of (1) historical and current major uses of PFASs; (2) scientific evidence on sources to the environment, environmental fate, human exposure, and potential adverse effects; (3) recent developments on alternatives to long-chain PFASs; and (4) European regulatory approaches with respect to PFASs.

Top of Page