Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, in everyday products
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are a generic term for a large group of substances used in many everyday products, including all-weather clothing, cosmetics and frying pans. PFAS substances cannot be completely degraded in the environment, but are always present in one form or another. We suspect that many PFAS substances may be harmful and may accumulate in animals and humans. In addition, PFAS can spread far and are therefore a global problem.
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS as they are also called, are a group of over 4,700 substances. The best-known PFAS substances are PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid). PFAS substances do not exist naturally, all PFAS are produced by humans. It is a group of very stable substances that do not degrade in nature but remain in some form forever. PFAS are therefore commonly referred to as "forever chemicals".
As PFAS can spread long-distance via air and water, the substances can be detected in areas where no production or use of PFAS has ever occurred. These substances have been found in places as remote as the Arctic and in the polar bears that live there. Therefore, PFAS are a global environmental problem.
Where are PFAS used?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substanceshave been manufactured since the 1950s and are used in many different types of products. Many PFAS are grease, dirt and water repellent and are used in impregnation of various textiles, leather and food packaging. Many also have properties that make them useful in, for example, cleaning products, paints, ski wax and cosmetics. PFAS are also found in fire foam and in non-stick frying pans. Lesser known uses for PFAS are in some building materials, smartphones and solar cells. As these are highly effective substances, often only low concentrations are required to achieve the desired effect in a product.
How do PFAS affect the environment?
PFAS occur everywhere in the environment. The big problem with PFAS is that the substances are not completely degraded in nature. Some PFAS do not break down at all. Other PFAS substances can be broken down to some extent, but into different PFAS substances which in turn do not degrade. This means that the substances can remain in the environment forever.
PFAS can enter the environment when the substances are produced, when the products are used or when they become waste. As long as products and materials containing PFAS are manufactured and used, the substances will spread in some form and the amount of PFAS in the environment will increase over time.
How do we ingest PFAS?
In Sweden, we ingest low levels of PFAS mainly through food, for example via fish from polluted lakes. We also ingest low levels of PFAS from the indoor air because the substances are spread from gadgets and materials in our homes.
Locally, people have also been exposed to significantly higher levels in areas where drinking water has been contaminated with PFAS, for example from fire drill sites. For example, in Ronneby, Karlskrona and Uppsala municipal water supplies and private wells have been found to be contaminated by PFAS. Drinking water with high levels of PFAS for a long time is suspected of increasing the risk of adverse health effects.
On the Swedish Food Agency’s website you can read more about PFAS in drinking water and food. There is also advice for those who have their own well or get water from an individual drinking water facility.
Is it dangerous to use products containing PFAS?
For a few PFAS substances, there is evidence that the substances are harmful to health, such as PFOS and PFOA. Therefore, these substances may not be used in everyday products sold in the EU. PFAS substances are linked to harmful effects ranging from various cancers to effects on the immune system and blood cholesterol levels, as well as impact on birth weight in newborns. There is limited knowledge, however, of the health effects of many other PFAS, even if there is good reason to treat all PFAS as a health hazard. Most of these substances are still permitted and may be present in products sold in Europe.
It is mainly those involved in the manufacture of PFAS substances and those who manufacture products and materials containing PFAS that may be exposed to harmful levels. The amounts of PFAS consumers ingest when we use finished products and materials containing PFAS do not give rise to any acute health problems. However, the substances can leak from products and materials into the indoor air and are stored in the body, therefore it is important not to expose yourself to PFAS unnecessarily. By avoiding the use of products containing PFAS, you can reduce the risk of getting the substances into your body.
What can you do to avoid PFAS?
If you want to avoid buying products that contain PFAS, there are a few things you can keep in mind. It can be difficult to determine whether a product contains PFAS, because it is rarely indicated. The regulations do not require that it must always be indicated whether a product contains PFAS. However, even if that information exists, it can be difficult to determine, based on the name of the chemical, whether it is a PFAS substance. A good rule of thumb is to start from the properties of the material, for example, a water-, dirt-, or grease-repellent textile may be treated with PFAS. If you suspect that the item you are going to buy contains PFAS, you can always ask before purchasing. A good way to avoid PFAS is to ask for PFAS-free alternatives and eco-labelled products.
Some PFAS substances are on the so-called candidate list. The candidate list is a list of about 200 particularly hazardous substances. You have the right to ask and to receive information when you purchase an item that contains substances on this list.
The Swedish Chemicals Agency is working to phase out the use of PFAS in Sweden and the rest of the EU. At present, only a few PFAS substances are prohibited. In the long term, we want to ban any use of PFAS that is not necessary for society.