An official German human biomonitoring survey of children and adolescents has found harmful per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in the blood of children and adolescents in Germany; including substances that have already been phased out in the EU and globally. Some chemicals were present in the blood of some of the children, even though the chemicals had been phased out before they were born.
As the German Environment Agency highlighted in a press release, one-fifth of the participants had levels of the PFAS chemical PFOA in their blood that exceeded the HBM-I-value, which indicates an exposure at which harmful effects cannot be excluded with sufficient certainty.
PFAS are widely used in everyday products, including food packaging, furniture, cosmetics and clothing. Exposure can also result from environmental factors such as contaminated drinking water and food. Several PFAS have been linked to serious health concerns, including impacts on reproduction and the development of certain cancers.
The study adds to a growing body of literature showing that people around the world, including children and teenagers, have harmful chemicals from the PFAS family in their body.
The German Environmental Survey
The human biomonitoring data were generated as part of the 5th cycle of the German Environmental Survey (GerES V), carried out between 2014-2017. The GerES is a cross-sectional population study conducted in Germany since the 1980s. For the first time the current study provides population representative data on the PFAS exposure of German children and adolescents.
2,294 participants aged 3 to 17 years old, from 167 locations across Germany, took part in the survey. It included an interview and questionnaire to collect information on exposure factors, including food consumption, relevant behaviours and their living environment. 1,109 blood plasma samples were analysed for 12 PFAS, including PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.
The results, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, show that there is still considerable exposure of the young generation to the phased-out chemicals PFOS and PFOA. PFOS was found in 100% of the participants and PFOA in 86%.
In over one fifth of the study participants the PFOA levels exceeded the Human Biomonitoring value (HBM-I) of 2 ng PFOA/mL blood plasma. Levels above this value indicate an exposure at which negative health effects cannot be excluded with sufficient certainty. The German Biomonitoring Commission has derived these values by considering effects like reduced birth weight and developmental toxic effects, reduced fertility, reduced antibody formation after vaccination, increased cholesterol concentrations and type II diabetes.
PFHxS was found in 74% of the participants, and some other long-chain PFAS were found in the samples at lower concentrations.
The youngest age-group of the participants were born after the restriction of most uses of PFOS in the EU. The presence of the chemical in their blood demonstrates how exposure to legacy PFAS continues due to their extreme persistence.
Exposure routes and sources
The survey indicated that there are multiple exposure routes and sources of PFAS that could be relevant to children and adolescents. Whether the participants were breast fed, and the duration of breast feeding, had a positive association with levels of PFAS in the blood. Other studies have detected PFAS in the breastmilk of people and wildlife globally, though the medical advice is that breast is best, wherever possible.
The study also explored the links between some exposure sources, such as food consumption, drinking water, and use of certain consumer products, but did not find statistically significant correlations. The researchers state that these are sources of exposure that should be investigated further.
Ninja Reineke, Head of Science at CHEM Trust, said:
“It is very worrying that around 20% of the German young generation are exposed to the largely phased-out PFOA at levels where harmful effects cannot be excluded. These findings provide yet more evidence for the need to phase out the whole PFAS family. Every year of delay in regulation of these highly persistent chemicals means an increasing burden to the future generations.”
Urgent need for control measures of PFAS group
There are over 4,500 chemicals in the PFAS family but only a handful have been regulated so far.
PFOS and its related substances were restricted globally under the Stockholm Convention in 2009 and PFOA and its related substances were added to the Stockholm Convention in 2019. PFHxS is under consideration to be listed under the Convention and is also being considered for restriction under REACH in the EU. Several other PFAS are regulated in the EU, via REACH.
At the current rate of regulation, it would take over 40,000 years to regulate all of the chemicals in the PFAS family.
Five European Member States, among them Germany, are currently working on an EU wide restriction proposal of all PFAS for an entry into force in 2025.
- PFAS have also been selected as priority chemicals in the EU wide human biomonitoring initiative HBM4EU which CHEM Trust has contributed to as a stakeholder organisation.
- See our briefing ‘PFAS the ‘Forever Chemicals’ Invisible threats from persistent chemicals’ for more information on PFAS and our recommendations for action.