PFAS (Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as the Forever Chemicals, are a large chemical family of over 9,000 highly persistent chemicals that don’t occur in nature.
PFAS are the most persistent synthetic chemicals to date, they hardly degrade in the natural environment and have been found in the blood and breastmilk of people and wildlife all round the world.
This page gives you a brief introduction to PFAS – for more details, see our briefing.
You can also see the latest news on PFAS, including what work CHEM Trust is doing on PFAS, in our blog.
If you’ve seen the film ‘Dark Waters’ and want to know more about the facts presented in the film, please visit our Dark Waters and PFOA FAQ page.
A 2021 study has found that PFAS chemicals are being used in disposable food packaging from popular fast-food chains, takeaway restaurants, and supermarkets across Europe. Read more in our PFAS and food packaging FAQ page.
What are PFAS used in?
PFAS are used in a wide range of consumer products due to their ability to repel both grease and water, including:
- In paper and cardboard food packaging (e.g. takeaway containers, popcorn bags, pizza boxes, ready-made cakes etc.)
- In non-stick cookware
- In textiles (e.g. waterproof outdoor clothing and equipment, carpets, mattresses etc.)
- In cosmetics (e.g. hair conditioner, foundation cream, sunscreen etc.)
- In electronics (e.g. smartphones)
They are also used in non-consumer applications such as in fire-fighting-foams, a special foam use to extinguish liquid fires, such as a petroleum fire.
How are we exposed to PFAS?
We are exposed to hundreds of PFAS simultaneously via some of the products we use every day, as well as via environmental routes such as drinking water and certain food. Because it is extremely challenging for water treatment plants to remove PFAS from water, contamination of drinking water with PFAS is a rising issue.
How harmful are PFAS?
PFAS can be toxic to both humans and wildlife. Two of the most studied of the chemicals in this family, PFOA and PFOS have been shown to:
- Interfere with the hormonal system (so they are called endocrine disruptors)
- Interfere with the reproductive system and the development of the foetus
- Impact the immune system and have been linked to reduced responses to vaccines in children
- Promote the development of certain cancers (e.g. kidney and testicular cancer)
It should be noted that many of the thousands of PFAS currently in use are lacking proper toxicological data.
What is the extent of the contamination?
PFAS don’t easily degrade in the environment and are very mobile in water. This means that once released in the environment, e.g. during manufacturing or leaching from a consumer product, PFAS tend to migrate in the water and remain intact for very long periods of time. This allows them to be transported over long distances. PFAS have been found in the environment all around the world, even in the most remote areas such as the Arctic. They have also been detected in the blood and breastmilk of people and wildlife globally.
How are PFAS regulated?
How can you avoid PFAS?
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.
CHEM Trust recommendations
CHEM Trust proposes the following actions are taken to address these ‘Forever Chemicals’:
- Governments must act faster to phase out all PFAS, in collaboration with the EU and through global agreements.
- Governments must ensure that the environment is monitored for a wide range of PFAS chemicals.
- Governments should work towards new, protective regulation of all highly persistent synthetic chemicals.
- Companies should immediately work to phase out PFAS chemicals, replacing them with safer, non-PFAS alternatives.
Find out how you can take action on PFAS here.
For more information
For more information on PFAS, see our briefing.
You can also see the latest news on PFAS in our blog.
External resources on PFAS:
- The Scottish NGO FIDRA has a website dedicated on PFASfree.org, including recommendations on PFAS-free school uniforms.
- The US Green Science Policy Institute created a website dedicated to PFAS: PFAS Central, grouping recent news and science about PFAS.
- See also reports from IPEN on PFAS available on their resources page.
- Visit the OECD portal on PFAS.
CHEM Trust is a signatory to the “Zürich Statement on Future Actions on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)” (2018).