PFAS do not occur naturally. They are chemically and thermally very stable. PFAS bioaccumulate in humans and in the environment worldwide. The uses for PFAS range from the coating of coffee cups and outdoor jackets to extinguishing foams because they are grease, water and dirt repellent. Dirk Messner, President of the German Environment Agency, said: "The damage that persistent PFAS can cause in the environment in the long term remains largely unexplored. Together with other European countries, we are trying to ban these substances in the EU to the extent possible. This is the right step for precautionary reasons."
The substance group of PFAS comprises over 4,700 different chemicals. PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) were the most frequently traced substances in the GerES study. 100 percent of all children in the study were exposed to PFOS. PFOA was found in 86 percent of the total 1,109 blood plasma samples examined. This means that some of the values are above the thresholds set by the Human Biomonitoring Commission (HBM). 21.1 percent of the samples were above the HBM I assessment value for PFOA, and 7.1 percent were above the HBM I value for PFOS. 0.2 percent of the samples exceeded the HBM II assessment value for PFOS. The HBM II value describes a concentration above which it is believed there is an increased risk of adverse health effects and for which there is an acute need to implement exposure reduction measures.
PFAS accumulate mainly in fatty tissue and can also pass from mother to child through breast milk. The GerES V results show that breastfed children are more exposed to PFAS than those children who were not breastfed. Elevated concentrations of PFOA and PFOS in human blood can reduce the effects of vaccinations, increase the propensity for infections, raise cholesterol levels and result in reduced next-generation birth weight.
Since PFAS are used in a wide range of products, it is not easy to avoid exposure. However, consumers can avoid food stored in coated packaging. Dirt-repellent textiles such as carpets or curtains also increase exposure. Further tips on how to reduce PFAS in the home are available from UBA: www.umweltbundesamt.de/uba-pfas.
PFAS are also a problem for the environment: Their persistence results in their distribution over large areas around the globe via air and ocean currents. PFAS enter the environment on a number of pathways. Due to the exhaust air from industrial plants, PFAS can enter into surrounding soil and water bodies. PFAS can also adhere to particles and thus be transported over long distances in the air to remote areas, which is why PFAS are also found in polar regions and alpine lakes, far away from industrial production and human settlements. PFAS are transported from the air into soil and surface waters via rain and snow, or discharged into water bodies via treated wastewater. They also contaminate soils by the use of extinguishing foams which sometimes contain them. Because they do not degrade, PFAS remain in water and soil and accumulate. Analyses by the Environmental Specimen Bank show that e.g. seals, white-tailed eagles or otters are heavily contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals end up via the water pathway in fish and thus also in animals that feed on fish. They have also been traced in the liver of polar bears.
Dirk Messner said: "In the interest of safe chemistry, these chemicals should be put to the test. I see a dim future for perfluorochemistry. Only products and materials that provide really necessary services, for example for health protection, e.g. for medical equipment or protective clothing for fire brigades, should be authorised for continued use. Due to the size of the substance group, banning or restricting the use of individual chemicals does not make sense. UBA is currently working with other authorities from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway to develop an extensive EU-wide ban for the entire substance group with the framework of the REACH Regulation.
Several PFAS are already classified under REACH as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), as they are very persistent, bioaccumulate in organisms and can be harmful to humans. SVHC are subject to special information obligations under REACH and may be subject to authorisation, i.e. only explicitly authorised uses may continue to be used. Substances of Very High Concern under REACH include PFOA. In addition, some PFAS (e.g. PFOA including precursor compounds) are already subject to restrictions on manufacture and use: PFOA may no longer be manufactured in the EU from July 2020. Strict limits on PFOA and precursor compounds are in place for consumer products. This regulation is proving successful: UBA's Environmental Specimen Bank shows that human exposure to PFOA and PFOS has decreased over time.
UBA focuses in detail on this problematic group of substances in the current issue of the What Matters publication. It is available for download here (German).