Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that are used in a wide variety of applications because of their water, grease and dirt repellent properties. They are, for example, present in textiles, household products, fire-fighting, automotive, food processing, construction and electronics. PFAS may have adverse effects on the environment and human and animal health.

Undesirable properties of PFAS

Some PFAS, including perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), contain undesirable properties that can be harmful to humans, animals and the environment. These include the following properties:

  • persistent: they are not or hardly degradable in the environment 
  • bio-accumulative: they accumulate in the human body, animals and plants 
  • undesirable health effects: they can cause undesirable effects in humans and animals, such as a lowered immune response or increased cholesterol levels.

These properties differ for each specific PFAS. For example, one PFAS may cause more adverse health effects and another may accumulate more in nature. In addition, there are many PFAS about which little is known and about which we do not know if and what undesirable properties they have.

Contact with PFAS

PFASs may be released into the environment during the use and production of consumer products such as fire extinguishers and textiles containing PFASs. Due to their persistent nature, they do not or hardly degrade and can accumulate in the food chain or in the human body. Therefore, one can come into contact with PFAS not only through these consumer products but also through drinking water, soil and food.

PFAS and the EU

PFAS are heavily regulated within the EU. For example, perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS) are banned in many applications within the European Union and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) will be banned in consumer products in Europe from July 2020.

PFAS in food

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) monitors PFAS in food. In food, these substances are most often found in drinking water, fish, fruit, eggs and egg products. In addition, PFAS can also get into food via equipment containing PFAS during food processing or via food contact materials, such as pizza boxes, foils and other packaging materials. 

In September 2020, EFSA published a scientific opinion on the health risks resulting from the presence of these substances in food. In this paper, they set a new threshold value (of 4.4 nanograms of PFAS per kilogram of body weight per week) for the main perfluoroalkyl compounds that accumulate in the body. The four PFAS on which EFSA focused its assessment are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and perfluorhexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS).

Sciensano investigates the presence and concentrations of broad range of PFASs in food.

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