The PFAS Project Lab

Studying Social, Scientific, and Political Factors of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances

What are PFAS?

What are PFAS? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) are a class of thousands of chemicals that are widely used in consumer products, industrial applications, manufacturing processes, and certain firefighting foams. 

Photo: Sample of PFOA held by a researcher wearing a medical glove. 

How does PFAS exposure occur? 

PFAS exposure can occur in a variety of ways such as drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, and using consumer products that contain PFAS. People can also be exposed to PFAS in the workplace, especially firefighters and people in the chemical production industry. PFAS can cross the placenta and can accumulate in breast milk, so children can be exposed in the womb and during early life through breastfeeding [ATSDR, “What are PFAS”].

How widespread is exposure to PFAS? 

PFAS have been detected in all corners of the Earth, contaminating the blood of virtually all Americans and even passing through the umbilical cord and into the womb [Zhang et al., 2013]. PFAS are extremely resistant to breakdown, which is why they are often called “forever chemicals.” They can remain in the body from months to years, and in the environment for thousands of years. 

What are the health effects of PFAS? 

Most health studies have focused on PFOA, PFOS, and a handful of other PFAS chemicals, though research increasingly suggests that replacement chemicals pose significant risks [Wang et al., 2017]. In epidemiological studies in people and experimental studies in animals, PFAS exposure has been associated with:

  • Increase in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol
  • Decreased antibody response to vaccines in children
  • Decreased fertility in women
  • Increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension and/or pre-eclampsia
  • Kidney and testicular cancer
  • Thyroid disease
  • Chronic kidney disease, elevated uric acid, hyperuricemia, and gout
  • Liver damage
  • Immune system disruption
  • Adverse developmental outcomes, including small decrease in birth weight and altered mammary gland development

[ATSDR, 2015; C8 Medical Panel, 2013; CDC, 2019; IARC, 2016; NTP, 2016]

To learn more about PFAS and how it impacts you:

Find PFAS contamination sites in your area using our PFAS Contamination Site Database 

Learn more about PFAS and links to other organizations

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