PFC Perfluorochemicals - PFOA Perfluorooctanoic Acid

PFC  Perfluorochemicals  -  PFOA  Perfluorooctanoic Acid


PFCs are a group of chemicals used to make heat resistant and stain resistant coatings. They are not found naturally in the environment. PFOA is a PFC chemical and has been in the news recently because the chemical has been found in drinking water wells. PFOA is also known as C8, because of its eight-carbon molecule. New testing processes allow for detection at low limits and  PFOA has been found in drinking water in several states, for example; Hoosick Falls, New York; Bennington, Vermont; Flint, Michigan; Merrimack, New Hampshire and Warrington, Pennsylvania. The full name of POFA is perfluorooctanoic acid (C7F15COOH).

Many perfluorinated compounds are in the environment and for the last 50+ years PFCs have been used in the manufacture of many consumer products such as stain resistant carpets, clothing, paper produces used for food packaging, non-stick cookware, cosmetics and cleaning products. In commercial use, PFCs have been used for products and process such as photo imaging, semiconductor coatings, firefighting foam, plastics and hydraulic fluids. 

There are health concerns for people exposed to PFCs.  Because PFCs have been used in many different consumer products, most people have been exposed to them.  In almost every country people have some level of the chemical detected in their blood.  These background levels probably have their source from contact with the many household products that contain PFCs and/or from airborne dispersal of minute quantities of CFCs from the thousands of industrial sites where they were used     

People who work in industries using PFCs and those exposed via contaminated drinking water are most at risk. New awareness of the health risks is causing great concern in communities where the tests show the contaminants occur in drinking water. Contaminated groundwater is of particular concern.

Health concerns

As a result of their world-wide use, traces of PFCs are found in air soil and water; even in the Antarctic.  Although use of the chemicals has largely been discontinued, there is a long-term legacy effect because the chemicals are persistent in the environment. Studies between 1999 and 2004 showed that perfluoro chemicals occurred at low levels in 95 to 100 percent of human blood samples although more recent monitoring indicates that the blood levels are declining. Public concerns have recently arisen in several locations where groundwater contamination was detected in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont close to manufacturing facilities that used PFCs.

According to the Vermont Department of Health(1), PFOA levels in blood are related to increased lipids, uric acid and liver enzymes in the blood, which may or may not lead to effects on an individual's cardiovascular system, kidneys or liver.

Studies have also shown a correlation–but not a cause-and-effect relationship – between levels of PFOA in the blood and high blood pressure, decreased birth weight, some immune system effects, thyroid disease, kidney cancer and testicular cancer. In Vermont, the Health Department has established a health level of 20 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water. If water contains more than 20 parts per trillion, it should not be used for drinking, food preparation, cooking, tooth brushing, or any other way it could be ingested.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued  (May 2016) a lifetime drinking water Health Advisory for PFOA of 0.07micrograms per litter (μg/L), 7 parts per trillion.(2)

Despite research into health effects at high levels, the human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFOA are not known with any certainty. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Biomonitoring Program, the human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFOA are unknown but it is known that PFOA can remain in the body for long periods of time. In laboratory animals given large amounts, PFOA can affect growth and development, reproduction, and injure the liver. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to PFOA.(3)        

Although manufacturing plants using PFCs (or more likely, plants that used PFCs in the past) are targeted as the source of contamination in nearby wells it may not be easy to 100% prove specific responsibility because low levels of PFCs are also found in the environment in places far from any manufacturing facility. According to the Environmental Working Group, PFOA has been found in 94 public water systems in 27 states in the US(4)





What can be done?

It should be recognized that PFCs in the environment is largely a legacy issue because most industrial users have ceased in recent years. However, because the compounds do not easily break-down there are likely to be environmental and health concerns for years to come. There may be places where the compounds exist but have not yet been identified.  The increased sophistication of laboratory methods for detection and greater health agency and public awareness will likely lead to more research into the environmental occurrence, health effects and treatment options for PFCs.

Before taking any action it is important to have accurate data on drinking water sources found to be impacted. Tests on source-water need to be undertaken by appropriately certified laboratories.  In the case of well water contamination, groundwater specialists need to be involved in order to identify the vertical and horizontal extent of contaminant plumes. By studying the area, and the concentration levels of contamination it may be possible to assess the risk to nearby aquifers and drinking water sources.

If levels are found to potentially cause a health risk there are several in-house treatment technologies available that will remove PFOA compounds from drinking water. Home treatment options include the use of granular activated carbon; anion exchange, reverse osmosis and possibly other specialized membrane filtration. Activated carbon systems can be thermally reactivated in order to destroy the adsorbed contaminants. This will allow the activated carbon to be recycled and reused.

Because the effectiveness of anion exchange processes can be influenced by other components in the water it is important to involve a treatment expert in the design of a treatment system.  Likewise, an expert should be consulted before selecting membrane technology because the effectiveness of membrane systems may be improved by the addition of minerals pre-treatment.  Most treatment equipment will require routine maintenance and the waste product concentrates from anion exchange and membranes will have to be disposed of in accord with local regulations.

Sources of additional information

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

            Toxological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls

Environmental Protection Agency

            Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers

            Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) in Your Environment

            Drinking Water Health Advisory for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

C8 Science Panel

            Link to web-site index

Center For Disease Control And Prevention

            National Biomonitoring Program

State Health and Environmental Agencies (And the many links on their web-sites)

For example:

 New Hampshire

            Investigation into Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) Found in Southern New Hampshire

New York

            PFOA in Drinking Water in the Village of Hoosick Falls and Town of Hoosick


            Vermont PFOA Contamination Response


            State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Quality

New Jersey

            State of New Jersey Department of Health

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