What is PFAS?

11 September 2023: Unsure about what PFAS are or how they affect you? This blog provides some more details on this complex family of invisible ‘forever chemicals’ that have silently woven their way into our modern lives, with far reaching consequences.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, are a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS. There are more than 14,000 different identified PFAS compounds.

These synthetic compounds have been used worldwide since the 1950’s to make products that resist heat, stains, oil/grease and water. 

Uses vary considerably and include:

  • Stain and water protection for carpets, fabric, furniture and apparel
  • Paper coating / food packaging
  • Metal plating / non-stick cookware
  • Photographic materials
  • Aviation hydraulic fluid
  • Cosmetics and sunscreen
  • Medical devices

Because they are heat resistant and film-forming in water, PFAS chemicals have also been used as very effective ingredients within fire-fighting foams.

PFAS molecules have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, making them one of the strongest bonds in nature. The molecules are very stable and do not degrade easily in the environment. They can also accumulate over decades, with these characteristics earning them the name ‘forever chemicals’.

With time, PFAS chemicals can leach through soil to reach the groundwater beneath, where they can become highly mobile, with potential to travel long distances from their entry point into the broader environment.

Due to their widespread use and their environmental persistence, PFAS are found in the blood of both people and animals across the globe – even remote locations like Antarctica; and are present in a variety of food products.

Globally, PFAS are now recognised under the Stockholm Convention as an ‘emerging contaminant’ with widespread concerns about their characteristics of persistence, bioaccumulation, mobility toxicity and impacts on human health.

While understanding about the human health effects of long-term PFAS exposure is still developing, there is evidence that exposure to PFAS may be linked to harmful health effects. There is also global concern about their persistence in the environment.

Some countries have discontinued or are progressively phasing out their use of PFAS contaminants. However, PFAS chemicals remain widespread in the environment due to their lack of degradation.

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