You have probably heard a lot about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the news and among scientific communities, especially in the last few years. PFAS are a large group of compounds that have been used widely to make everyday products resistant to stains, grease, and water. They are also a component of aqueous film-forming foams, which have been used for fire suppression at airports, industrial facilities, and military sites. PFAS contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest known in chemistry. Unfortunately, the chemical properties that make PFAS stable and desirable for so many applications and products also make them incredibly persistent in the environment.
PFAS are a family of more than 5,000 organic chemicals, which often occur in complex mixtures that can change over time, making them difficult to study. PFAS are found globally and have been detected in sediments, surface and groundwater, and wildlife. As a result, we all carry a body burden. Among National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey participants, PFAS were detected in over 98% of samples. While researchers have established links between exposure to some PFAS and disease, many of these chemicals have not been studied and there is still a lot to learn about how PFAS may be affecting human health.
There are a variety of ways that people can be exposed to these chemicals and the scientific community has recognized the importance of improving what we know about PFAS in the environment. We can be exposed to low levels of PFAS through food, which can become contaminated through contaminated soil and water used to grow the food as well as food packaging containing PFAS. Drinking water can also be a source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies. PFAS are very resistant to destructive treatment technologies and can be very expensive to remove from both soil and drinking water.
NIEHS, including the Superfund Research Program (SRP), is supporting research to better understand the potential health effects of exposures to PFAS. SRP researchers are also working to address this problem by identifying ways to remove PFAS from the environment, including from drinking water. In the Feature Story, you will see examples of the many multidisciplinary approaches that SRP grantees are using to understand the health effects of PFAS and reduce exposure.
David Balshaw, Ph.D.
Interim Director of the Superfund Research Program
Chief of the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch