Human Exposure to PFAS

Photo of some crinkle fries and a sad, smashed burger sandwich thing.
Fast-food wrappers that are designed to repel grease often contain PFAS

People can be exposed to PFAS from a variety of different sources. Most people are exposed to PFAS from drinking water and eating food that contains these chemicals.

Drinking water can be a source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies. Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility. EPA testing of a representative sample of public water systems in 2013-2015 showed that approximately six million residents relied on drinking water supplies that were above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory (LHA) level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Recent testing points to food as another major source of PFAS exposure. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that a 2017 study it conducted found elevated levels of PFAS in fish, meats, and chocolate cake purchased at groceries in three mid-Atlantic cities. The FDA also found high levels of PFAS in leafy green vegetables grown at a farm within 10 miles of a PFAS plant and milk from a dairy farm near a New Mexico Air Force base. More research is needed to determine the human-health impacts of dietary exposure to PFAS and at what concentrations.

Research has suggested that exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) from consumer products is usually low especially when compared to exposures to food and contaminated drinking water. Consumer products that may contain PFAS include:

  • Some grease-resistant paper, fast food containers and wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers
  • Nonstick cookware
  • Stain-resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics
  • Water-resistant clothing
  • Ski wax
  • Cleaning products
  • Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss) and cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)
  • Paints, varnishes, and sealants

See below for a more detailed list of sources.

High-risk populations

Certain populations may be at a higher risk of exposure to PFAS:

  • Workers in facilities that make or use PFAS can be exposed to higher amounts of these chemicals and have higher levels in their blood.
  • Residents of some communities near factories that made or used PFOA and PFOS or in areas that used certain types of firefighting foam that spread into the environment may have been exposed to high levels of these substances in their drinking water.
  • Children can be exposed to PFAS in carpet because they are closer to the ground and play on the floor.
  • Breastfeeding infants may be exposed to PFAS since these chemicals have been found in breast milk. The benefits of breastfeeding are well known and usually outweigh the potential risks of trace contamination. Consult a physician for further information or concerns.

Ways to reduce PFAS exposure

Because PFAS are present at low levels in certain foods and the air, water, and soil, it’s unlikely that people can completely eliminate their exposure. Individuals can limit their exposure by reducing use of PFAS-containing consumer products.

  • Even though recent efforts to remove PFAS have reduced the likelihood of exposure, some products may still contain these substances. Avoid greasy or oily packaged fast foods, stain-resistance treatments, and nonstick cookware, and find out if personal-care products, cleaners, packaged foods, ski wax, or treated outdoor gear contain PFAS. Contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772 with questions about products that may contain PFAS.

Expanded List of PFAS Exposure Routes

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, potential pathways of significant PFAS exposure include:

  • Drinking water from public water and private water systems, typically localized and associated with a release from a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, processor, landfill, wastewater treatment, or facilities using PFAS-containing firefighting foams)
  • Consumption of plants and meat from animals, including fish that have accumulated PFAS
  • Consumption of food that came into contact with PFAS-containing products (e.g., some microwaveable popcorn bags and grease-resistant papers)
  • Use of, living with, or otherwise being exposed to commercial household products and indoor dust containing PFAS, including stain- and water-repellent textiles (including carpet, clothing and footwear), nonstick products (e.g., cookware), polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning products
  • Employment in a workplace that produces or uses PFAS, including chemical production facilities or utilizing industries (e.g., chromium electroplating, electronics manufacturing, or oil recovery)
  • In utero fetal exposure and early childhood exposure via breastmilk from mothers exposed to PFAS

Last Updated:


Back to top