PFAS Basics

Chemical structure of PFOA, one of many types of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of synthetic chemicals used in a variety of everyday materials, including nonstick cookware, carpet, textiles, high-performance outdoor gear, coated paper and cardboard products, some firefighting foams, and a variety of cleaning products, paints, varnishes, and sealants. These compounds repel oil, water, grease, and stains, resist temperature extremes, and reduce friction. PFAS have been in use since the 1940s.

PFAS are characterized by a chain of fluorine-carbon bonds, among the strongest bonds in chemistry. Their persistence in the environment has earned them the distinction of being “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally degrade in soil or water. Due to their persistence in the environment and widespread use, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS.

Long-Chain PFAS

Long-chain PFAS compounds consisting of 8 or more carbon atoms are more likely to accumulate in the bodies of humans and wildlife than short-chain PFAS.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is concerned about the adverse health and environmental effects of long-chain PFAS, particularly PFOA and PFOS, two of the most widely studied PFAS compounds. Both PFOA and PFOS were detected in the blood serum of up to 99 percent of samples collected between 1999 and 2012 in a representative population of the United States.

Some U.S. manufacturers voluntarily phased out production of PFOA and PFOS beginning in 2004. The eight major PFAS manufacturing companies committed to reducing PFOA and other long-chain PFAS compounds under EPA’s PFOA Stewardship Program. EPA indicated that all eight companies had eliminated their manufacture by 2015. However, long-chain PFAS are still manufactured in other parts of the world and may be present in imported products.

Short-Chain PFAS

Many long-chained PFAS have since been replaced with short-chain PFAS. These compounds were initially believed to be less toxic and less persistent in the environment. Unfortunately, these short-chain alternatives have proven to be as persistent in the environment as their long-chain counterparts, with different but no less concerning health and environmental impacts. Short-chain PFAS are more difficult to remove from drinking water and have a greater potential for long-range transport.

The potential for long-term health effects, exposure from contamination in agricultural products and fish, difficulties with treating drinking water, and unknown potential for bio-accumulation in humans and wildlife point to continuing concerns about the long-term impacts of PFAS.

Regulatory Response to PFAS

EPA has not yet issued enforceable standards for these chemicals.

However, EPA has developed a Per- and Ployfuoroakyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan to increase understanding of PFAS compounds and their effects on human health and the environment, identify methods to clean up contaminated sites, and develop tools to prevent future contamination.

See the EPA Actions to Address PFAS for more information about the steps. Utah DEQ has conducted proactive monitoring of public water supplies for PFAS, with results falling well below the EPA advisory limit.

Actions outlined in the plan include:

  • Expand toxicity information for PFAS.
  • Develop new tools to characterize PFAS in the environment.
  • Evaluate cleanup approaches.
  • Develop guidance to facilitate the cleanup of contaminated groundwater.
  • Use enforcement tools to address PFAS exposure in the environment and assist states in enforcement activities.
  • Use legal authorities such as those in the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) to prevent future PFAS contamination.
  • Address PFAS in drinking water through regulatory and other methods.