short information, 09. February 2023

PFAS pose a risk to humans and the environment - PFAS ban urgently needed

UFZ researchers welcome proposal to restrict the use of PFAS

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are used in many products but pose a risk to humans and the environment. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has now published a proposal to restrict the use of PFAS. Scientists at the UFZ evaluate this initiative in the following statement.

This week, regulatory authorities from five European countries present their proposal to subject the entire group of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) to restriction according to the European chemicals legislation REACH. This is logical - and the step necessary:

  • Some PFAS are persistent meaning they are extremely long-lived in the environment. Perfluorocarboxylic acids and perfluorosulfonic acids are among the most stable chemicals in existence and we know that other PFAS can convert to them.
  • Some PFAS bioaccumulate. They can be detected in the environment as well as in organisms. Fish consumption can be a relevant driver of human exposure to PFAS.
  • Some PFAS disperse globally through the atmosphere such that certain PFAS are "raining from the sky," even in supposedly cleaner-air regions. High concentrations of PFAS are found in seals and polar bears in Arctic regions, far away from point source emissions.
  • Some PFAS are toxic. Exposure to certain PFAS negatively affect important life processes, including disruption to the immune, endocrine, reproductive, and nervous systems. This is problematic as some PFAS have very long biological half-lives. For example, an ingested molecule of PFOA remains in the human body for about one year.
  • Some PFAS are persistent and mobile, leading to contamination of water resources.
  • Previous (voluntary) substitution of selected PFAS (e.g. PFOS) have led to the use of other, less studied PFAS. Substitutes can have other, but not necessarily more beneficial, environmental and toxicological properties.
  • Substitution increased the diversity of PFAS being used yet not all of them can be analyzed. Consequently, the full exposure of the environment and of humans to PFAS is not yet known.
  • Less stable, usually polyfluorinated, PFAS are transformed into the most stable perfluorinated PFAS such as perfluorocarbocylic acids. In this way, many diverse precursor compounds feed into a limited number of toxic products that bioaccumulate and occur at higher concentrations, over long periods of time.

Through its interdisciplinary research, the UFZ generates new knowledge on environmental and human exposure to PFAS, their resulting health effects, and develops removal technologies:

  • Determination of the human exposure to unknown PFAS (percursors and transformation products); EU project PERFORCE 3 (Prof. Thorsten Reemtsma, UF -Department Analytical Chemistry)
  • Long-term trends in PFAS exposure in the environment (1980-2020), specifically in the food chain; Project FLUORBANK, funded by the German Environment Agency (Prof. Thorsten Reemtsma, UFZ Department Analytical Chemistry)
  • Soil and water contamination by PFAS precursors and transformation products in a contamination case in southwest Germany (Rastatt), project FLUORTECH (Prof. Thorsten Reemtsma, UFZ Department Analytical Chemistry)
  • PFAS effects on brain development and function in zebrafish embryos and delineation of underlying mechanisms. (Prof. Tamara Tal, UFZ Department Bioanalytical Ecotoxicology)
  • In vitro test methods for toxicity assessment of diverse PFAS and quantitative in vitro to in vivo extrapolation (Prof. Beate Escher, UFZ Department Cell Toxicology)
  • Study of the effects of PFAS exposure on the functionality of primary immune cells (Prof. Ana Zenclussen, UFZ-Department Environmentla Immunology)
  • In situ removal of PFAS from groundwater with colloidal activated carbon specially adapted to the substance group, project ContaSorb (Dr. Katrin Mackenzie, UFZ Department of Environmental Engineering).
  • Determination of PFAS sources and transformations by the use of stable isotope analysis; project Fate-PFT (Dr. Steffen Kümmel, UFZ Department Isotope Biogeochemistry, and Dr. Anett Georgi, UFZ Department Environmental Engineering)
  • Development of innovative methods to remove PFAS from hot spots in soils and ground water; project FABEKO (Dr. Katrin Mackenzie and Anett Georgi, UFZ Department of Environmental Engineering)

Prof. Thorsten ReemtsmaProf. Beate EscherProf. Tamara TalProf. Ana ZenclussenDr. Katrin MackenzieProf. Werner Brack

Further information:

Further information

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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