What are PFAS compounds?
PFAS are a large group of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances. These very stable, manufactured chemicals remain in the environment for a long time without breaking down, and some of them build up in people and the environment.
PFAS are water soluble and highly mobile, meaning they can easily contaminate groundwater and can be hard to filter out. Many PFAS transform into highly persistent perfluorinated chemicals in the environment. There are no natural processes that can break these substances down. Exposures could continue for hundreds or thousands of years.
Sources and exposure
PFAS compounds are used to make coatings and products resistant to oil and water, or to reduce friction. They are added to cookware, carpets, food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, and other common consumer products. PFAS also have many industrial applications and are used to make certain types of firefighting foams.
In recent years, PFAS contamination above EPA's health advisory level has been found in drinking water wells in Airway Heights, North Whidbey Island, Issaquah, and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Even though PFAS compounds aren't manufactured in Washington, they are released into the environment through consumer and industrial products.
Known PFAS uses
- Coated paper products
- Engineered coatings used in semiconductor production
- Firefighting foam used to fight fuel-based fires
- Grease and waterproof coatings on food packaging (such as popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, and takeout containers)
- Nonstick cookware
- Paints, cleaning products, and sealers where they help penetrate into rough surfaces or promote a smooth finish
- Stain- and water-resistant textiles (outdoor and upholstered furniture, carpets, and clothing)
- Surfaces in food processing equipment (such as tubing in ice cream and soda dispensers)
- Waterproof textiles (shoes, clothing, upholstery, and mattresses)
Toxicity and health effects
Everyone is exposed to PFAS, and some forms have known toxic effects.
Most PFAS research has been done on two specific compounds: perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and a related compound, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The toxicity of other PFAS compounds varies. Studies in animals show that exposure to some PFAS can affect liver function, reproductive hormones, development of offspring, and mortality.
PFAS toxicity in humans is less understood. Experts investigating the effects on people living near a factory in West Virginia that produced perfluorooctanoic acid found probable links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Taking action against PFAS
Ecology and the Washington State Department of Health are developing a chemical action plan for PFAS. An advisory committee began meeting in 2016 and will continue to help us collect information and identify solutions. We expect the draft PFAS chemical action plan will be ready for public review and comment in 2019.
We released an Interim PFAS Chemical Action Plan in April 2018. The plan includes protective actions from two new laws related to the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam and an analysis of food packaging.
History of actions to address PFAS in Washington
2018 — The Legislature passes two laws restricting the use of PFAS chemicals: RCW 70.75A concerns PFAS-containing class B firefighting foam and firefighting personal protective equipment; and RCW 70.95G concerns PFAS in food packaging.
2018 — Ecology and the Department of Health publish the Interim PFAS Chemical Action Plan.
2017 — Ecology updates the Children’s Safe Products Reporting Rule adding PFOA to the list of chemicals of high concern to children, when originally adopted (in 2011) the list of chemicals of high concern to children included PFOS.
2016 — Ecology conducts a follow up to the 2008 study to assess levels of PFAS in Washington rivers and lakes.
2008 — Ecology conducts a study to assess levels of PFAS in Washington rivers and lakes.
2006 — Ecology adopts the Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxics Rule listing PFOS and its salts as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals.