What are PFAS – and why do they matter?

By June 19, 2020Uncategorized

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a new category of emerging contaminants that includes over 4,000 chemicals.  Several of these compounds have recently been found to have toxic effects on human health.

PFAS were first developed in the 1940s and became widely used in manufacturing, due to their natural resistance to water, oil and heat. Although manufacturers stopped synthesizing the most well-known compounds (PFOA and PFOS) over a decade ago, PFAS continue to be used for a wide variety of commercial and industrial purposes.

PFAS have recently come under scrutiny from environmental regulatory agencies. In 2019, the California State Water Board issued investigative orders that required a total of 30 airports, 196 landfills, and 271 chrome plating facilities to test soil, wastewater, and groundwater for PFAS. Other facilities across the state, such as refineries, schools and military bases, are also testing for this new class of contaminants.

Chemical Structure of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS can be found in many commercial products, including stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, nonstick cookware, food packaging, adhesives, and cosmetics. Soil and groundwater contaminated by PFAS has been found at chrome plating facilities, semiconductor and aerospace manufacturers, car washes, rubber and plastics factories. They are very likely to be found at many more industrial operations. PFAS are highly mobile, persistent, and extremely widespread in the environment.


PFAS were originally developed as a fire suppressant for petroleum fires and industrial facilities. They have been utilized in many industrial applications, but are now under scrutiny as an environmental risk factor.

What are the health risks of PFAS?

Limited studies show that PFOS and PFOA may be associated with developmental delays in fetuses and children; decreased fertility; increased cholesterol; changes to the immune system; increased uric acid levels; and prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer.

What are the action levels?

The action levels for PFAS compounds are extremely conservative. EPA health advisory levels for PFOS/PFOA are set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water. In California, notification levels are set at 6.5 ppt for PFOS and 5.1 ppt for PFOA, while 70 ppt is the preliminary remedial goal set by the State. In comparison, the standard for chromium in California drinking water is 50 parts per billion, nearly one thousand times less strict.

How do I sample for PFAS?

PFAS are highly sensitive to background interference, and specific procedures must be followed when collecting and analyzing samples. Materials to avoid during sampling and shipping procedures include:

  • Teflon-containing tubing or pumps
  • Ziploc bags
  • Blue ice
  • Permanent markers (such as Sharpies)

In addition, given the widespread presence of these chemicals, it is critical to design sampling programs to separate site-related impacts from unrelated background conditions.

Bowyer Environmental Consulting has performed PFAS testing in soil and groundwater and has over 30 years of experience working with State regulators on behalf of many sites in the industrial sector, to help clean up the environment while minimizing impact to active businesses. For further information or technical consulting, feel free to contact us at (877) 232-4620.

Further information:

https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/pfas/