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Basic Information on PFAS

PFAS can be found in a variety of products or environments, including:

  • Food products that are packaged in PFAS-containing materials, are processed with equipment that used PFAS, or were grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water;
  • Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs);
  • Workplaces, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS;
  • Drinking water, if contaminated by PFAS. Contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility);
  • Landfills that may have taken in materials contaminated with PFAS; studies have shown PFAS detected in some landfill leachate
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, which have been exposed to PFAS that has had the opportunity to build up and persist over time.

Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States as a result of their persistence in the environment; for example, the PFOA Stewardship Program is a phase out program where eight major chemical manufacturers agreed to eliminate the use of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals in their products as well as emissions from their facilities. Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.

Breakdown of PFAS Chemicals

What adverse human health effects are associated with PFAS?

PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use or come into contact with daily including cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellants. Certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The most-studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. The most consistent findings are weak links to increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, prostate and kidney cancer (for PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS). However, a review of potential human health effects due to PFAS exposure by the Australian Government Department of Health’s Expert Health Panel concluded “there was insufficient evidence of causation between PFAS exposure and any adverse health outcomes.”  

How are people exposed to PFAS?

There are a variety of ways in which people can be exposed to these chemicals. For example, people can be exposed to low levels of PFAS through food, which can become contaminated through:

  • Contaminated soil and water used to grow the food.
  • Food packaging containing PFAS.
  • Food processing equipment that contains PFAS.

People can also be exposed to PFAS chemicals released during normal use, biodegradation, or disposal of consumer products that contain PFAS; these would include products commercially-treated to make them stain- and water-repellent or nonstick. These products include carpets, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging materials, and non-stick cookware.

People who work at PFAS production facilities, or facilities that manufacture goods made with PFAS, may be exposed in certain occupational settings or through contaminated air.

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, for example:

  • an industrial facility where PFAS chemicals were produced or used to manufacture other products, or
  • an oil refinery, airfield or other location that used PFAS chemicals for firefighting activities.

PFOA, PFOS, and GenX have been found in a number of drinking water systems in the U.S. due to localized contamination. You can view more information about PFAS exposure through drinking water on EPA’s Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS page.

What regulations are in place to protect public health and the environment from PFAS?

A number of regulations exist at the federal and state level to protect human health and the environment. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) protects public drinking water supplies across the U.S. Under the SDWA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates more than 90 drinking water contaminants through establishment and monitoring of enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). Currently, there are no MCLs established for PFAS chemicals. However, EPA has issued a Health Advisory Level for PFOA and PFOS designed to protect human health, and is evaluating the need for an MCL for PFOA and PFOS under the regulatory determination process. Under this process, the EPA evaluates contaminants relative to their adverse effects on human health, their likelihood of occurrence in public water systems and designs meaningful opportunities to mitigate exposure to those served by public water systems. Additionally, in February 2019, the EPA released the EPA PFAS Action Plan which outlines future steps the agency will take to address PFAS, including engaging the regulatory determination process for establishing a MCL under SDWA. For more information on the PFAS Action Plan, visit our page on the EPA's PFAS Action Plan.

In Tennessee, TDEC is responsible for regulating the construction and operation of public water systems and is authorized to adopt and enforce rules and regulations governing the location, design, construction, continuous operation and maintenance of these facilities. TDEC also requires water suppliers to meet requirements of the SDWA with respect to water quality monitoring and information reporting. Additional information about these responsibilities can be accessed on TDEC’s Drinking Water page.

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This Page Last Updated: September 3, 2021 at 7:40 PM