What is PFOA and what is it used for?
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a compound that is used in the
production and processing of some
plastics (fluoroelastomers and fluoropolymers). It is used mainly to make
products with water and oil-repellent properties such as waterproof fabrics or
It is also formed by the decomposition of these fluoropolymers in their
applications or in the environment. Because it contains very stable
chemical bonds between carbon and
fluorine, PFOA itself is not biodegradable in the environment.
What are the potential effects on health and the environment of PFOA and related substances?
PFOA is identified as a “substance of very high concern”, since it is
classified as a “PBT”, or Persistent,
Bioaccumulative and Toxic substance, as it
indeed persists in the environment and can
bioaccumulate in organisms . This leads
to a situation where no safe levels of
exposure can be established; therefore
emissions of PFOA are to be minimised.
PFOA has been linked to a number of health problems in humans, including
diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative
cancer, kidney cancer, and
pregnancy-induced hypertension, and animal studies indicated adverse
developmental effects. For the
US-EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, there is “suggestive evidence of
carcinogenicity, but not
sufficient to assess human carcinogenic
potential”, and in the European Union PFOA has a legally-binding
classification as carcinogen (category 2)
and reprotoxic (category 1B).
Even if the largest PFOA releases from use is reported for waterproof products
like professional carpet-care liquids and household textiles, the general public
is mainly exposed to PFOA by consumption of
contaminated water and food. PFOA
has been detected in human blood and breast milk and can stay in the body for a
number of years.
Nevertheless, exposure to PFOA from
consumer articles is considered to be extremely low (negligible), and according
to the RAC/SEAC report PFOA, on the basis of existing data,
risks have not been identified for
non-occupationally exposed human
populations due to direct
toxic effects of PFOA.
Unclear adverse effects and uncertainties in dose-response on decreased birth
weights or cholesterolemia, and
epidemiology studies on other
endpoints (e.g. immunotoxicity)
were also considered not robust enough to be included in a quantitative
assessment characterisation. Based on limited
monitoring data there is however a
potential concern for workers at fluoropolymer
For the environment, even if PFOAs can stay in the environment for a long
time, there seems to be no risk for the aquatic, terrestrial and
Which are the substances and applications of greatest concern in relation to PFOA?
The groups of PFOA-related substances of greatest concern are fluoro-telomers
and side chain fluorinated polymers, which
are used in fire-fighting foams,
grease-resistant food packaging, leather
protectants, and stain-resistant carpeting and textiles. Consumer products for
which PFOA-APFO is used in their production
include non-stick cookware and kitchen utensils, tread
sealants and tapes, water-proof
textiles, dental floss and tape, some types of tubing.
The use areas of biggest concern when it comes to potential EU emissions of
PFOA are (imported) textiles, and fire fighting foams. PFOA-based paints could
also potentially be an important source of emissions to the environment during
their application and service life.
PFOA uses have been observed to progressively decrease over time due to both
implementation of previous regulations and the voluntary commitment among some
producers to stop using so-called “C-8 chemistry”, including PFOA and the
PFOA-related substances. However it does not cover all producers and clearly not
the importers of treated textiles, which are considered to be a major source of
emission of PFOA to the environment.
What are the further regulations proposed on PFOA?
A restriction covering all emission sources is the way considered to be the
most appropriate EU wide measure that can effectively reduce emissions of PFOA
and PFOA-related substances , this restriction targeting in particular articles
The aim of the proposed new restriction is to stop all intentional uses of
PFOA and PFOA-related substances, or reduce them below a defined
threshold in products still in use
and existing uses for which substitution is not technically feasible.
The restriction proposal includes ‘PFOA-related substances’, i.e. substances
that, based on their molecular structure,
are considered to have the potential to degrade or be transformed to PFOA. It
would effectively capture the substances considered to be of concern, but
exclude those that are not; the overall intention being to minimise emissions.
The objective of the proposal is also to allow the use of the fluoropolymers
when they are not manufactured with PFOA.
This restriction seems applicable in practice with the recommended changes in
concentration limits, derogations
and transitional periods, and the costs appear proportionate.
Many specific derogations were requested and the EU RAC/SEAC Committees
admitted those for use in implantable medical devices and textiles, photographic
and semiconductor (a.o. photolithography processes) applications, and for
substances as isolated intermediates for further processing, provided they are
transported and used under strictly controlled conditions. Existing fire
fighting foams would be exempted from the proposal for 20 years, their normal
There are now alternatives to PFOA. The main ones are shorter-chain length
fluorinated substances and non-fluorine containing substances are also available
for some applications, but they may be less efficient in some situations.