PFAS Definition and Related Acronyms

Forever Chemicals and Their Risks

Recent reports of the health and environmental risks of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their pervasive presence in everyday products and drinking water have prompted public discussion and regulatory action.

Valued for their nonstick qualities and water- and heat-resistant properties, PFAS are key ingredients in a range of industrial, commercial, and consumer goods. Although in use since the 1950s, their impact on public health has been gaining more attention over the past few decades.

Learn more about the dangers of PFAS, where to find them, and how to detect them.

What Are PFAS?

PFAS are a collection of over 5,000 synthetic organic compounds often found in clothing, food packaging, cookware, and cosmetics.

PFAS are also called "forever chemicals " since they can linger in the environment and in our bodies. They are also sometimes referred to as "man-made chemicals" or “FC.”

“F-C” refers to fluorine and carbon, the elements that form the backbone of PFAS molecules. The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest in organic chemistry, which keeps them from deteriorating naturally and gives them an extremely long life.

Impact on Public Health

PFAS have been identified as a potential cause of infertility, cancer, kidney disease, increased cholesterol levels, hormone disruption, increased risk of thyroid disease, and other serious health problems.

Recent studies suggest that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to reduced vaccine response in children, pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and small reductions in infant birth weight. Other studies find that exposure to and accumulation of PFAS in the body may decrease the immune response.

Many questions about the long-term effects of PFAS on the human body still remain unanswered.

Environmental Impact

As persistent and bioaccumulative anthropogenic pollutants, PFAS pose a risk to both human health and the environment. Because they are so long lasting, PFAS have become pervasive in human and animal blood, food products, soil, and water across the globe.

As a result, some restrictions have been placed on their use internationally, but the worldwide problem of PFAS remains a major challenge.

Products That Contain PFAS

There is no specific list of products that contain PFAS. However, they are known to exist in multiple industrial sectors and everyday consumer products, including:

  • Automotive products
  • Construction materials
  • Cosmetics
  • Electronics
  • Fire-fighting foams and supplies
  • Food packaging
  • Food processing equipment
  • Household products
  • Non-stick coatings
  • Phytosanitary products
  • Textiles

PFAS History

Over the last few decades, PFAS have been gaining worldwide attention and prompting regulatory action.

In the United States in 1986, California approved the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, protecting citizens and their water sources from harmful chemicals, including certain (but not all) PFAS chemicals.

In 2006, the Canadian government assessed the effects of perfluorooctane sulphonic acid (PFOS) and determined that amounts to which humans were exposed was not enough to cause adverse health effects. However, they reported that it was entering the environment at harmful levels.

In 2009, PFOS, its salts, and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride were listed as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) under the Stockholm Convention due to their ubiquitous, persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic nature.

In 2020, the European Food Safety Authority published a report discussing the risks associated with PFAS in food.

And in 2022, the European Commission proposed stronger clean air and water rules, which requires testing water for an additional 25 substances, including PFAS, glyphosate, plasticizer bisphenol A, and antibiotics.

Analyses Required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and ASTM now require manufacturers to identify and quantify PFAS, PFOA, PFOS, perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAA), and perfluorinated compounds (PFC) in their raw materials, industrial products, and consumer goods.

For analyses, first, solvent extraction of polymer, plastic, or rubber materials is performed. Matrix-specific sample preparation may include particle-size reduction, exhaustive extraction, dissolution, liquid-liquid extraction, solid phase extraction (SPE) or a combination of these. The perflorinated chemicals and polyfluorinated chemicals are then tested using established analytical methods; in some cases, a modified standard method or a product-specific test method may be used.

Commonly used methods include:

  • EPA 1633 – Analysis of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Aqueous, Solid, Biosolids, and Tissue Samples by LC-MS/MS
  • EPA Method 537.1 – Determination of Selected Per- and Polyflourinated Alkyl Substances in Drinking Water by Solid Phase Extraction and Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) 
  • ISO 25101:2009 – Determination of Perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoate (PFOA)—Method for Unfiltered Samples Using Solid Phase Extraction and Liquid Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry
  • ASTM D7968-17a – Standard Test Method for Determination of Poyfluorinated Compounds in Soil by Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) 
  • ASTM D7979 – Standard Test Method for Determination of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in Water, Sludge, Influent, Effluent, and Wastewater by Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS)
  • ASTM F2931 – Standard Guide for Analytical Testing of Substances of Very High Concern in Materials and Products

In all cases, data for PFOA, PFOS, PFAA, PFAS, and PFC is obtained using a high-resolution accurate mass (HRAM) liquid chromatograph tandem mass spectrometer (LC/MS/MS).

Common Acronyms

PAFperfluoroalkanoyl fluorides
PAHpolycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon
PASFperfluoroalkane sulfonyl fluoride
PBSFperfluorobutane sulfonyl fluoride
PBTpersistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic
PCAprincipal components analysis
PCBspolychlorinated biphenyls
PFAperfluoroalkoxy polymer
PFAAperfluoroalkyl acid
PFAIperfluoroalkyl iodides
PFASper- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances
PFBAperfluorobutanoate, perfluorobutanoic acid, perfluorobutyrate, perfluorobutyric acid
PFBSperfluorobutane sulfonate, perfluorobutane sulfonic acid
PFC*perfluorocarbon (CnF2n+1, for example, perfluorooctane)
PFCAperfluoroalkyl carboxylate, perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acid
PFDAperfluorodecanoate, perfluorodecanoic acid
PFDoA or PFDoDAperfluorododecanoate, perfluorododecanoic acid
PFDoS or PFDoDSperfluorododecane sulfonate, perfluorododecane sulfonic acid
PFDSperfluorodecane sulfonate, perfluorodecane sulfonic acid
PFECAper- or poly-fluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acid
PFEIperfluoroethyl iodide (aka fluorotelomer iodide)
PFESAper- or poly- fluoroalkyl ether sulfonic acid
PFHpAperfluoroheptanoate, perfluoroheptanoic acid
PFHpSperfluoroheptane sulfonate, perfluoroheptane sulfonic acid
PFHxAperfluorohexanoate, perfluorohexanoic acid
PFHxSperfluorohexane sulfonate, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid
PFMOAAperfluoro-2-methoxyacetic acid
PFNAperfluorononanoate, perfluorononanoic acid
PFNSperfluorononane sulfonate, perfluorononane sulfonic acid
PFOAperfluorooctanoate, perfluorooctanoic acid, perfluorooctane carboxylate
PFOSperfluorooctane sulfonate, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid
PFOSA or FOSAperfluorooctane sulfonamide
PFPAperfluorophosphonic acid
PFPeAperfluoropentanoate, perfluoropentanoic acid
PFPeSperfluoropentane sulfonate, perfluoropentane sulfonic acid
PFPiAperfluorophosphinic acid
PFSAperfluoroalkyl sulfonate, perfluoroalkane sulfonic acid
PFSiAperfluoroalkyl sulfinic acid
PFTeDA or PFTAperfluorotetradecanoic acid
PFTeDS or PFTSperfluorotetradecane sulfonate, perfluorotetradecane sulfonic acid
PFTrDA or PFTriAperfluorotridecanoic acid
PFTrDS or PFTriSperfluorotridecane sulfonate, perfluorotridecane sulfonic acid
PFUnA or PFUnDAperfluoroundecanoate, perfluoroundecanoic acid
PFUnS or PFUnDSperfluoroundecane sulfonate, perfluoroundecane sulfonic acid

*Do not use this acronym for any other description including perfluorinated compound or perfluorochemical.