Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

Effects on humans, water, and the environment

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFAS) are organic compounds that have been used in a variety of applications since the 1950s, such as in the textile, paper, and packaging industries, in the production of foams and firefighting foam, as well as in the aerospace industry. Due to their unique chemical structure, PFAS have certain properties such as high water and grease resistance, which makes them so attractive in many applications. However, PFAS also have numerous negative effects on the environment and our health.

What are PFAS and how do they work?

PFAS are compounds consisting of a long chain of carbon and fluorine atoms. The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest in organic chemistry, making PFAS very stable and difficult to degrade. PFAS have a high persistence and can accumulate in the environment and in organisms. Some PFAS also have toxic properties and can affect our health.

Where are PFAS found?

PFAS are found in many products. Some examples include:

  • Coatings on pans, pots, and baking paper
  • Impregnations for clothing, shoes, and carpets
  • Firefighting foam and foam materials
  • Water-repellent packaging for fast food and take-away
  • Cleaning products
  • Electronic devices and components
  • Cosmetics

Why are PFAS a problem for the environment?

PFAS can enter the environment and accumulate in soil, water, and air. They can make their way into our food through the food chain and ultimately into our bodies. Some PFAS have toxic properties and can impact our health. PFAS can also be present in drinking water sources, posing a threat to human health. High levels of PFAS exposure can lead to health issues such as elevated cholesterol levels, thyroid problems, liver and kidney issues, and hormonal disturbances.

What is being done to reduce the use of PFAS?

Due to the negative impacts of PFAS on the environment and health, measures have already been taken in various countries to reduce or ban the use of PFAS. For example, the European Union decided in 2019 to ban PFAS in various applications such as firefighting foam and certain packaging. Switzerland is also currently working on regulating PFAS.

Water treatment plants and filters can also help to reduce PFAS contamination in drinking water. However, it is important to note that not all filter types are capable of effectively removing PFAS and that filter replacements must be performed regularly to ensure continuous effectiveness.

Why can't activated carbon filters properly filter PFAS?

The filtration efficiency depends on the composition of the PFAS, the concentration of PFAS in the influent, and the usage time of the activated carbon. Activated carbon removes most PFAS initially or up to regulatory limits (ppt level), but with varying lifetimes for different types of PFAS. In general, PFAS with shorter chains (C4-C6) (such as PFBA, PFBS) have a relatively shorter lifetime than PFAS with longer chains (>C6) (PFOA, PFOS). Breakthrough for shorter-chain substances will occur more quickly. Also, coal-based carbon is much more efficient than coconut-based carbon.

Carbon can remove PFAS to below detection limits (2.5 ng/Liter). Of course, the removal efficiency also depends on other contaminants present in the water.


PFAS are a significant problem for the environment and the health of humans and animals due to their persistent properties and widespread use. It is important to restrict the use of PFAS and to effectively monitor and reduce their contamination in the environment and drinking water. Consumers can also contribute by choosing products that are free of PFAS and by protecting their water supply through suitable filters.

Research on PFAS and their impact on the environment and health is far from complete. It is therefore important that authorities and scientists continue to work together to understand the full extent of the problem and find suitable solutions. Only then can we protect the environment and our health.

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