Real-time Science: PFAS Compounds

In this post we look at a community request: PFAS compounds.

Science evolves as research and evidence grow to help us determine the safety of an ingredient, contaminant, or technology. However, headlines around ingredient safety are often faster than the research concluding an ingredient’s harm or safety profile.

We may not immediately know if a compound or process is safe, but we can provide context and background in our new series called “Real-time Science.”

In our first post of this series, we look at a community request: PFAS compounds.

What are PFAS compounds?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made chemicals of more than 9,000 compounds of which approximately 600 are currently in use.

PFAS compounds possess strong carbon-fluorine bonds, making them highly resistant to environmental degradation, which means that once released, they can be persistent environmental contaminants.

Researchers have also connected legacy PFAS ingredients with adverse health outcomes in animal studies, often at doses well above those encountered by people and by associations in epidemiology studies. However, more research is needed to evaluate the long-term safety of newer PFAS ingredients.

What types of products contain PFAS ingredients?

While legacy PFAS ingredients have been phased out of production, newer PFAS ingredients remain in use, and we can find them in various industrial, commercial, and consumer products:

  • Firefighting foams: PFAS have been widely used in firefighting foams to extinguish fires involving flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil, and jet fuel.
  • Stain-resistant coatings: PFAS are used in coatings on carpets, furniture, and clothing to make them resistant to water, grease, and stains.
  • Non-stick cookware: PFAS have been used in producing non-stick coatings for cookware.
  • Food packaging: PFAS are used in some food packaging materials to prevent grease from soaking through.
  • Water-resistant clothing and shoes: PFAS are used in some outdoor clothing, such as rain jackets, to make them water-resistant.
  • Personal care products: PFAS are sometimes used in personal care products, such as dental floss or makeup, to make them water-resistant.
  • Cleaning products: PFAS are sometimes used in cleaning products to improve performance.
  • Electronics: PFAS are used in some electronic products, such as semiconductors, to improve their performance.

Are PFAS, PFOS, and PFOA compounds the same chemical? Are the terms interchangeable?

PFAS, PFOS, and PFOA compounds are not interchangeable terms.

While there are more than 9,000 Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), there are two legacy PFAS compounds in particular that are highly studied: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

So, PFOS and PFOA describe two PFAS compounds, just as apples and oranges describe two fruits.

What are legacy PFAS ingredients?

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are two examples of legacy PFAS ingredients, meaning manufacturers have largely phased out these two ingredients from our everyday products, and they have been studied more in-depth than other PFAS compounds.

Additionally, we have used these ingredients widely for decades. Due to their resistance to degradation, we can find them in our environment and bodies.

Have we studied the other 9,000+ PFAS ingredients?

While PFAS chemicals are in the same family, they are not the same compounds, and each compound needs to be evaluated independently.

Therefore, we have not studied the vast majority of known PFAS ingredients.

Are PFAS harmful to human health?

It’s believed most people are exposed to PFAS at relatively low levels, and at low levels of exposure, it’s uncertain if there are any adverse health outcomes (1,2).

However, we need more research on emerging PFAS ingredients. We also need more data to understand better how PFAS ingredients may affect our bodies, especially when exposed to more than one PFAS ingredient at a time (1).

At exposure levels that exceed typical human exposure (e.g., in occupational settings) epidemiological studies suggest legacy PFOS and PFOA may adversely impact human health in the following ways:

  • Developmental and reproductive problems
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney disease
  • Thyroid disease
  • Increased risk of certain cancers
  • Immune system dysfunction

It’s noteworthy that these effects were seen in high-exposure settings or through epidemiological studies, which can have a number of confounding factors. Confounding factors are unmeasured variables that influence the interpretation of results when attempting to establish cause and effect. Additionally, these types of studies typically show correlation not causation, which is an important distinction (1,2,3).

How are we exposed to PFAS compounds?

PFAS are persistent in the environment, meaning they degrade over the course of decades rather than weeks or hours, leading to widespread soil, water, and wildlife contamination in areas with heavy PFAS use, such as military bases.

  • Water contamination: PFAS can contaminate groundwater and surface water, posing a potential threat to aquatic ecosystems and potentially impacting the availability of safe drinking water for humans and animals.
  • Soil contamination: PFAS can persist in soil for long periods, potentially contaminating agricultural land, which may affect soil health.
  • Bioaccumulation: PFAS can accumulate in the tissues of fish and other animals, leading to higher concentrations of these chemicals in the food chain.
  • Air pollution: PFAS can be released into the air during manufacturing, use, and disposal, potentially contributing to air pollution and affecting air quality.
  • Products: There are many industrial, commercial, and consumer products containing PFAS ingredients.

What else do I need to know about PFAS ingredients?

Much of the available information comes from studying two legacy PFAS ingredients used by manufacturers that have been largely phased out of production: PFOS and PFOA.

While the data may sound alarming, and we need to act in ways that benefit our populations’ health, it’s important to remember that there are over 9,000 PFAS compounds, and not all will behave like PFOS and PFOA.

What should I look for in headlines related PFAS ingredients?

As PFAS ingredients continue to make headlines, it’s important to critically evaluate the information presented in the media. To ensure an accurate assessment of human risks, we should ask ourselves the following questions when reading about PFAS:

  • Does the study focus on human models or animal models?
  • Is the study designed for human health or environmental purposes?
  • Is the study about new PFAS compounds or legacy PFOA and PFOS compounds?

It’s crucial to note that not every study is intended for human health assessment, and not all studies serve as the basis for regulatory decisions. Some studies may be conducted to determine if further investigation is necessary.

By asking these key questions, we can better understand the context and significance of PFAS-related news.

The good news.

Products containing PFAS ingredients can serve an essential role in our lives. We’re learning more about these ingredients, and as our knowledge grows, we can share more nuanced information on these subjects.

As technology advances, manufacturers and researchers can develop products that contain fewer PFAS ingredients or eliminate PFAS altogether while still achieving the desired outcomes.

Despite the fact that PFAS compounds are persistent and present in the environment, there is not enough information at this time to determine if PFAS exposure adversely impacts our health at the doses we typically encounter daily.

If you have any questions about foods and ingredients, please reach out to us on Twitter, send us an email, or submit your idea to us at


This story was originally published by the Center For Research On Ingredient Safety.


About the MSU Innovation Center: 

The MSU Innovation Center is dedicated to fostering innovation, research commercialization, and entrepreneurial activities from the research and discovery happening across our campus every day. We act as the primary interface for researchers aiming to see their research applied to solving real-world problems and making the world a better place to live. We aim to empower faculty, researchers, and students within our community of scholars by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to bring their discoveries to the forefront. Through strategic collaborations with the private sector, we aim to amplify the impact of faculty research and drive economic growth while positively impacting society. We foster mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with the private sector through corporate-sponsored research collaborations, technology licensing discussions, and support for faculty entrepreneurs to support the establishment of startup companies.   

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