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Photo of blood samples in test tubes ready for PFAS testing in a clinical lab.
Exposure to PFAS can be detected through a simple blood test.
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Now and Forever: How Useful is PFAS Testing?

PFAS exposure can be detected by a blood test, but whether or not you should get one is a matter of debate

Photo portrait of Marnie Willman, BSc
Marnie Willman
Photo portrait of Marnie Willman, BSc

Marnie Willman is Today’s Clinical Lab’s creative services writer/editor. Marnie obtained her BSc from Vancouver Island University and is currently completing her PhD in medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba. Her doctoral dissertation was focused on the discovery of novel therapeutics for influenza A virus, during which time she also worked as a freelance science writer. Her work has been published in Viruses, iScience, Journal of Virology, Massive Science, The Wire, ASBMB Today, Salon, and MyHealthTeams.

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Published:Sep 08, 2023
|2 min read
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According to CompTox, a chemicals database maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are a group of nearly 15,000 synthetic chemicals.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were ubiquitously used for many products from water resistant clothing and paints to food wrappers following their invention in the 1930s. Only after leaps and bounds in popularity and usage did the environmental and health costs of PFAS become apparent. PFAS do not break down in the environment, generating a bioaccumulation problem in waterways, soil, and even meat from animals raised in PFAS-contaminated environments. As the number of contaminated environments grows, the companies responsible are starting to be held accountable in various corporate lawsuit settlements totaling $13.6 billion to date. PFAS are suspected to cause some health conditions including cancer, and exposure can be detected through a simple blood test.

How to detect PFAS exposure

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, PFAS testing should be undertaken with caution for several reasons, including:

  • PFAS testing cannot be performed at all clinical labs
  • PFAS testing is not a routine clinical test, meaning insurance may not cover the cost
  • Of the hundreds of PFAS in the environment, labs can only test blood samples for a select few

That said, blood tests for linear and branched isomers of PFAS are available from Quest Diagnostics, among other providers. There are several labs including AXYS Analytical, EmpowerDX, and Eurofins that offer PFAS blood serum testing.

Limitations of a PFAS blood test

Although PFAS blood tests are available, there are a few limitations. PFAS testing can show the level of PFAS in blood, but it does not indicate whether this is a safe or unsafe level, nor where the PFAS originally came from. Because PFAS contamination is widespread, the majority of people have some level of PFAS in their blood. What levels are harmful or concerning, and links to specific health conditions, remains somewhat unknown.

Health implications of PFAS

A 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that included data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that elevated levels of PFAS may cause a variety of conditions including negatively impacting fertility, causing developmental delays in children, inducing cancer development, interference with hormonal processes, increased cholesterol levels, and negative effects on immunity. However, factors such as the age of the individual when PFAS is introduced to the body, which PFAS someone is exposed to (it’s currently unclear which PFAS are responsible for the most severe health impacts), and the mode of PFAS introduction may all change the way PFAS affect an individual’s health. To date, these details remain under investigation.

The way forward in a PFAS-contaminated world

As more studies reveal the effect of exposure to different types of PFAS and their underlying health effects, the guidance surrounding testing and prophylactic precautions will be clarified. PFAS cleanup efforts are underway, but they require substantial effort and resources. In the meantime, policymakers and healthcare professionals will need to work together to discover the health impacts and testing required for PFAS exposure while ongoing cleanup efforts continue. Even though PFAS have been banned in many countries around the world, the fight against PFAS and their health implications has only just begun.