PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of human-made chemicals—currently estimated to be around 9,000 individual chemical compounds—that pose potential adverse health effects to humans and wildlife. Although their use has been drastically reduced, PFAS continue to threaten human and environmental health because of their environmental persistence, toxicity, and potential for bioaccumulation.
PFAS have been used widely in many consumer products and industries. They can make products resistant to water, grease, and stains, and protect against fire. However, the chemical properties that make PFAS attractive in products also mean they persist in the environment because they are essentially nondegradable. PFAS compounds are now present in water, soil, and living organisms and can be found across almost every part of our planet.
Monitoring the exposure to PFAS
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) method for testing PFAS in drinking water was initially published in 2009, an EPA proposal in March 2023 to regulate PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act made the ubiquity of PFAS a mainstream topic of conversation. Several recent studies have shown that PFAS prevalence in drinking and surface waters is ubiquitous not only in the US but globally.
The first logical step for monitoring population exposure to PFAS would be to surveil drinking and surface water. However, those efforts still won’t appropriately address more recent reports that PFAS pose a threat to consumers from a multitude of products, ranging from nonstick cookware to feminine hygiene products.
In 2020, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) was tasked with investigating the health effects of PFAS exposure and providing guidance regarding how to address the health concerns of individuals with high levels of PFAS in their blood. The resulting report, Guidance on PFAS Exposure, Testing, and Clinical Follow-Up, concluded that there is likely a correlation between chronic PFAS exposure and adverse health outcomes, including elevated cholesterol levels and reduced antibody response to certain vaccines and infections. The report also provided testing guidance for individuals at high risk of exposure.
Accelerating PFAS testing at all levels
While national monitoring programs have not yet been mandated to determine the presence and abundance of PFAS in large populations, clinical testing laboratories around the world have begun setting up PFAS testing methods in human samples in preparation of mass testing: Some commercial testing laboratories have already made validated tests available to healthcare professionals. The U.S. Department of Defense has been tracking and testing exposed populations, e.g., firefighters, in response to legislative requests. Fire fighters experience occupational exposure to PFAS through turnout gear, aqueous film-forming foam, and air and dust at both fire scenes and fire stations.
With increasing global concern regarding the health effects of PFAS, providing researchers with analytical workflows that simplify setup and provide a robust end-to-end analytical methodology would reduce method development time and increase throughput and accuracy.
Steps clinical labs can take when testing for PFAS
The presence of some PFAS in many standard laboratory testing supplies and solvents may lead to false positive results or interfere with a clean background in the testing system. Therefore, it would be beneficial for researchers to have access to consumables, such as solid phase extraction (SPE) cartridges, explicitly designed for PFAS analysis. These specialized consumables provide excellent extraction performance and flow rates for a broad range of PFAS and comply with stringent regulatory requirements.
Analytical chemists, clinical researchers, and major analytical instrument vendors continue to collaborate toward developing robust and reliable methods for testing PFAS in human samples to ensure a safer and healthier future for everyone.