What are PFOS and PFOA?

PFOS and PFOA stand for perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, respectively. Both are fluorinated organic chemicals, part of a larger family of compounds referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These substances are synthetic compounds that are unique for being water and lipid-resistant. Because they deter water, grease and oil, fluorochemicals have proven useful for a variety of manufacturing processes and industrial applications. Of all the compounds in this group, PFOS and PFOA have been the most extensively produced and studied in the United States. 1

Starting in the 1950s, PFOS and PFOA were used to coat a wide range of consumer goods, specifically those designed to be waterproof, stain-resistant or non-stick. Below are just a few of the products in which PFOS and PFOA have been used.

  • •Textiles
  • •Leather
  • •Stain-Resistant Carpets
  • •Polishes
  • •Fire-Retarding Foams
  • •Photographic Processing
  • •Paper and Packaging For Food
  • •Coating Additives For Non-Stick Cookware
  • •Cleaning Products
  • •Pesticides 2

Unfortunately, during the manufacturing processes used to create these household wares, substantial quantities of PFOS and PFOA were dumped into the soil, emitted into the air and poured into the water surrounding factory sites. The products created at these facilities have also been distributed to homes throughout the United States and around the globe. Direct contamination from manufacturing and consumer use of these products is estimated to exceed 7000 metric tons of the fluorochemicals. 3 As a result most people have been exposed to PFOS and PFOA, and the two compounds have become a serious concern for wildlife, the environment and human health.

The primary manufacturer of PFOS, 3M, began a voluntary phase-out of production in 2000 following a series of studies showing significant accumulation in the environment. In 2006, eight major companies followed suit, agreeing to remove PFOS, PFOA and related compounds by 2015 under the guidance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Sadly though, these efforts may have been too little and too late.