Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS)

Last update 3 February 2016

also known as: per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs)

Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), also commonly known as PFCs (per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals), and their derivatives are part of a group of chemicals that has many specialty applications. They can provide resistance to heat, to other chemicals or to abrasion, and can also be used as dispersion, wetting or surface-treatment agents.

PFAS and their derivatives are man-made chemicals and have been used in a wide range of industrial processes and consumer products, including in the manufacture of non-stick cookware (although not added to the finished cookware), specialised garments and textiles, Scotchguard™ and similar products (used to protect fabric, furniture, and carpets from stains), metal plating and in some types of fire-fighting foam.

There are two main groups of perfluorinated chemicals used in industry:

  1. perfluoroalkyl sulfonic acids (PFSA) group, including chemicals such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
  2. perfluorocarboxylic acid (PFCA) group, including chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

How PFAS affect human health and the environment

PFAS are released directly into the air and water from waste sites, consumer products (such as carpets and clothing treated with these chemicals) and, if not properly controlled, from manufacturing sites. They can also be emitted into the environment from degradation of precursor chemicals. PFAS are highly persistent in the environment and can be transported long distances. Several PFAS and their potential precursors are ubiquitous in the environment, even in remote regions. People and animals can be exposed to PFAS through food, water, and indoor and outdoor dust and air. Some long-chain PFAS bioaccumulate in animals, are toxic to aquatic and terrestrial organisms, and can enter the human food chain. The term ‘long chain’ perfluorinated substances refers to perfluorocarboxylic acids with carbon chain lengths C8 and higher (including PFOA) and perfluoroalkyl sulfonates with carbon chain lengths C6 and higher (including PFOS).

Once they are ingested, PFOS and PFOA are eliminated very slowly from the human body. This means concentrations of these chemicals in the body increase over time if they are continuously consumed in food or water. They have been found in human blood, urine, breast milk and babies’ umbilical cord blood. These chemicals have been shown to have some effects, particularly in the liver, at low doses in animal tests. Other effects of PFOS and PFOA noted in testing on laboratory animals include benign tumours and impact on reproduction and development. Nevertheless, the scientific literature on their effects in humans does not give conclusive results.

Use of PFAS in Australia

In Australia, PFAS have been used in a variety of industrial processes, and in commercial and consumer products. PFOS, PFOA and related compounds are imported mainly for use as mist suppressants in the metal plating industry, hydraulic fluid in the aviation industry, as surfactants, in the photography industry and as fire-fighting foams. Many articles such as textiles are likely to have also been treated with these chemicals or their precursors before being imported into Australia.

PFOS was a component of the Scotchgard™ range of products and an ingredient of some industrial additives, as well as Aqueous Film Forming fire-fighting Foams (AFFF™) and Alcohol-Type Concentrate (ATC™) fire-fighting foams produced by the 3M Company for extinguishing flammable fuel fires. The 3M Company stopped manufacturing PFOS chemicals in December 2000 and reformulated all Scotchgard products replacing PFOS with other short-chain PFAS.

Import data have indicated a decline in quantities of PFOS introduced into Australia. Import of neat PFOA and its salts virtually ceased in Australia following NICNAS and industry co-regulatory activities, dropping from 27.5 tonnes in 2003 to approximately 20 kg in 2004—of which only 25 grams were used in the local manufacture of non-stick cookware.

Currently, many imported perfluorochemical products contain PFSA that are less toxic than PFOS, and many companies have reported switching to less toxic alternatives.

NICNAS's role

In Australia, the regulation of the use, release and disposal of industrial chemicals is primarily a state and territory responsibility. The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) is a statutory scheme established under the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989 (the ICNA Act) to aid in the protection of public health, the environment and worker health and safety by assessing the risks of such chemicals and providing recommendations that are used by other agencies responsible for their regulation.

NICNAS responds to new information about these chemicals as it becomes available. The initial response by NICNAS in 2002 was to identify importers and users of PFAS in Australia and to provide them with information about the hazards. Recommendations were subsequently made to phase out the use of long chain PFAS and to improve their safe handling to mitigate identified risks. Stakeholders have been kept updated about this work.

NICNAS has monitored quantities and the use of PFAS in Australia through four national surveys. Since 2002, NICNAS has published six alerts to inform importers, users and the general public about the known effects of some of the commonly used PFAS on human health and the environment. NICNAS continues to assess the risks of these chemicals.

NICNAS assessments

NICNAS PFAS assessments have focused on PFOS and PFOA and their direct and indirect precursors (perfluorinated chemicals that break down in the environment to form PFOS and PFOA). NICNAS adopted a policy in 2004 on the information requirements for the assessment of these precursors when introduced as new industrial chemicals. The intention of this policy was to deter the introduction of the precursors unless information was available to show that the breakdown products were significantly less bioaccumulative and toxic than PFOS or PFOA, and this has been successful. New derivatives of perfluorinated chemicals continue to be assessed under this framework.

PFOS and select PFOS precursors are listed on the Rotterdam Convention on Priority Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Import and export controls on industrial chemicals subject to the Convention are enforced under the ICNA Act and detailed in regulation 11(C)(1) of the ICNA Regulations, with amendments made subsequent to the listing of additional chemicals in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. These controls prohibit the introduction or export of the listed PFAS unless approval is obtained from the NICNAS Director.

NICNAS has assessed more than 200 perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals under the Inventory Multi-tiered Assessment and Prioritisation (IMAP) framework. Based on these assessments, NICNAS has recommended to industry and other stakeholders that further consultation be undertaken to consider strategies, including regulatory mechanisms available under the ICNA Act, to encourage the use of safer chemistry.

NICNAS recommendations

To address human health and environmental concerns about PFAS, NICNAS has made the following recommendations:

  • PFOS, PFOA and other related chemicals should continue to be restricted to essential uses where less hazardous alternatives are not available.
  • PFOS-based fire-fighting foam should only be used in essential applications (ie. not be used for training purposes).
  • Industry should actively seek alternatives to and phase out PFAS and PFAS-related substances of concern.
  • Existing stocks of PFAS fire-fighting foams should be disposed of responsibly on expiry.
  • Importers and users of PFAS should be aware of international activities relating to PFAS.
  • Importers should ensure that alternative chemicals are less toxic and not persistent in the environment.
  • Up-to-date information on safe use of PFAS and handling should be provided on labels and Safety Data Sheets.

International efforts

NICNAS has contributed to international activities to further restrict the use of these chemicals worldwide through the OECD and by providing input to inform Australia’s position in negotiations considering PFOS (and, more recently, PFOA) under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

Since July 2000, the OECD has led international collaboration (in which Australia has been actively involved) on a number of activities relating to the identification, assessment and management of perfluorinated chemicals. The OECD conducted a hazard assessment of PFOS and its salts in 2002 and concluded that the persistence of PFOS in the environment—as well as its toxicity and bioaccumulation potential—indicated a cause for concern for the environment and human health.

PFOS has been determined to be a POP under the Stockholm Convention. It was listed in Annex B of the Stockholm Convention in 2010, with parties agreeing to restrict its use. Parties to the Stockholm Convention must develop and implement a plan setting out how they will meet these obligations under the Stockholm Convention. In October 2015, the Stockholm Convention POP Review Committee also agreed that PFOA meets the Annex D criteria, suggesting that this chemical may too be identified as a POP in the future.

The Australian Government Department of the Environment is currently undertaking a domestic treaty-making process to consider ratification of the 2009 amendment to the Stockholm Convention, which includes the listing of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, its salts and perfluorooctanesulfonyl fluoride.

Since 2002, there has been a trend amongst global manufacturers and downstream users to replace long-chain PFSA with shorter-chain acids (which are less toxic and less bioaccumulative), although some essential uses of these chemicals still exist.

Regulation of PFAS in other countries

In the United States of America, the major manufacturer of PFOS and its precursors, the 3M company, began phasing out PFOS in 2000. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has restricted use of PFOS and other long chain PFSA to low amounts and only where no safer alternative is available.

The US EPA and eight major producers of PFAS launched the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, in which companies committed to:

  • reduce the global facility emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 per cent by 2010, and
  • eliminate emissions and product content by 2015.

In January 2015, the US EPA proposed a new rule requiring approval of new uses of PFOA and related chemicals.

In the European Union, the uses of PFOS derivatives are restricted to a small number, such as in electroplating systems. In June 2013, PFOA and its ammonium salt (APFO) were added to the EU Candidate List for authorisation having been identified as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs). The sale of PFOA and APFO as substances or in mixtures to the general public has been banned in the EU since 1 January 2015 due to its reproductive toxicity classification.

Canada has prohibited the manufacture, use, sale, offer for sale and import of PFOS and related substances, and is currently considering a proposal to prohibit the manufacture, use, sale, offer for sale and import of PFOA and related substances.

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i. PFAS is the internationally agreed term for PFCs.


More information

Read the NICNAS resource page on PFAS/PFCs

Please note, our recommendations are not always implemented by chemical regulators. For the most up-to-date information about how a particular chemical is regulated in your State or Territory you will need to contact other government agencies. Read What we do for details about our regulatory partners.