You could say that perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are the Superheros of chemicals. They resist heat and other chemicals, have dielectric properties, make things slippery, and repel grease and water. That’s why they’re used in fire-fighting foams, semiconductor manufacturing, medical implant devices, pharmaceutical tubing, non-stick cookware, and coatings for carpet, clothing, and food packaging. In fact, they are so useful, in 2013 the global market value reached $19.7 billion, and global manufacturing of products that either contained PFCs or used them in processing reached more than $1.2 trillion (FluoroCouncil, preliminary estimate, January 2014).
Because of so much use, PFCs are now found everywhere throughout the world—in soil, groundwater, lakes, rivers, etc.—and also in human beings (detected in blood and breast milk). They also have a tendency to stick around in the environment, so there is concern about bioaccumulation/biomagnification in people and in animals and the potential for long term health effects.
Although there are hundreds of different PFCs, none are identified as a pollutant or contaminant under the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), or the Clean water Act (CWA); nor are any identified as a hazardous or toxic constituent or substance under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
However, the EPA has identified two of the most commonly found PFCs as “emerging contaminants” and in 2009 established “provisional short term health advisory levels” for drinking water at 400 parts per trillion for Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and 200 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). These concentrations are equivalent to adding less than a quarter teaspoon into an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Given the widespread occurrence of PFCs in the environment and the extremely low concentrations of concern being considered by EPA, this group of chemicals will likely have significant future impacts on industries involved with water treatment, wastewater treatment, and contaminated site remediation.