firefighter putting out fire

ATSDR and its state and local health partners continue to investigate exposure to PFAS and the possible health effects associated with them in more than 40 communities across the United States.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known by the acronym PFAS, are a class of chemicals that do not break down or degrade in the environment. In the 1950s, manufacturers began using PFAS on a large scale to create consumer and industrial products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. In the late 1960s, PFAS first started showing up in human blood tests. In samples collected as part of the 1999-2000 national sampling, PFAS were detected in more than 98 percent of blood serum samples collected from the general U.S. population, suggesting widespread chemical exposure.

Most people come into contact with PFAS by drinking contaminated water or eating food raised or grown on or near places where PFAS were made or used. Pregnant mothers can transmit PFAS to their babies during pregnancy and through breast milk.

More than 200 articles have been published on PFAS and their harmful effects on human health. Researchers have learned that PFAS bind to proteins and circulate throughout the human body long after exposure. Research involving humans suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, small decreases in infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, and increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. At this time, scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to mixtures of different PFAS.

ATSDR has been working to address concerns about PFAS exposures in communities across the country. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized ATSDR to investigate PFAS exposures in communities near current or former military bases with PFAS contamination in their drinking water. The NDAA also authorized a health study to look at potential associations between PFAS exposure and health effects. In addition to work authorized by the NDAA, ATSDR has conducted health consultations in communities with PFAS contamination. You can read about one such PFAS health consultation near the former Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.

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Page last reviewed: December 8, 2020