When are PFOS and PFOA safe?

Published:  25 October, 2016

German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) publishes official safe levels of PFOA and PFOS in human blood.

The safety thresholds have been set at 2 nanograms of PFOA/ml and 5 nanograms of PFOS/ml in blood plasma.

These levels, so-called HBM I values, represent the concentration of a substance below which, according to the German Human Biomonitoring (HBM) Commission’s latest assessment, adverse health effects are not expected and no exposure reduction measures are necessary. The values have been published in Germany’s Federal Health Gazette, Bundesgesundheitsblatt, which is the equivalent of the US Federal Register.

Evaluation of human epidemiological studies led the HBM Commission to conclude in July this year that exposure to PFOA and PFOS was adversely associated with fertility and pregnancy; weight of newborns at birth; lipid metabolism; immunity after vaccination; hormonal development; thyroid metabolism; and onset of menopause. In addition, it described these associated effects as ‘well proven’ and ‘relevant’.

The UBA recently demonstrated that it was prepared to argue the validity of these conclusions even if it meant contradicting its own Government. In September it publicly corrected the Minister of Agriculture and Consumer Protection Peter Hauk after he had said in a television interview that no scientific studies were yet available that proved perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) were harmful.

According to Martin Ittershagen, head of public relations for the Federal Environment Agency: “The comments made in the interview with regards to the health effects of PCFs are wrong. There are numerous scientific findings from epidemiological studies through to experiments on animals,” he later added: “When exceeding the HBM-I value, health effects cannot be excluded with sufficient certainty based on the current knowledge we have.”

PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances. PFOA and PFOS, the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals, have been used to make carpets, weatherproof clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging and cookware. They have also been used for making AFFF fire fighting foam.

All human populations around the world carry varying levels of PFOA and PFOS in their blood. In a scientific study of blood serum concentrations of perfluorinated compounds in men from Greenlandic Inuit and European populations, published in 2012, it was found that in Greenland the average level of PFOS in blood was 52 nanograms per millilitre, an astonishing 10 times higher than the safe level published in Germany. In Poland, it was four times the limit and in Ukraine nearly twice the limit.

Nevertheless these levels have been in decline since 3M began to phase out PFOS production in 2000 and since the US Environmental Protection Agency introduced the PFOA Stewardship Program to eliminate PFOA production by 2015.

Given that PFOA and PFOS have been key ingredients in fire fighting foam for many years, the latest findings from the HBM Commission could raise concerns from members of the fire fighting community that have used AFFF containing PFOS or PFOA before their replacement with short-chain (C6) fluorotelomer surfactants.

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