Per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances put to the test

Per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, so called PFAS, are common industrial chemicals. Due to their special technical properties, they are used in numerous industrial processes and in consumer products, for example in outdoor textiles. This wide use means that PFAS are now found everywhere in the environment. As a result, they can also be ingested with food. "It has not been sufficiently clear until now what health risks these substances pose and to what extent human beings come into contact with them", says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). "For this reason, we will be discussing the insights gained in recent years on the occasion of the symposium. On the basis of these discussions, we will outline safe ways of dealing with these substances and identify gaps in knowledge." What is known is that these substances are very long-lived and accumulate in the body. This is demonstrated by studies of human and animal blood samples in Germany and other countries. The BfR symposium takes place in the premises of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment at the Berlin-Marienfelde location on 6 and 7 March 2014.

The long half-life of several of the per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in the body (approximately four to five years for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) calls for careful monitoring in the future. In higher concentrations, the substances can cause damage to the liver. In addition, animal studies have shown that they are carcinogenic and harmful to reproduction. As environmental contaminants and hence potential contaminants in feed and food they are therefore the focus of research on and assessment of potential health risks. The BfR symposium will feature the latest research findings of the BfR on the mode of action of PFAS in liver cells. In addition, a series of insights into the transfer of PFAS from the environment to plant-based food and feed and to animal-based products will also be presented and discussed. Another important aspect are data on the exposure of humans via the different pathways such as food, food contact materials, drinking water, house dust, indoor air and numerous products intended for consumers such as apparel textiles and home textiles. Studies will be presented as part of which data on the PFAS exposure of various population groups in Germany were collected. They showed that the contents measured in blood samples clearly increase from infancy to adulthood. Overall, the more stringent regulations on substances have already had a positive effect: the body burdens are decreasing.

At present, the health effects on the population from chronic exposure to PFAS are still unclear. Different epidemiological studies suggest that a connection exists, for example, between PFAS exposure and elevated blood lipids. Possible influences on the immune system and high blood pressure triggered by pregancy will be discussed as well. However, the epidemiological data are not unequivocal, meaning that many questions remain unanswered in this area.

The goal of the event is to make available the data collected over the last few years as a basis for an adequate assessment of the health risks posed by these substances. It should then be possible to derive potential courses of action and recommendations for measures to minimise PFAS intake in humans.

For further information, go to the BfR website at

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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