PFAS are a large group of manufactured compounds that have industrial and consumer applications. There are more than 3,000 such substances, grouped in various subclasses. PFAS is an acronym for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.
Some of these substances – such as PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) - are of concern, but levels of contamination in New Zealand are expected to be low compared to other countries.
What is PFAS?
PFAS is an acronym for a group of chemical compounds known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. They are a class of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in the production of a wide range of products that resist heat, stains, grease and water, including furniture protectants, floor wax and specialised firefighting foam. PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulphonic acid) are compounds in the PFAS family. One characteristic that differentiates one PFAS from those of another is the molecular chain length, or the number of carbon atoms, in the molecule. For example, both PFOS and PFOA have eight carbon atoms, which is why they are sometimes referred to as C8 PFAS. PFHxS has six carbon atoms, and is sometimes referred to as C6.
How widely is PFAS found?
PFAS have been widely used globally in a range of consumer and industrial applications, and last for a long time before breaking down. Because of this they are found in the environment world-wide, including in humans and animals. People are exposed to small amounts of some PFAS in everyday life, through food, dust, air, water and contact with consumer products that contain these compounds. Most people have small amounts of these substances in their systems and this is not known to cause a health risk.
What have PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS been used for?
PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS are types of PFAS compounds that have been used in the production of firefighting foams for quelling flammable liquid fires. PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS have also been used in the production of commercial and consumer products such as oil and water resistant coatings on textiles and upholstery, carpets, leather and paints and inks, ant insecticides, aviation hydraulic fluids, some medical devices, and parts for colour copiers and printers. This does not mean that PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS are necessarily found in these products, as often they are used in the manufacturing process, rather than being a component of the finished article. A summary of non-foam sources of PFAS in New Zealand can be found here.
What are the environmental concerns about PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS?
The use of PFAS substances (including PFOS, PFOA) commenced in the 1950s, but only in the late 1990s were they identified as substances of environmental concern. Some manufacturers moved to shorter chain PFAS substances such as PFHxS. Originally, all PFAS were considered relatively inert and non-hazardous substances. Most instances of contamination overseas have arisen from manufacturing sites, and the normal or expected use of firefighting foams in fighting fires or firefighter training.
PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS are persistent in the environment and in the human body, and so are of concern nationally and internationally. They are resistant to environmental degradation. They also bioaccumulate in the tissues of living organisms for long periods of time.
Where can I go for more information on PFAS?
Up-to-date information will be available on this website.
Any questions that are not answered here can be directed to the following 0800 numbers.
Specific animal health or food safety questions can be directed to 0800 00 83 33
Specific health questions can be directed to your GP or Healthline on 0800 611 116