About Highly Fluorinated Chemicals (PFASs)

waterproof fabric

Highly fluorinated chemicals called PFASs are added to a wide variety of consumer products to make them non-stick, waterproof, and stain-resistant. They are found in carpets and upholstery, waterproof apparel, floor waxes, non-stick cookware, grease-proof food packaging, and even dental floss. They are also used in firefighting foams for putting out fuel fires. 

People can be exposed to these chemicals from direct contact with products, through the air they breathe, or through the food they eat. They can also be exposed through drinking water. In fact, millions of Americans today are exposed to drinking water contaminated with PFASs from fire training areas, wastewater treatment plants, and industrial sites. 

PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are among the most ubiquitous manmade chemicals in the world. Approximately 98 percent of Americans have PFASs in their bodies. While their strong chemical bonds make them very effective at repelling water and oil even at high temperatures, these same characteristics also make PFASs extremely persistent, meaning they don’t break down.

Silent Spring Institute is studying this class of chemicals because some types of PFASs have been linked to cancers, including breast cancer, immunotoxicity in children, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and other health effects. The Institute’s work is focused on understanding how people are exposed to PFASs and their impacts on health.

In our drinking water studies, we detected PFASs in both public and private wells on Cape Cod – in some cases at levels approaching and even exceeding health guidelines. Our research also identified septic systems as an important source of contamination.

Current research projects include:

Findings from these studies and others will help us develop strategies and inform policies aimed at reducing people's exposure to these hazardous chemicals, while protecting the environment now and for generations to come.