PFAS: A Brief History of ‘Forever’ Chemicals

March 25, 2024   |    8 minute read

Despite reduced use, newer alternatives still pose threats, highlighting the necessity for better testing and regulation. Our brief history of forever chemicals / PFAS explores what they are and how businesses can manage them.

Perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances have gone from being touted for their ability to suppress fires, stop food from sticking in a hot pan, keep us dry in our raincoats, and make mascara waterproof, to being labeled forever chemicals and condemned for possible health effects ranging from altered immune and thyroid function to liver and kidney disease and cancer.

Since the start of their use in consumer products in the 1940s, perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been a part of our lives. 

PFAS’ physical and chemical properties offer oil, stain, water, and soil resistance; chemical and thermal stability; and friction reduction. With a variety of applications in several industries – aerospace, semiconductor, medical, automotive, construction, electronics, aviation, consumer products, food packaging, and firefighting – PFAS has touched most of us in some way. 

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Comprehensive guide to understanding PFAS management strategies to reduce risk and safeguard environmental and public health.

Stay current on advantages and disadvantages of technologies available for PFAS:

  • Removal
  • Disposal
  • Destruction

What Are PFAS and Where Are They Found?

PFAS are large group of around 12,000 manufactured chemicals that have been used in various products including:

  • Cleaning products
  • Water-resistant fabrics
  • Grease-resistant paper/food packaging
  • Nonstick cookware
  • Personal care products, like shampoo, dental floss, and makeup
  • Stain-resistant coatings typically used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics

Unfortunately, another place where PFAS are found is our drinking water. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey published in July 2023 found at least 45% of the nation’s tap water is estimated to have one or more PFAS present. 

Some PFAS cannot be detected with the tests that are currently available while others have been more widely used and studied. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are two of the most widely used and studied chemicals in the PFAS group. 

The news isn’t all bad, however. 

Since 2002, the production and use of PFOS and PFOA in the United States has declined, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

As the use of some PFAS has declined, some blood PFAS levels have gone down as well:

  • From 1999-2000 to 2017-2018, blood PFOS levels declined by more than 85%.
  • From 1999-2000 to 2017-2018, blood PFOA levels declined by more than 70%.

However, as PFOS and PFOA are phased out and replaced, the threat remains. People may be exposed to newer PFAS, potentially ones that have not been subjected to the same scrutiny and testing as the limited number of better known PFAS compounds, making exposure and health impacts difficult to assess. EPA has acknowledged this challenge and researchers are developing new and more effective laboratory methods to find, identify, and measure PFAS in the air, water, ground water, wastewater, soil, and more.

These methods should help EPA and others better understand which PFAS are currently in the environment, at what levels, and how people might be exposed. The total destruction of PFAS chemicals is difficult, due to a very strong carbon-flourine chemical bond, which contributes to their persistence in the environment – in the water we drink, the foods we eat, and the items we use daily. The end result is that most, if not all, of the products that contain PFAS eventually will end up in the local landfill or waste treatment center.


How Exposure Occurs

Due to their widespread production and use for 80 years, as well as their ability to spread and persist in the environment, surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that most people in the United States have been exposed to some type of PFAS. 

Recent studies have indicated that most known exposures are relatively low, but some can be high, particularly when people are exposed to a concentrated source over long periods through occupational or situational exposures. Research has shown that people can be exposed to PFAS by:

  • Working in occupations such as firefighting or chemicals manufacturing and processing
  • Drinking water contaminated with PFAS
  • Eating certain foods that may contain PFAS, including fish
  • Swallowing contaminated soil or dust
  • Breathing air containing PFAS
  • Using products made with PFAS or that are packaged in materials containing PFAS

PFAS: Hiding in Plain Sight

As soon as they were released on the market, women flocked to liquid lipsticks. They often offer great “staying power,” without a smudge or smear in sight. Let’s not single out lipsticks; long-wearing foundation and waterproof mascaras also are noted for their long-lasting and water-resistant properties. 

In 2021, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters tested 231 cosmetic products for fluorinated compounds. According to the study, 56 percent of foundations and eye products, 48 per cent of lip products (many of them liquid lipsticks), and 47 percent of mascaras (82 percent if waterproof) were found to contain high levels of fluorine, which is an indicator of PFAS in the product.  

When researchers conducted further testing on 29 of the products with high fluorine concentrations, they were found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS. However, only one of the beauty products tested listed PFAS as an ingredient on the product label. Cosmetics is just one example of many, highlighting the need for transparency and legislation to prevent sickness due to PFAS. 


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Despite Recent Press, Health Concerns Are Not New

The persistence and toxicity of certain PFAS compounds have been known for at least 25 years, which is when 3M submitted rat toxicity data on PFOS to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and it began working with industry to study and regulate PFOS and PFOA.

State and federal governments along with many manufacturers and retailers agree that it is time to be proactive in addressing the hazards of certain PFAS by keeping them out of our lives and the waste stream as much as possible.

Perhaps nothing speaks louder than the consumer. Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations and coalitions says that 32 unique brands with more than 150,000 locations and more than $650 billion annually in sales – among them Lowe’s, Amazon, Burger King, Whole Foods, Home Depot, Target, and McDonald’s, – have committed to eliminating or reducing PFAS in food packaging, textiles, and other products they use or sell. 

Safer States reports that the federal and state governments are leaning towards the phase-out of PFAS: 

  • Maine, Minnesota and Washington have given state agencies the authority to ban PFAS in a wide range of products.
  • Twelve states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) have started phasing out PFAS in food packaging.
  • Eight states - California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington - restrict PFAS in carpets, rugs, and aftermarket treatments.
  • Six states (California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington) have taken steps to eliminate PFAS from cosmetics.
  • Twelve states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington) have banned the sale of firefighting foam containing PFAS.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced drinking water standards for six individual PFAS, including PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, HFPO-DA (GenX), and PFBS. 

“States have been leading the way out of this crisis,” said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States in December 2022, when 3M announced it planned to stop manufacturing PFAS and wanted to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025. 

“We call on other manufacturers and users to also abandon PFAS chemistry, move toward safer solutions, and clean up their toxic legacy.”


What PFAS Technologies Can Assist with Remediation?

So now we know the extent of the problem, what are some of the PFAS remediation options that are available to commercial entities that need to tackle a PFAS problem on a large scale industrial level? 

The conventional approach by industry for removing and disposing of PFAS led to concentrated PFAS materials being reintroduced into the environment through the three most common methods used historically:

  • landfill disposal
  • incineration
  • deep well disposal

Aclarity, on the other hand, is the leader in PFAS destruction. Aclarity's Octa™ system offers a sustainable solution for the complete eradication of PFAS contaminants by destroying them through a patented electrochemical oxidation process. PFAS destruction heralds a new era in wastewater treatment and environmental remediation for landfills, water and wastewater treatment plants, and industrial facilities - where PFAS is particularly prevalent.



In summary, with the growing awareness of problems associated with PFAS, regulations are increasing on both state and federal levels. Historical approaches to managing PFAS issues were essentially moving the problem downstream. Sending PFAS contaminated soil or water to landfill, or deep well disposal does not solve the problem. However, PFAS destruction technology like Aclarity’s offers an innovative approach to destroy PFAS forever, and accounts for its increased popularity. 

If your industrial facility or municipality is struggling with PFAS, get a free evaluation from Aclarity. In this evaluation you can discuss your specific application with a PFAS destruction expert and what existing technologies you may already be utilizing. Start to understand current PFAS levels and ideal PFAS levels and  create an action plan of potential solutions to help your organization achieve your ideal PFAS levels.

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Download The Definitive Guide to PFAS Technology  whitepaper and delve into current PFAS removal technologies. In this whitepaper, analyze the pros and cons of a variety of PFAS technologies and discover practical exercises for organizations to identify and implement suitable solutions. In this comprehensive document, walk away with an understanding of PFAS management, facilitating informed decision-making to reduce PFAS risk and protect environmental and public health.