Combating PFAS ‘The Forever Chemical’ Contamination

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s due to their useful properties. There are thousands of different PFAS, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others.

Nothing about PFAS – from how they are made, to their unique characteristics, to how they need to be analysed – is easy. These chemicals were developed to simplify our lives, but now decades later, they have become a serious problem due to their elusive and persistent nature, hence the nickname ‘The Forever Chemical.’ What is clear is that PFAS contamination is an environmental and growing health issue, but what is less clear is how to address and manage this issue.


The importance of PFAS

PFAS are important because they have been widely used in industry and manufacturing due to their unique chemical properties; properties that make them heat-resistant, able to repel water, and close to indestructible. PFAS compounds have been used in many applications such as non-stick cookware, stain-repellent clothes, food contact materials, detergents, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams.

The unfortunate consequence of PFAS

For many years, PFAS were thought to be inert and nontoxic and were extensively used with little thought for environmental disposal or ecological impact. It was not until early this century that the extent of PFAS global contamination was first realised. There are over 4000 PFAS compounds thought to have been manufactured and are now potentially in the environment globally.

The research on PFAS compounds has identified them as being persistent and bio accumulative, and their widespread use has led to them being almost ubiquitous in the environment. Because PFAS do not break down, they enter the environment through production or waste streams. In South Africa, the presence of PFAS has been detected in some water sources, including rivers and dams.

“PFAS are a new style of pollutants that don’t follow the ‘rules’ of traditional organic pollutants. This is why regulators and scientists, unfortunately, failed to predict how these chemicals would move through the environment, and why we now have a serious problem of such widespread PFAS contamination of drinking water, agricultural land, and the domestic environment.”

– Bradley Clarke, senior lecturer in Analytical Chemistry and Environmental Science, at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and an Agilent collaborator.


PFAS exposure and human health

People can be exposed to low levels of PFAS compounds through consumer products that contain PFAS, for example, carpets, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging materials, and non-stick cookware. Drinking water can also be a source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies, such as an industrial facility where PFAS were produced, or used to manufacture other products, or an oil refinery, airfield or other location at which PFAS may have been used for firefighting.

Download our eBook Guide to Targeted Quantification and Screening of PFAS Compounds in Environmental Matrices >

Helping scientists learn more about PFAS

PFAS contamination is a complex issue. While knowledge about PFAS compounds and their potential health effects has grown, many questions remain unanswered. It’s also a global issue and collaborative research allows countries to share knowledge, best practices, and effective solutions.

Watch our webinar on Strategies to Optimise Performance of PFAS Analysis >

Committed to helping scientists and regulators around the world solve these water issues to provide safe and sustainable water sources for everyone, Agilent has recently developed a protocol for the analysis of PFASs in drinking water using the Agilent Ultivo triple quadrupole LC/MS. Working with leading researchers around the world, Agilent has also developed a method for extracting PFASs in drinking water using Agilent Offline Solid Phase Extraction and an Agilent LC/MS/MS system with a PFAS-free 1290 Infinity II LC System.

Agilent Ultivo LC/MSMS


Agilent 1290 Infinity II 2D-LC System


Providing scientists with measurement and identification technology solutions to accurately analyze PFAS chemicals in water is a critical first step for estimating human exposure and potential risk. Robust analytical techniques that can provide unbiased quantitative and qualitative data on these PFAS pollutants at trace levels are necessary for further understanding their environmental fate, ecological impacts, and impacts on public health. These analytical techniques and the fundamental data they generate will allow scientists and regulators to make informed assessments of PFAS use in modern society.

Watch our webinar on The PFAS Lab of the Future >

Although PFAS research on the African continent is not extensive as yet, the growing awareness and need to understand these chemicals for policy and regulation is necessary. As an analytical instrument supplier and solutions provider for laboratories, Chemetrix is committed to helping combat the “Forever Chemical” challenge.

Parts of this article have been adapted from the original published by Agilent.

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