The dangers of PFAS exposure

PFAS, an umbrella term for a family of over 12,000 chemicals, stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as "forever chemicals."

PFAS, an umbrella term for a family of over 12,000 chemicals, stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are commonly known as “forever chemicals,” as they don’t break down easily over time and, therefore, accumulate in the environment. These are human-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products for over 80 years, including in¹:

  • adhesives
  • clothing and furniture
  • firefighting foams
  • food packaging
  • industry lubricants
  • insulation of electrical wires
  • makeup and skincare products
  • medical technologies, devices and pharmaceuticals
  • pipe linings
  • semiconductors and batteries
  • waterproof, nonstick products such as cooking ware

In addition to accumulation in the environment, PFAS can build up over time in the bodies of people and animals. In fact, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) estimates that most people in the U.S. have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood. The most common routes of exposure for PFAS are ingestion and inhalation². Skin contact can partially absorb PFAS as well². PFAS have water- and oil-repelling properties. Therefore, PFAS can move through soils and contaminate drinking water as well as enter food chains through plants and animals³. Higher levels may be found in water supplies near places that make, dispose of, or use PFAS, including public water systems, drinking water wells, rivers, lakes and ponds⁴.

Although research on the health effects of PFAS is ongoing, here is what we do know. PFAS exposure has been linked to⁵:

  • increased risk of some cancers
  • increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity
  • thyroid problems
  • internal organ damage
  • lowered immune system
  • child development effects
  • decreased fertility

According to the ATSDR, “the risk of health effects from PFAS depends on exposure factors (e.g., dose, frequency, route and duration), individual factors (e.g., sensitivity to exposure and chronic disease burden), and other determinants of health (e.g., access to safe water and quality healthcare, etc.).” As research is growing, it has become apparent that occupation is also a risk factor for PFAS exposure.

Our understanding of occupational exposure to PFAS is limited but growing. Although PFAS have been used since the 1940s, research on the health effects of PFAS only gained interest within the last decade. Recent research has measured PFAS in specific groups, including in workers in PFAS manufacturing facilities. According to the ATSDR, “people whose work involves the making or processing of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials are more likely to be exposed than the general population.” In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that “workers might be exposed to PFAS in ways that are different than the general public, such as by touching concentrated products or breathing PFAS in the air at their workplace.” While exposure to PFAS for certain worker groups has been studied in detail, exposure information for other groups is limited. Jobs with a known increased risk of exposure to PFAS include⁶:

  • fluorochemical manufacturing
  • textiles manufacturing
  • electroplating
  • painting
  • carpet installation and treatment
  • serving as a military or civilian firefighter
  • jobs that require prolonged work with ski wax
  • food workers
  • hospitality workers

There is currently no federal regulation on the use of PFAS. Therefore, workers are not legally protected from PFAS exposure. However, certain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards may apply to some PFAS chemicals used in manufacturing. In addition, the EPA is currently working on a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) to establish legally enforceable levels for six PFAS chemicals. The EPA also recently announced that manufacturers are now required to report on the presence of 1,462 PFAS chemicals in their processes and products, with the reporting going back 12 years. EPA is also beginning the necessary steps to propose classifying two PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) as “hazardous substances,” possibly through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). In addition, there are currently American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for only three PFAS chemicals.

You can’t avoid PFAS chemicals completely, but your employer can do things to minimize how often you come in contact with them. Currently, there is limited research and, therefore, limited recommendations on PFAS exposure control methods. However, swaps can be made so that exposure to PFAS is decreased. Employers should replace nonstick products that are chipped or cracked with stainless steel and/or iron cookware. Employers, especially in office settings, should avoid purchasing stain-resistant carpets and upholstery. In addition, if drinking water near the work site is contaminated above levels specified by the EPA and/or your state government, use an alternate water source for drinking, preparing food, cooking, etc. Contact your state environmental and health agencies for questions and/or recommendations.

The Tony Mazzocchi Center (TMC) will be including an elective on PFAS in the upcoming 2024 Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) Refresher revisions. We will continuously update this material as research on PFAS exposure expands. Please reach out if you would like more information about HAZWOPER training or the new PFAS training module: [email protected].

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS! Your employer is required to provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards and comply with standards, rules and regulations issued under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Workers have the right to report unsafe and hazardous conditions in the workplace. Remember to document unsafe or hazardous conditions that you see or report.



  1. (n.d.). Basic Information on PFAS. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved February 5, 2024, from
  2. (2024, January 18). PFAS Information for Clinicians. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved February 5, 2024, from
  3. (2022, May 2). Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) Factsheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 5, 2024, from
  4. Frysh, P., Gopal, A., & J. B. (2024, January 24). PFAS: What to Know. WebMD. Retrieved February 5, 2024, from
  5. Fenton, S. E., Ducatman, A., Boobis, A., DeWitt, J. C., Lau, C., Ng, C., Smith, J. S., & Roberts, S. M. (2021). Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Toxicity and Human Health Review: Current State of Knowledge and Strategies for Informing Future Research. Environmental toxicology and chemistry, 40(3), 606–630.
  6. (2022, September 15). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 5, 2024, from