Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are often described as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence. Despite rising concern over detrimental health effects and accumulation in the environment, PFAS are still used in various consumer products. This may change in the upcoming years, as a recent European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) restriction proposal calls for a gradual ban of over 10,000 PFAS compounds in Europe1.
Even if the full PFAS ban takes effect in the near future, the pervasive compounds will be found in the environment for a long time to come. PFAS testing of water, fish, and other environmental samples will therefore remain important. In addition, two new pieces of EU legislation that took effect at the beginning of 2023 increase the demand for PFAS screening of food and drinking water.
What are so-called forever chemicals?
PFAS, colloquially known as “forever chemicals” are man-made organic compounds that have been used in consumer products since the 1940s due to their usefulness in repelling water, dirt, and grease. Some common PFAS-containing products include non-stick frying pans, water-proof textiles, and paper and board food packaging with a grease-resistant coating.
Due to their chemical structure, PFAS degrade very slowly. This leads to their accumulation in nature as a result of industrial waste and the degradation of consumer products. Humans get exposed to PFAS mainly through food and drinking water, although exposure can also occur through the air and using products containing the chemicals.
What are the health effects of PFAS?
The impacts of PFAS on human health have been increasingly studied since the beginning of the 2000s. Exposure to elevated amounts has been linked to detrimental effects including increased risk of certain types of cancer, reduced response to vaccines, and increased cholesterol levels2. Research has been focused, however, on a few of the most well-known compounds (mostly PFOS and PFOA). This means that very little is known about the effects of the thousands of other chemicals within the group.
Current restrictions on the use of PFAS in the EU
The use of the most harmful PFAS compounds has been restricted both globally and within the EU for more than a decade. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants forbids the use of PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, and related compounds, apart from specific uses where they may not be effectively replaced3. In addition, several groups of PFAS compounds have been added to the REACH Regulation Candidate List4. If chemicals included in the Candidate List are used in products, the producer or importer is obliged to notify ECHA, as well as provide customers with sufficient information on the safe use of the product.
EU legislation on maximum PFAS concentrations in food and drinking water
At the beginning of 2023, two pieces of legislation came into force in the EU to limit human exposure to harmful amounts of PFAS. The concentrations of PFAS compounds in food are regulated by Commission Regulation (EU) 2022/2388, while Directive (EU) 2020/2184 places limits on the presence of PFAS in drinking water.
The limits on PFAS in selected food products are listed in Table 15. If higher concentrations are discovered in laboratory tests, the product has to be removed from the market.
Table 1: Maximum levels of PFAS per food category
Sum of the 4 PFAS, μg/kg
Anchovy, babel, bream, char, eel, pike-perch, perch, roach, smelt, and whitefish
Baltic herring, bonito, burbot, pike, plaice, sardine, seabass, wild salmon and trout, etc.*
Other species of fish & all fish intended for young children
Crustaceans and molluscs
Meat of bovines, pigs, and poultry
Meat of sheep
Offal of sheep, pigs, poultry, and bovine animals
Meat of game animals
Offal of game animals
* In addition to these, the category covers European sprat, flounder, grey mullet, horse mackerel, pilchard, sea catfish, sea lamprey, tench, vendace, silverly lightfish, and wolf fish.
The revised EU Drinking Water Directive’s requirements on PFAS will take effect in January 2024, when the European Commission is expected to establish the technical guidelines for testing. The maximum concentration of all PFAS compounds combined is going to be 0.5 μg per liter of water. Alternatively, member states can monitor the sum of 20 PFAS compounds, for which the maximum is 0.1 μg/l6.
PFAS prohibited in cosmetics
Several PFAS compounds are listed as prohibited substances in the consolidated version of the EU Cosmetics Regulation. If any of these substances are found, even in trace quantities, the manufacturer has to prove that this is technically unavoidable. Otherwise, the product may not be sold in the EU.
The prohibited substances include7:
Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), its sodium, and its ammonium salts
PFAS testing is most often performed using the LC-MS method, which combines liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. With LC-MS, it is possible to detect several PFAS compounds in water with a detection limit of 0.0002 µg/l. The method is, therefore, well-equipped for compliance testing by the limits set in EU legislation.
Measurlabs offers PFAS testing for food, water, and other environmental samples. A PFAS testing package for plastics is also available, and other sample types may be analyzed upon request. You can ask our experts for more information through the form below or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will get back to you within one business day.
1 ECHA’s draft proposal recommends a full ban on PFAS compounds with an application-dependent transition period from 18 months to 12 years. The proposal was submitted by Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The European Commission’s decision on the possible adoption of the proposal is expected in 2025.
2 The European Environment Agency provides a summary of current knowledge on the health effects of PFAS.
3 List of substances restricted by the Stockholm Convention
4 ECHA’s Candidate List of substances of very high concern
5 These limits are outlined in the Annex of Regulation (EU) 2022/2388.
6 The timetable for the establishment of PFAS testing guidelines is outlined in Article 13(7) of Directive (EU) 2020/2184. The planned maximum concentrations for PFAS Total and Sum of PFAS are listed in Part B of Annex I.
7 Prohibited substances are listed in Annex II of Regulation (EC) 1223/2009. PFOS is listed under reference number 1493, PFOA under 1561, and PFNA under 1636.