Poly and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFAS are a large group of synthetic organofluorine chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s and are widely used across a range of industries because of their waterproofing, grease proofing, stain repellent and fire retardant properties.

Poly and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

What are PFAS and why should we be worried?

PFAS are part of a class of about 9,000 fluorinated compounds. Due to their structure and unique chemical properties, PFAS are widely used as they provide a non-stick barrier to fat and water. The compounds are widely used in takeaway food packaging, microwavable bags, kitchen utensils, and cookware. Due to their chemistry (strong carbon-fluorine bond) PFAS are very stable compounds and are classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). They are also recognised as long range transboundary air pollutants. PFAS have been widely detected in the environment (due to their use as firefighting foams and escape from manufacture sites) and now in the food chain and in human blood. As PFAS bioaccumulate through the food chain it is generally foods of animal origin such as fish and meat that are found to contain the highest levels of these compounds. However, the soil that the crops are grown in, the water supplies used on the crops and potential nearby industries/production plants using PFAS products can influence PFAS contamination levels found in crops.

Human exposure to PFAS from the environment and through dietary sources is in the global media spotlight with various consumer and advocacy groups lobbying government bodies to introduce regulations to safeguard the population.

What’s the regulation around PFAS?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reassessed the health risks posed by PFAS in food in September 2020 and determined a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) of 4.4 nanograms (ng) per kilogram (kg) of bodyweight per week. The TWI applies for the first time to the sum of four PFASs; perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS). This was driven by epidemiological studies in which correlations between PFAS concentrations in the blood and a reduced concentration of vaccine antibodies and increases in serum cholesterol levels were observed in children and vulnerable populations. Biomonitoring efforts have revealed that several PFAS are present in the blood of European citizens. Whilst the levels of the first generation PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) are declining the levels of newer generation PFAS (termed “Gen X” compounds) are on the increase.

At the European level, Regulatory measures are in progress with maximum levels for certain PFAS substances in food expected to be defined. To date, most of the analytical efforts have been focused on PFAS contamination in the environment, stringent drinking water monitoring efforts, wastewater, and remediation. However, the estimation of PFAS exposure from food sources is rapidly increasing in food safety evaluation. Current initiatives in this area are in food contact materials, foods in regions directly impacted from environmental contamination, and certain food types that have a general increased potential of PFAS contamination. EFSA also highlighted the need for more sensitive analytical methods for PFASs in food in its opinion of 2020.

What are we doing?

Fera Science Ltd. in its capacity as National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for halogenated POPs has a validated method for the analysis of the EFSA priority PFAS in various food commodities. Work is underway to expand the method scope to include up to 40 PFAS representing the range of homologues and degradation products in key foods, milk, dairy products, eggs, liver, kidney, muscle tissue, honey, fruits, and vegetables.  Working in collaboration with policy makers, we are stressing the need for increased competence in PFAS analysis to support risk assessment studies and compliance monitoring for export into the EU (as a Third country) and due diligence testing for domestic supply to achieve the emerging stringent regulatory limits required to safeguard the consumer.

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The Thomson Suite: State-of-the-Art Mass Spectrometry at Fera

The equipment within the facility consists of very sensitive and selective instruments such as LC-MS/MS, IC-MS/MS and GC-MS/MS which are used for the determination of compounds including pesticides, veterinary medicines, natural toxins, processing contaminants, environmental contaminants and packaging migrants, from a wide range of sample types including food, feed, beverages, packaging materials and environmental matrices such as water and soil.

PFAS quantitative analysis is primarily conducted using Liquid Chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) with ESI in negative polarity mode. Isotope dilution mass spectrometry using (using 13C labelled analogues) is the “gold standard” method for quantitation of PFASs in food and environmental samples.

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