April 3, 2003

PFCs: Global Contaminants: PFCs In Animals Worldwide

After five decades of widespread use in consumer products and industrial goods and processes, PFOA has dispersed around the globe, and now contaminates wildlife on three of four continents tested. Other PFCs are even more prevalent.


In 15 studies conducted since 1994 [1-15], scientists have found PFOA in birds, fish, land and marine mammals all over the world-in 16 of 77 species, in 6 of 12 countries and on 3 of the 4 continents where animals have been tested [Wildlife study | Marine animal study]. Further studies are certain to find more contamination.

Over recent decades PFOA has evolved from a research chemical to a staple in consumer product production to a pollutant of global scope. PFOA has been found in wildlife from Italy, the US, Japan, Russia, Belgium, and Canada, and in places as remote as the Sand Island Wildlife Refuge in Midway Atoll. Scientists have detected PFOA in egg yolks of the double crested cormorant from Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba Canada; in the blood of Russian Caspian seals; and in a short-snouted spinner dolphin off the coast of Florida (Table 1).

Table 1. PFOA in wildlife.

Year samples were collected



Number of animals in which PFOA was found

Species (organ)

Range of PFOA levels found (ppb)

1991 to 2000 [6]


Gulf of Mexico

1 of 3

Short-snouted spinner dolphin (liver)

<7.5 - 20

1995 [5]


Thunder Bay, Sulphur Island, Michigan, Lake Huron

2 of 3

ring-billed gull (yolk)

<180 - 197

1991 [5]


St. Martin, Michigan, Lake Michigan

1 of 2

Double-crested cormorants (whole blood)

<29.9- 48.9

1991 to 2000 [6]


California Coast

1 of 6

California Sea Lion (liver)

<35.9 - 41

1997 to 1999 [6]



1 of 14

Polar Bear (liver)

<8.03 - 12.9

1990 to 1998 [5]

Midway Atoll (US Possession)

Sand Island wildlife refuge, Midway Atoll

1 of 3

Laysan albatross (liver)

<180 - 182

1997 [5]


Cabras Lagoon, Sardinia

12 of 12

Common cormorant (liver)

(average 94.6)

1995 [5]


Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba

2 of 4

Double-crested cormorants

<180 - 245

1991 to 2000 [6]


Caspian Sea

2 of 8

Caspian Seal (whole blood)

<6 - 23

circa 2000 [7]


Scheldtz Estuary

8 of 26

Various fish species (muscle)

< 7.5 - 46



Baltic Sea

1 of 81

Ringed Seal (liver)

<18.8 - 39.5

1996 to 1998 [6]


Baltic Sea

20 of 28

Ringed Seal (whole blood)

<1.25 - 9

1996 to 1998 [6]


Baltic Sea

1 of 26

Gray Seal (whole blood)

<4.98 - 7

1991 to 2000 [6]


Mediterranean Sea

2 of 4

Bottlenose Dolphin (whole blood)

<2.5 - 4
(average 2.2)

1998 [12]


Gyotoku bird observatory, Chiba, Tokyo


Black-headed gull (liver)


1999 [12]


Atsugi, Kanagawa


Black-eared kite (liver)




Not reported

2 of 7

Sea Eagle
(whole blood)

<3.35 - 6.2

PFCs as global contaminants. Although PFOA widely contaminates wildlife, other PFCs are even more prevalent. Because PFOA and other PFCs appear to be toxic by common mechanisms, and to target common organs and systems in animals, the combined influence of multiple PFCs drives health risks to wildlife.

Like DDT, PCBs and dieldrin in the 1970s, PFOS, PFOA and other perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds have been distributed across the globe. They have been found in animals living in the most pristine environments in the most remote locations. Despite limited testing for the presence of PFCs in the environment, they have been detected in 76 of 98 species tested, in 14 countries and 3 out of the 4 continents on which specimens were collected. PFOS, used by 3M in Scotchgard products until 2000, is the most widely detected:

"PFOS was detected in all of the wildlife species analyzed." -Giesy and coworkers on the results of their study of 175 liver and blood samples of Marine Mammals, Fish, and Birds from the Baltic Coasts and the Mediterranean Sea.[10]

3M's evidence of global contamination in the 1980s. Through studies conducted in the late 1980s, 3M learned that terminal breakdown products of many PFCs - PFOA and PFOS, for example - will not break down in the environment. These laboratory studies covered all the basic mechanisms by which chemicals are known to break down - in sunlight or through reactive chemicals in the air (photolysis), by bacterial action (biodegradation), and through chemical reaction with water (hydrolysis). 3M found that terminal PFCs are completely resistant to all of these processes.[16-20]

Through other studies that define parameters like vapor pressure and Henry's constant, 3M learned that some PFCs have the potential to travel long distances through the atmosphere. These studies, combined with the degradation data, pointed to the likelihood that PFCs have been migrating for decades to remote areas far from manufacturing facilities and urban centers.

Even though all the basic data were in place to indicate a global problem, not until the late 1990s did 3M test the theory of global contamination. In 1997 their laboratory identified PFOS contamination in blood bank supplies that were being used as control samples against contaminated worker blood. Further blood studies that pointed to the possibility of widespread contamination of human blood. During these studies 3M staff acquired and tested 60 bird livers from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin as a first step in defining the scope of wildlife contamination.

3M's definitive wildlife studies in the late 1990s. 3M's lab found PFCs in more than three-quarters of 60 bird livers samples collected from across the continental US [5]. The lab reported PFCs in every liver sample from white pelican, double crested cormorant, and great blue heron and in all but one brown pelican sample - a total of 44 detections in 45 bird liver samples from California, Louisiana, Florida, and Nevada. The chemicals the scientists detected included the Scotchgard chemical PFOS, a PFOS precursor called PFOSA, and PFHS, the 6-carbon sister chemical of PFOS.

"It's evrywhere" - Teflon World website

In contrast, the lab found PFCs in 20 percent (3) of 15 sandhill crane livers analyzed, in samples from Nebraska, Arizona, and New Mexico, and in just one of those samples were PFCs at levels high enough to quantify: the liver of a Nebraska crane [5]. The different PFC profiles among bird species correlate with diet. The study showed that birds subsisting on fish are more likely to be contaminated with PFCs, indicating that, like PCBs and DDT, these chemicals concentrate in fish with the potential to build up in the food chain.

Over a four-day period beginning March 15 1999, 3M's environmental laboratory conducted additional tests of wildlife tissue designed to find the outer bounds of PFC contamination globally. 3M scientists tested for PFOS and related PFCs in eaglet blood collected from remote areas of the U.S. If this blood were found to be free of PFCs, scientists could work backwards to determine how far the contamination had spread from urban areas where Scotchgard and other PFC products are used.

3M found PFCs in all five eaglets tested [14]. Nestling eaglets who had never flown were contaminated with PFOS at levels ranging from 30 to 77 parts per billion in the blood. One likely source of exposure was the fish from their mothers - from the waters around Devil's Lake, Slate River Falls, Pickerel Channel, and Caulkins Creek in the Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas, and from Steve's Island in Minnesota's remote Voyageurs National Park. Subsequent tests have shown that even the yolks of wild bird eggs are contaminated with PFCs [5]. These tests, combined with 3M's concurrent human blood testing, gave final confirmation that PFCs contaminate people and wildlife on a global level.

In early 2000 scientists from Michigan State University completed testing 247 liver, kidney, and blood samples from 15 species of marine mammals - including polar bears, sea lions, seals, and whales collected from the Arctic, Sable Island in Canada, Alaskan coastal waters, Florida, and California. PFOA was found in 17 percent of the samples tested, but the findings for PFOS pointed to a nearly complete pervasiveness of PFC contamination. The authors of the new marine mammal study concluded: "The occurrence of PFOS in marine mammals from the Arctic waters suggests widespread global distribution of PFOS including remote locations."[9].

All the wildlife studies conducted to date indicate that of the PFCs tested, 3M's Scotchgard chemical PFOS has achieved the greatest distribution and the highest concentrations in wildlife. Scientists have detected PFOS in wildlife at concentrations above those found in plant workers. In four Caspian tern eggs in Michigan lab analyses showed an average whole egg concentration of 2605 ppb[5], and tests of nine minks in South Carolina showed an average liver concentration of 2085 ppb[4]. These levels are higher than whole blood concentrations of five cell operators in 3M's PFC manufacturing plant in Decatur, Alabama, who averaged 1970 ppb[21].

PFOS has been detected in the most protected species and in the most pristine environments on earth. It has been detected in Alaskan polar bears (in 17 of 17 tested polar bears, at an average liver concentration of 350 ppb)[10], Midwestern bald eagle nestlings younger than 70 days old (in 33 nestlings all under 70 days old, with an average blood plasma concentration of 330 ppb)[5], a great egret from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Sumner, Missouri (liver concentration of 171 ppb)[5], bottlenose dolphins from the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Riccione, Italy (detected in 4 of 4 bottlenose dolphins, with an average blood concentration of 143 ppb)[7], and Laysan albatrosses from Sand Island, a wild life refuge in Midway Atoll (detected in 6 of 6 albatrosses, average blood concentration of 16 ppb)[5].

PFOSA, a chemical precursor of PFOS, is detected at significant levels in species across the globe. Off of the Italian coast, PFOSA (also known as FOSA) has been detected in a Delphinus Whale (liver concentration was 878 ppb)[7] , and in Swordfish (detected in 7 of 7 swordfish, average blood concentration was 7 ppb)[7].



[1] Giesy, JP and Kannan, K. 2001. Global distribution of perfluorooctane sulfonate in wildlife. Environ Sci Technol 35(7): 1339-42.

[2] Giesy, JP and Kannan, K. 2001. 3M Company submitted report: Accumulation of perfluorooctanesulfonate and related fluorochemicals in fish tissues. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a.

[3] Giesy, JP and Kannan, K. 2002. Perfluorochemical surfactants in the environment. Environ Sci Technol 36(7): 146A-152A.

[4] Giesy JP, KK. 2001. Accumulation of Perfluorooctanesulfonate and related Fluorochemicals in Mink and River Otters. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a157.

[5] Giesy JP, KK. 2001. Perfluorooctanesulfonate and Related Fluorochemicals in Fish-Eating Water Birds, AR226-1030a159. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a159.

[6] Giesy JP, KK. 2001. Accumulation of Perfluorooctanesulfonate and related Fluorochemicals in Marine Mammals. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a160.

[7] Giesy JP, KK. 2001. Accumulation of Perfluorooctanesulfonate and Related Fluorochemicals in Fish Tissues. US Environmental Protection Agency Administrative Record Number AR226-1030a156.

[8] Kannan, K., Franson, JC., Bowerman, WW., Hansen, KJ., Jones, PD and Giesy, JP. 2001. Perfluorooctane sulfonate in fish-eating water birds including bald eagles and albatrosses. Environ Sci Technol 35(15): 3065-70.

[9] Kannan, K., Koistinen, J., Beckmen, K., Evans, T., Gorzelany, JF., Hansen, KJ., Jones, PD., Helle, E., Nyman, M and Giesy, JP. 2001. Accumulation of perfluorooctane sulfonate in marine mammals. Environ Sci Technol 35(8): 1593-8.

[10] Kannan, K., Corsolini, S., Falandysz, J., Oehme, G., Focardi, S and Giesy, JP. 2002. Perfluorooctanesulfonate and related fluorinated hydrocarbons in marine mammals, fishes, and birds from coasts of the Baltic and the Mediterranean Seas. Environ Sci Technol 36(15): 3210-6.

[11] Kannan, K., Newsted, J., Halbrook, RS and Giesy, JP. 2002. Perfluorooctanesulfonate and related fluorinated hydrocarbons in mink and river otters from the United States. Environ Sci Technol 36(12): 2566-71.

[12] Kannan, K., Choi, JW., Iseki, N., Senthilkumar, K., Kim, DH and Giesy, JP. 2002. Concentrations of perfluorinated acids in livers of birds from Japan and Korea. Chemosphere 49(3): 225-31.

[13] Kannan, K., Hansen, KJ., Wade, TL and Giesy, JP. 2002. Perfluorooctane sulfonate in oysters, Crassostrea virginica, from the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, USA. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 42(3): 313-8.

[14] 3M. 1998. Screening of PFOS levels in eagles and albatross. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-0080.

[15] 3M Laboratory report of fluorochemicals in wild bird livers, Report prepared for 3M, St. Paul, MN by 3M Environmental Laboratory Fluorine Analytical Chemistry Team (FACT). Study No. FACT-TOX-010.

[16] 3M. 2001. Screening Studies in the Aqueous Photolytic Degradation of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030 Photolysis E00-2192.

[17] 3M. 2001. Hydrolysis Reactions of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a090.

[18] 3M. 2000. Biodegradation study of PFOS. US Environmental Protection Agency Administrative Record Number AR226-0057.

[19] Company, M. 1976. Biodegradation Studies of Fluorocarbons. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-0356.

[20] 3M. 1978. The 18-Day Aerobic Biodegradation Study of Perfluorooctanesulfonyl-Based Chemistries. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a.

[21] Olsen GW, LP, Simpson CA, Burris JM, Burlew MM, Lundberg JK, Mandel JH. 2001. Descriptive Summary of Serum Fluorochemical Levels among Employee Participants of the Year 2000 Decatur Fluorochemical Medical Surveillance Program. Final Report Epidemiology, 220-3W-05. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a120a.