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PFOA pollutes air, drinking water, & food

April 3, 2003

PFCs: Global Contaminants: PFOA pollutes air, drinking water, & food

April 2003

In two pilot studies scientists found PFOA in tap water, outdoor air, green beans, apples, bread, and ground beef, from Toronto to Florida.

Table. PFOA and its precursors* have been found as contaminants in every city tested.


Tap Water



Rivers, Lakes

Wastewater Treatment Plant Discharge

Landfill Leachate

Decatur, Alabama

not detected

(Kroger, apple)


(River Walk Marina, Wheeler Lake)



Cleveland, Tennessee

not detected

(Save-a-Lot, bread) (a)


(Hiwassee River)



Mobile, Alabama

not detected

(Delchamps II, greenbeans)


(Mobile River)


not detected

Columbus, Georgia

(Holiday Inn Columbus, Municipal Marina, Fire Station #1)

not detected


(Municiple Marina, Chattahoochee River)



Pensacola Florida

not detected

(Food World, apple; Food World II, bread)


not detected


not detected

Port St. Lucie, Florida

not detected

(Albertson's, ground beef)


(St. Lucie River)



Little Hocking, Ohio

(Production Wells)






Toronto, Ontario







Long Point, Ontario







* The C10 Telomer alcohol (CF3(CF2)7CH2CH2OH) was monitored in air samples; this compound degrades to PFOA.
A blank table cell indicated that the media was not tested.
(a) Centre Analytical Laboratories, Inc. reports that the contamination in bread in Cleveland, Tennessee is suspect.

References: Multi-city environmental study: [Extract | Full Document]; Toronto air study: [Extract]; Multi-city food study: [Extract | Full Document];

Even though PFOA-based products have been sold to consumers for fifty years, neither EPA nor the manufacturers knows the relative importance of the many possible sources of PFOA in human blood. Current PFOA body burdens might come primarily from consumer products, but could also stem from exposures to PFOA contamination in the environment. Two studies conducted since 1999 shows that environmental exposures could be significant: PFOA or PFOA precursors have been found as contaminants in tap water, food, or air in every city tested.

In 1999 3M began a study to quantify the sources that lead to PFCs' "bioaccumulation in the human food chain"[1], in order to find the potential importance of environmental contamination as a source of PFOA in human blood. In six cities on the east coast, 3M tested food from supermarkets, rivers and lakes, sediment, fish, drinking water sources, tap water, influent and treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants, sludge, and municipal landfill leachate.

3M found PFCs in every city. The first test results were finalized just eight days after 3M's Scotchgard phaseout announcement (in May 2000). The company submitted data showing PFC contamination in rivers and lakes, some used as drinking water supplies. PFOA or other PFCs were found in all four states tested: Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. Four months later 3M reported test results showing PFCs in tap water in two of six cities tested (Columbus, Georgia and Decatur, Alabama). 3M found PFOA in the Mobile River, and in tap water in Columbus, Georgia.

As with the human blood studies, and then the wildlife studies, 3M again found PFCs where they were not expected. 3M designed the study to include three cities where PFCs chemicals were heavily used (manufacturing or supply chain cities) and three cities with no large-scale commercial use. Test results showed PFC contamination in water from all six cities. [2]

Tests of food purchased at supermarkets in six cities further confirmed widespread environmental contamination. In analyses of beef, pork, chicken, hot dogs, catfish, eggs, milk, bread, green beans, and apples purchased from grocery stores in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, 3M found PFOA in five percent of the samples tested. Of the foods tested, beef, green beans, apples, and bread were all found to be contaminated with PFOA.

In air samples University of Ontario scientists found PFOA or chemicals that break down into PFOA in air - in downtown Toronto, and in rural Long Point, Ontario. 3M's test results from wastewater treatment plants and landfill leachate indicate that people are discarding or excreting significant quantities of PFOA. Scientists found PFOA in every sample in every city tested in the treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants, contamination that likely stems from human excretion or consumer products rinsed down sinks and drains - another potential source of diffuse PFOA contamination in the environment. They found PFOA in landfill leachate from two of six cities tested.

Tap Water Contamination from DuPont's Plants


"Over the years, DuPont has worked hard to reduce its chemical footprint."

—Dupont, in reference to C-8 water levels in Little Hocking, OH [5]

DuPont finds pervasive contamination around its manufacturing facilities. In internal studies of tap water in 1984 in the vicinity of their Washington Works Teflon Plant in West Virginia, DuPont detected PFOA at concentrations of 1.5 ppb in a store tap in LuBeck, West Virginia, at concentrations of 1.0 and 1.2 ppb in a store tap in Washington, WV, and at concentrations of 0.8 and 0.6 ppb in Little Hocking, West Virginia. [Extract] Many of these concentrations are higher than those detected in landfill leachate in Port St. Lucie, Florida. DuPont told neither the residents nor state regulators about the testing or the results.

When forced by the state to conduct a more thorough investigation of Little Hocking's water in 2002, the company found that levels of PFOA in the town's production wells ranged from 0.495 to 8.58 ppb. [6] These concentrations are significantly higher than DuPont's long-standing internal safety standard of 1 ppb, although DuPont has recently argued for a much higher safety standard through the auspices of a drinking water assessment team led by West Virginia regulators but which includes DuPont employees and chemistry industry consultants.

How do these chemicals get into our food,
water, and landfill leachate?


Environmental Releases. Because it is unregulated, PFOA is legally released as air and water pollution from DuPont and 3M plants in West Virginia, North Carolina, Minnesota and Alabama; and from carpet, clothing, and paper industries in North Georgia, North Carolina, and other places.

DuPont estimated (note 1) that two of its plants, its Washington Works plant in West Virginia and its Chambers Works facility in New Jersey, released a combined total of 20 tons of PFOA into the air, 3300 tons into the water and three tons into landfills in 1999. 3M estimates lower releases for its facilities: in 1997 its Cottage Grove Minneapolis production plant released 3 tons into the air, while in 1999, two PFC plants were released about 2300 tons of PFOA into the water. [7]

The immediate result of these environmental releases can be seen in the areas surrounding PFC plants. In the surface water immediately downstream of 3M's Decatur plant, concentrations of PFOA were found to be 1900 ppb and 1024 ppb. [8] In West Virginia, production wells that used to supply drinking water to DuPont's Washington Works plant have been measured to have concentrations as high as [1.9 ppb] of PFOA, and wells at landfill and digestion pond areas have reached levels as high as 13,600 ppb. [9]

Fluorotelomers Alcohols. Fluorotelomer alcohols may turn out to be the dominant source of PFOA in human blood. Through laboratory studies industry scientists have known since 1981 that fluorotelomer alcohols break down in the environment and in the body to PFOA and PFOA-like compounds. (note 2) [10, 11] [Breakdown Study | Extract | Full Document] The fluorotelomer alcohols are found in such seemingly innocuous products as hair shampoo and conditioner, paper products prepared for direct contact with food, rug cleaners, and lubricants for bicycles, garden tools and zippers.

Although large sections of the document have been removed, under claims of "Confidential Business Information," a recent DuPont Telomer Presentation in EPA's files clearly expressed DuPont's concern over the fluorotelomers:

"We are committed to and staying in the business.
We are confident that our products are safe for their intended uses."

— Dupont Product Stewardship Update, 17 DEC 2001.[12] [Excerpt]



[1] 3M. 1999. Quality Assurance Project Plan for Empirical Human Exposure Assessment Multi-City Sampling Task. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-0952.

[2] 3M. 2001. Executive Summary: Environmental monitoring - multi-city study water, sludge, sediment, POTW effluent and landfill leachate samples. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1030a111.

[3] US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) (2001). Analysis of PFOS, FOSA, and PFOA from various food matrices using HPLC electrospray/mass spectrometry, 3M study conducted by Centre Analytical Laboratories, Inc.

[4] Martin, JW., Muir, DC., Moody, CA., Ellis, DA., Kwan, WC., Solomon, KR and Mabury, SA. 2002. Collection of airborne fluorinated organics and analysis by gas chromatography/chemical ionization mass spectrometry. Anal Chem 74(3): 584-90.

[5] DuPont. 2002. c8 Inform. available online at

[6] Association, LHW. 2002. Copies of Press Releases from Little Hocking Water Association summarizing results of C-8 levels in Ohio community water supplies (sampling rounds 1-7). U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1157.

[7] US EPA (2002). Draft hazard assessment of PFOA and its salts February 20, 2002.

[8] 3M. 2001. Selected Fluorochemicals in the Decatur, Alabama Area. US Environmental Protection Agency Administrative Record Number AR226-1030a161.

[9] Taft. 2002. Compilation of Historical C-8 Data DuPont Washington Works Main Plant and Landfills. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1194.

[10] Services, PA. 2002. Biodegradation Study Report: Biodegradation Screen Study for Biodegradation Screen Study for Telomer Type Alcohols,. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1149.

[11] Hagen, DF., Belisle, J., Johnson, JD and Venkateswarlu, P. 1981. Characterization of fluorinated metabolites by a gas chromatographic-helium microwave plasma detector--the biotransformation of 1H, 1H, 2H, 2H-perfluorodecanol to perfluorooctanoate. Anal Biochem 118(2): 336-43.

[12] DuPont. 2001. DuPont Telomer Presentation. U.S. EPA Administrative Record AR226-1042.


(note 1) EPCRA Section 313 requires manufacturers to report environmental releases of only about 650 different chemicals, and PFOA is not one of them. These chemicals can be found on the TRI (Toxics Release Inventory List).

(note 2) A subsequent study sponsored by 3M reported that fluorotelomers of the general formula CF3(CF2)nCH2CH2OH will biodegrade to perfluorinated acid salts of the general formula CF3(CF2)nCO2- and CF(CF2)(n-1)CO2-.