PFAS in the Workplace

Yesterday we discussed a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiative to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Today we will look at ways to control PFAS exposure in the workplace.

Laboratory safety, fume hood

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Although most of the discussion concerning PFAS revolves around environmental issues, people who work at PFAS production facilities or facilities that manufacture goods made with PFAS may be exposed in certain occupational settings or through contaminated air.

A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study showed a link between exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and prostate cancer among men who worked at a PFOA production plant. The risk increased with length of employment. A positive association was seen as well between age at first employment and prostate cancer mortality. Another NIOSH study pointed to accumulating data that suggest associations between PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) exposures and adverse effects on human health, including reproductive risks.

Note: PFASs, sometimes known as PFCs, are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1950s. PFOA and PFOS are two of the most common PFASs.

According to a 2009 study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), levels of PFCs in the blood of people who work where PFCs are manufactured or used are much higher than people from the same area that do not work where PFCs are manufactured or used.

Exposure in the Workplace

The most effective way to prevent exposure to PFOA is to prevent the dispersion of dust. Workers can be exposed to PFOA through inhalation, skin, eyes and ingestion.

Inhalation can be prevented by local exhaust systems and the use of respirators. Symptoms of PFOA inhalation include sore throat and coughing. Workers who inhale PFOA should get fresh air right away and be referred for medical attention.

Dermal exposure to PFOA can be prevented by wearing protective gloves. Symptoms include redness and pain. Any contaminated clothes should be removed immediately, and exposed skin should be rinsed and then washed with water and soap.

Eye exposure to PFOA can be prevented with safety goggles or eye protection in combination with breathing protection. Symptoms include redness, pain, and blurred vision. Workers who get PFOA in their eyes should first rinse their eyes with plenty of water for several minutes (remove contact lenses if easily possible), then get medical attention.

In order to avoid ingesting PFOA, do not eat, drink, or smoke while working around it. Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Workers who ingest PFOA should rinse their mouths, drink plenty of water, and get medical attention.

Storage and Cleanup

PFOA is a corrosive and should be stored separated from strong oxidants, strong bases, strong acids, strong reducing agents, food, and feedstuffs. It reacts with bases, oxidants, and reducing agents. In addition, PFOA attacks many metals forming flammable/explosive gas.

Workers who clean up a PFOA spill should wear a P2 filter respirator. Spilled PFOA should be swept into covered, nonmetallic containers; if appropriate, it should be moistened first to prevent dusting.

Health Effects

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified PFOA as possibly carcinogenic, and the EPA has concluded that both PFOA and PFOS are possibly carcinogenic to humans. Some studies have found increases in prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers in workers exposed to PFAS and people living near a PFOA facility.

Other possible health effects include:

  • Some studies have shown a link between total cholesterol and workers exposed to PFAS, and residents of communities with high levels of PFOA in the drinking water.
  • Significant associations have been found between PFOA and uric acid levels.
  • Studies have identified possible associations between ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension and higher exposure to PFAS.