PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are highly persistent pollutants that are ubiquitous in the environment. They include millions of different molecules. Monitoring them is a challenge for analytical laboratories.
29 May 2024
Treatability tests on PFASs (perfluoroalkylated and polyfluoroalkylated).

Treatability tests on PFASs (perfluoroalkylated and polyfluoroalkylated).

© BRGM – D. Depoorter

Pollution with PFAS (some of which are considered to be carcinogenic) is now a real health and environmental issue. At the beginning of April, the French National Assembly adopted a bill designed to improve protection against these substances. The Senate still has to examine this text on 30 May.

Used in numerous industrial processes and manufactured products to meet a wide range of needs, these molecules are present everywhere in the environment: in soils, sediments, air, surface water and groundwater and even in rainwater. Land and aquatic fauna, flora and the human population are also affected.

Once dispersed in the environment, the behaviour of these molecules varies according to their chemical composition. The less mobile molecules accumulate in the soil and sediments, forming secondary stocks of PFAS that are gradually released into the environment over the medium to long term. The most mobile molecules rapidly infiltrate groundwater or run off into the surface water. They can migrate over long distances and contaminate all ecosystems, even the most remote.

The challenge of monitoring PFAS

To find solutions to the problem of PFAS, the first step is to monitor their presence in the environment. This is not just a matter of monitoring a handful of known compounds, but potentially up to several million different molecules, produced by industry but also resulting from the degradation of these compounds in the environment, which can lead to the formation of new PFASs.

The introduction of regulations on PFAS means that both the bodies responsible for monitoring them and the manufacturers must be able to list the compounds and carry out the necessary analyses. Although analytical methods for PFAS are constantly being developed, we are currently a long way from being able to analyse them all. To date, it is estimated that only around a hundred molecules can be analysed, and not in all laboratories.

Research is being carried out using numerical approaches to predict the physical, chemical and toxicological properties of PFAS, such as under the PROMISCES project coordinated by BRGM.