The precautionary principle and chemicals management: The example of perfluoroalkyl acids in groundwater

Environ Int. 2016 Sep;94:331-340. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2016.04.044. Epub 2016 Jun 20.


Already in the late 1990s microgram-per-liter levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were measured in water samples from areas where fire-fighting foams were used or spilled. Despite these early warnings, the problems of groundwater, and thus drinking water, contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) including PFOS are only beginning to be addressed. It is clear that this PFAS contamination is poorly reversible and that the societal costs of clean-up will be high. This inability to reverse exposure in a reasonable timeframe is a major motivation for application of the precautionary principle in chemicals management. We conclude that exposure can be poorly reversible; 1) due to slow elimination kinetics in organisms, or 2) due to poorly reversible environmental contamination that leads to continuous exposure. In the second case, which is relevant for contaminated groundwater, the reversibility of exposure is not related to the magnitude of a chemical's bioaccumulation potential. We argue therefore that all PFASs entering groundwater, irrespective of their perfluoroalkyl chain length and bioaccumulation potential, will result in poorly reversible exposures and risks as well as further clean-up costs for society. To protect groundwater resources for future generations, society should consider a precautionary approach to chemicals management and prevent the use and release of highly persistent and mobile chemicals such as PFASs.

Keywords: Chemicals management; Drinking water; PFASs; Precautionary principle.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alkanesulfonic Acids*
  • Drinking Water
  • Environmental Exposure / prevention & control*
  • Fluorocarbons*
  • Groundwater
  • Humans
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical*
  • Water Pollution / prevention & control*


  • Alkanesulfonic Acids
  • Drinking Water
  • Fluorocarbons
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical