Application of the Key Characteristics of Carcinogens to Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Mar 4;17(5):1668. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17051668.


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) constitute a large class of environmentally persistent chemicals used in industrial and consumer products. Human exposure to PFAS is extensive, and PFAS contamination has been reported in drinking water and food supplies as well as in the serum of nearly all people. The most well-studied member of the PFAS class, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), induces tumors in animal bioassays and has been associated with elevated risk of cancer in human populations. GenX, one of the PFOA replacement chemicals, induces tumors in animal bioassays as well. Using the Key Characteristics of Carcinogens framework for cancer hazard identification, we considered the existing epidemiological, toxicological and mechanistic data for 26 different PFAS. We found strong evidence that multiple PFAS induce oxidative stress, are immunosuppressive, and modulate receptor-mediated effects. We also found suggestive evidence indicating that some PFAS can induce epigenetic alterations and influence cell proliferation. Experimental data indicate that PFAS are not genotoxic and generally do not undergo metabolic activation. Data are currently insufficient to assess whether any PFAS promote chronic inflammation, cellular immortalization or alter DNA repair. While more research is needed to address data gaps, evidence exists that several PFAS exhibit one or more of the key characteristics of carcinogens.

Keywords: PFAS; environmental carcinogen; immunotoxicity; key characteristics of carcinogens; oxidative stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogens* / chemistry
  • Construction Materials
  • Drinking Water*
  • Fluorocarbons* / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / chemistry


  • Carcinogens
  • Drinking Water
  • Fluorocarbons
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical