PFAS substances are carcinogenic, IARC confirms


The IARC, International Agency for Research on Cancer, has classified perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as carcinogenic to humans. These molecules can be found in pans and food packaging impervious to water and oil, as well as in numerous everyday products. They are defined as ‘forever chemicals’ because they remain in the environment, as demonstrated by health emergencies in numerous areas. (1)

The IARC assessment of PFAS

A working group of 30 scientists from 11 countries gathered at IARC in Lyon, France, and completed the assessment of the carcinogenicity of the two most well-known PFAS agents:

– perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) it has been classified as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1). Compared to 2014, when IARC had classified it as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ (Group 2B), it was discovered that ‘induces epigenetic alterations and is immunosuppressive. Additionally, there was “limited” evidence of cancer in humans regarding the renal cell carcinoma and testicular cancer, the researchers explain,

– perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) it was instead classified as ‘possible carcinogenic to humans’ (Group 2B). Also ‘induces epigenetic alterations and is immunosuppressive in exposed humans’, the researchers explain. But ‘Cancer evidence in humans was found to be “inadequate” for PFOS because, among the few studies available, positive results were observed only sporadically and inconsistently for some tumor sites (e.g., testicles, breast and thyroid)‘. (2)

These substances They accumulate in various tissues, including blood, liver and lungs. They are found in the placenta, cord blood and embryonic tissues and can be transferred to newborns through breast milk.

Where are

PFOA and PFOS They have been widely used in industrial applications and consumer products due to their hydrophobicity and lipophobicity, surfactant properties, and chemical stability.

The three macro areas where they can be found

– coating treatments resistant to stains, oil and water of materials and objects intended for contact with food (MOCA). Paper and cardboard, disposable containers and tableware, non-stick cooking bases (e.g. Teflon) and pots. Electrical cable coverings,

– surface treatments, in particular of textile products (carpets, stain-resistant upholstery, waterproof fabrics such as Goretex), leather and photographic films, inks,

– paints, fire-fighting foams, packaging, furniture, etc.

Population exposure

Population exposure to these harmful substances therefore occurs through the use of objects that contain them, but above all through the diet and drinking water, especially in polluted areas, where levels of contamination 100 times higher than average are found in the blood of residents. (3)

Workers, especially in fluorochemical manufacturing, are much more exposed to PFAS, especially through inhalation, but also potentially through skin absorption and ingestion of contaminated dust.

The inaction of the European Commission

The dangers of PFAS was very clear even before the IARC evaluation. At the beginning of 2023, 5 EU member countries (Denmark, Germany, Holland, Norway and Sweden) presented ECHA with a proposal to revise the REACH regulation to reduce the use of approximately 10 thousand known PFAS. But the European Commission stands by. (4)

Marta Strinati


(1) Dario Dongo. Veneto. The Mothers No PFAS publish the list of contaminated foods. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 22.9.21

(2) Shelia Zahm, Jens Peter Bonde, Weihsueh A Chiu, Jane Hoppin, Jun Kanno, Mohamed Abdallah et al. Carcinogenicity of perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. The Lancet Oncology. November 30, 2023 DOI:

(3) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. PFAS in rainwater and food, a global ban is urgently needed. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 26.8.22

(4) Dario Dongo. PFAS extension. The restriction on the use of forever chemicals in the EU is being examined by ECHA. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.2.23

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".