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Janet Gray, Ph.D.
Janet Gray, Ph.D.

As author of our 2008 and 2010 State of the Evidence reports, Dr. Gray drives the science behind all our work.

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Perfluorooactanoic Acid (PFOA)

CATEGORY*: Endocrine disruptor

FOUND IN: Non-stick cookware, stain-resistant coatings

THE GIST: It might prevent food from sticking to the pan, but it certainly doesn’t prevent cancer. In fact, PFOAs have been associated with delayed menstruation, later breast development and increased incidence of breast cancer.

State of the Evidence on Perfluorooactanoic Acid (PFOA)

Perfluorooactanoic Acid (PFOA) is used extensively in commercial applications for its chemical properties of being highly stable and having low surface tension. PFOA is found in compounds such as Teflon® and Gore-tex® as well as in other products including carpet and furniture protectants.


Avoid Teflon pans, Gore-tex fabrics, stain-resistant carpet and stain-protectant products for furniture.

More healthy home tips >

PFOA is ubiquitous, with measurable levels found in wildlife across the planet (Jensen, 2008), as well as in body fluid samples from 99.7 percent of the U.S. adults tested in an NHANES study (Calafat, 2008); another study found it in blood serum samples taken from adults from nine countries representing four continents (Kannan, 2004). In a study of umbilical cord blood samples from newborns in Baltimore, 100 percent of the samples had measurable levels of PFOA (Apelberg, 2007a). Higher levels of the chemical in cord blood were associated with both lower birth weight and smaller size, indicating an effect of PFOA on prenatal development (Apelberg, 2007b).

In southeastern Ohio adolescents exposed to PFOA, higher levels in blood serum were associated with delayed onset of menstruation in girls (Lopez-Espinoza, 2011). Another study of Ohio girls demonstrated that exposures to higher levels of PFOA were associated with later breast development (Pinney, 2009). While earlier breast development is a known risk factor for breast cancer, these data support a potential endocrine-disrupting effect of PFOA, which may lead to other health effects later in life. 

Higher blood serum levels of PFOA, as well as other perfluorinated compounds, were associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer in a study of Inuit women in Greenland. Levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were also elevated in the women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer (Bonefeld-Jorgensen, 2011).

In a series of studies examining the effects of gestational or neonatal exposures of mice to PFOA, abnormalities in the formation of mammary tissue were found in the mothers during lactation as well as in the pups when they matured. Low-dose exposures to PFOA during pregnancy led to impaired differentiation during lactation, a process that is necessary for normal production and release of milk. In the female pups, mammary glands sometimes showed stunted development of epithelial branches before the animals had even been weaned (White, 2007). Follow-up studies used a cross-fostering design, so that pups that had been exposed just during gestation or just during the days of suckling were raised by mothers who had never been exposed to PFOA. As with the earlier study, pups exposed either in utero or in early postnatal life had enduring abnormalities in the development of their mammary tissues, and these abnormalities remained at least through the time of puberty, the latest time evaluated (White, 2009). In a third study, gestational exposures to PFOA were shown to alter mammary development over three generations. In another group of mice, chronic exposures to PFOA in drinking water at levels similar to what is found in some contaminated human water supplies, led to similar negative developmental outcomes in the mammary tissues of the developing pups (White, 2009).

The complexity of PFOA's effects is underscored by a study examining low-dose exposures of different mouse strains to the chemical in the period between weaning and puberty. In one strain (Balb/c), exposures to the chemical led to deficits in normal mammary development through puberty, while in the other strain (C57/BL6), low doses of PFOA exposure enhanced mammary development but higher doses were inhibitory (Yang, 2009). It is not yet known what factors underlie the strain and dose differences.

*For chemicals that have been shown to be carcinogens, we provide classifications from two authoritative bodies: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, an international body) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). We have categorized endocrine-disrupting compounds where the body of peer-reviewed research indicates a strong foundation for doing so.