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Does perfluorooctanoic acid damage the human liver?

17/2016, 26.05.2016

A BfR project sponsored by the DFG examines whether findings from animal experiments can be transferred to humans

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is an important industrial chemical used in the manufacture of fluoropolymers. The substance has been assessed by the EFSA as reprotoxic and hepatotoxic. It is also suspected that PFOA has hormone-like properties, but it still has to be ascertained whether these effects can also occur in humans. In the research project "Molecular Mechanisms of the Toxicity of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)" which is being sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG), scientists at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) are examining the extent to which these findings from animal experiments can also be transferred to humans. "This fundamental question is of great significance for the assessment of the health risk of PFOA as a contaminant in food," says BfR president Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, "because only in this way reliable health-related guidance values can be derived for this substance". The closing of research gaps in the field of the toxicology of food contaminants is one of the main research tasks at the BfR. The sponsoring of the research project by the DFG confirms the high quality of subject-specific research at the BfR.

Perfluorooctanoic acid PFOA is an industrial chemical used mainly as an auxiliary (emulsifier) in the manufacture of fluoropolymers (e.g. polytetrafluoroethylene; PTFE). Because of their dirt-, water- and grease-repellent properties, fluoropolymers are used as a coating on numerous consumer products, such as clothing, but also for cooking utensils and paper products such as baking paper and grease-proof paper. PFOA can find its way into foods as a contaminant through the contact of products of this kind with the food which is then eaten. PFOA is durable and has also been detected in the environment. The substance can also transfer to foods in this way.

Although PFOA is not damaging to human health in the low concentrations found in food, high concentrations of PFOA have resulted in tumours of the liver and testicles in tests with animals. The substance is also suspected as having hormonal effects, but it is doubtful whether the results of the animal tests can be transferred directly to humans. For this reason, a research project with the title “Molecular Mechanisms of the Toxicity of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)” was initiated which is being sponsored by the DFG over a period of two years with a total of 209,800 euros. In this project, the toxic effects of PFOA on human liver cells are being examined primarily. To do so, the BfR researchers use special human liver cell lines which will be exposed to the substance in different concentrations. The goal of the project is to examine the toxic effects of PFOA on a molecular level and clarify the mechanisms of action with particular regard to the hepatotoxic effects. The results of these tests will then be compared with the published results of the animal studies. The knowledge gained here will make a direct contribution towards the assessment of the health risk of PFOA.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.