Humans are exposed to poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) from diverse sources and this has been associated with negative health impacts. Advances in analytical methods have enabled routine detection of more than 15 PFASs in human sera, allowing better profiling of PFAS exposures. The composition of PFASs in human sera reflects the complexity of exposure sources but source identification can be confounded by differences in toxicokinetics affecting uptake, distribution, and elimination. Common PFASs, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and their precursors are ubiquitous in multiple exposure sources. However, their composition varies among sources, which may impact associated adverse health effects.
We use available PFAS concentrations from several demographic groups in a North Atlantic seafood consuming population (Faroe Islands) to explore whether chemical fingerprints in human sera provide insights into predominant exposure sources. We compare serum PFAS profiles from Faroese individuals to other North American populations to investigate commonalities in potential exposure sources. We compare individuals with similar demographic and physiological characteristics and samples from the same years to reduce confounding by toxicokinetic differences and changing environmental releases.
Using principal components analysis (PCA) confirmed by hierarchical clustering, we assess variability in serum PFAS concentrations across three Faroese groups. The first principal component (PC)/cluster consists of C9-C12 perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (PFCAs) and is consistent with measured PFAS profiles in consumed seafood. The second PC/cluster includes perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS) and the PFOS precursor N-ethyl perfluorooctane sulfonamidoacetate (N-EtFOSAA), which are directly used or metabolized from fluorochemicals in consumer products such as carpet and food packaging. We find that the same compounds are associated with the same exposure sources in two North American populations, suggesting generalizability of results from the Faroese population.
We conclude that PFAS homologue profiles in serum provide valuable information on major exposure sources. It is essential to compare samples collected at similar time periods and to correct for demographic groups that are highly affected by differences in physiological processes (e.g., pregnancy). Information on PFAS homologue profiles is crucial for attributing adverse health effects to the proper mixtures or individual PFASs.