Skip links

PFAS Chemicals: Origin and History

PFAS (per- and poly-fluorakyl  substances) chemicals comprise a class of thousands of  manmade compounds which have been used in many different applications such as non-stick coatings for pots and pans, food packaging, fire fighting foams, and water repellant coatings for clothing, footwear, leather, and carpets .  PFAS substances were discovered by accident in the 1930s, came into widespread usage, and are now being phased out in many uses because of a growing awareness of possible health hazards. 

In 1938, DuPont was conducting research to find new chemicals that could be used as refrigerants when its chemists stumbled upon an unusual coating in one of their test chambers. Testing revealed that the new substance, PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), was chemically very stable and had a remarkable ability to repel water and oil. This was the first PFAS ever invented, and it was soon put to good use in the Manhattan Project because it could resist corrosion from fluorine in the gaseous diffusion process used to enrich uranium. After World War II, Dupont marketed this substance in a very successful product it called Teflon that was used in non-stick cookware and water and stain resistant fabrics. The discovery of Teflon is often cited as an example of serendipity, or accidental discovery. 

Shortly thereafter, 3M discovered its own PFAS chemical, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), when they were trying to develop a rubber which would not deteriorate from exposure to jet fuel. During their experiments, some of the new substance was dropped on a laboratory assistant’s tennis shoe, and when the assistant tried to clean the substance from her shoe, she discovered that it was impervious to water and alcohol. 3M marketed the new material in 1956 as Scotchgard. 

Over time, PFAS materials were used in thousands of other products, including AFFF (aqueous film forming foams), a material widely used at both military and civilian airports to fight fires. Unfortunately, run off from airport usage has contaminated public and private water supplies around many airports. 

PFAS water contamination from a Dupont plant which manufactured Teflon spawned the famous C8 litigation, so called because the chemical involved had a molecule with 8 carbon atoms.  Studies connected with this litigation advanced our knowledge of health hazards related to PFAS exposure. PFAS chemicals have been associated with kidney and testicular cancers, reduced immunity, thyroid problems, liver ailments, and developmental issues with fetuses and breastfed infants.  

Many PFAS compounds have been voluntarily discontinued by their manufacturers, but other PFAS chemicals are still in usage, and PFAS chemicals previously released into the environment will continue to cause health concerns for years to come. Most Americans now have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood. All of this contamination results from human activity because PFAS chemicals do not exist in nature.  

If you or a loved one have been harmed by exposure to PFAS chemicals, please contact James F Humphreys & Associates, L.C. at 304-881-0652 (local) or 877-341-2595 (toll free) for a free initial consultation. You may also contact us at our website, www.  


The History of Teflon Fluoropolymer: An Accidental Discovery.

Susan Borowki, Scientific Breakthroughs That Were “Accidents.” 

American Cancer Society, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), Teflon, and Related Chemicals, 3/4/20.