Considerations for Toxicity Experiments and Risk Assessments with PFAS Mixtures

By McCarthy, Christopher, Shaun Roark, and Elizabeth T. Middleton
April 7, 2021
DOI: 10.1002/ieam.4415

Per‐ and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been around for decades and have been the subjects of laboratory and field research studies for nearly as long. Although attention to PFAS has grown in recent years, many unanswered questions remain. Accordingly, the number of research projects designed to improve our understanding of PFAS toxicity, bioaccumulation, and biomagnification, and to improve our ability to predict the interactions of PFAS mixtures, is also increasing. The growing number of ongoing and future research projects focusing on these chemicals will benefit from lessons learned in previous studies. This perspectives article discusses available approaches for mixtures risk assessment with specific focus on application to PFAS mixtures. We discuss ongoing research as well as lessons learned from approaches to handling mixtures of other groups of chemicals. Many of these approaches require some detailed understanding of a manageable number of representative chemicals, yet only limited toxicological data are available for most PFAS. With the limited amount of published data currently available, the need for single‐chemical and binary‐mixture studies persists. Based on our previous work with single‐chemical exposures for understudied PFAS, we explored some of the challenges of trying to design and interpret an aquatic concentration‐response experiment for a binary mixture of two commonly detected PFAS: perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS). Based on our findings, we propose that addressing risk from PFAS mixtures will likely require combinations of approaches incorporating findings from traditional whole‐organism toxicity studies and novel methods relying on in‐vitro assays, read‐across, or quantitative structure activity relationships. Complicating a limited understanding of PFAS mixture toxicity is that relative concentrations of PFAS mixtures vary across sites and time even at one site. Thus, reliance on empirical data such as site‐specific toxicity sampling or community structure studies may be needed to fully understand potential impacts of mixtures.


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