Key messages: Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) enter the environment via various sources and may accumulate in soil and groundwater; clean-up and remediation are costly, if at all possible. Around PFAS hotspots people are mainly exposed via contaminated drinking water and food. Additional hotspots are likely to be identified in the future. There is a need to improve soil contamination monitoring in the EU while stepping up remediation efforts.

Examples of PFAS hotspots across the EU


Initial source of contamination

Source of human exposure

Results of human biomonitoring

Health impacts

Italy: Veneto

Emissions from industrial site contaminating soil, and both surface water and groundwater

Drinking water

Twelve PFAS found in human serum

Blood pressure, hypertension, changes to lipid profile, metabolic syndrome, changes to hormone levels, COVID mortality

Sweden: Ronneby

Firefighting foam used since 1985 at military airport

Drinking water

Elevated levels of PFHxS, PFOS, PFOA

Blood lipids/cholesterol, polycystic ovary syndrome, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, miRNAs and DNA methylation

Netherlands: Dordrecht

PFAS polymer production site

No data in the publications reviewed

No data in the publications reviewed

No data in the publications reviewed

Belgium: Zwijndrecht

PFAS production site

Local egg consumption

Elevated PFAS levels

No data in the publications reviewed

Denmark: Korsør

Firefighting foam used at military training centre

Meadow and cows

Elevated PFOS levels

No data in the publications reviewed

Germany: Gendorf (Altoetting), Bavaria

Airborne emissions from industrial site leading to groundwater contamination

Drinking water

Elevated PFOA levels

No data in the publications reviewed

Germany: Arnsberg

Large-scale contamination from soil additive; illegal disposal of sewage sludge from paper industry in a biowaste mixture; contamination of drinking water reservoir

Drinking water, fish

Levels of PFOA 4–8 times higher in residents who received contaminated drinking water; high PFOS levels in anglers fishing in both contaminated lake and rivers in the area

No data in the publications reviewed

Germany: Rastatt

Most likely PFAS contaminated paper sludge mixed together with compost

Drinking water, food (agricultural products such as crops, e.g. strawberries and asparagus)

Elevated PFOA levels in residents who received contaminated drinking water

No data in the publications reviewed

Due to their high persistency and widespread use, PFAS are ubiquitous in humans, animals, food and feed, as well as in other parts of the environment. PFAS are becoming increasingly important in the evaluation of contaminated sites. However, they can be detected in low concentrations in soils virtually everywhere. PFAS can move with percolating water into deeper soil layers and also reach groundwater reserves. This migration can be relatively rapid (as seen, for example, with short chain PFAS such as perfluorobutanoic acid) or may take decades (such as with some long chain PFAS, e.g. perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)). Because of this, soils and groundwater can act as either sinks or sources of PFAS. In the EU, 65% of the drinking water is derived from groundwater.

Diffuse PFAS soil pollution can occur via compost, contaminated sewage sludge, deposition from the air, irrigation, soil additives and the use of certain pesticides. Point sources of such contamination include sites of PFAS production and use. Examples include facilities for chemical and electronics manufacturing, electroplating, leather processing, paper milling and textile finishing. Landfills can also be a source as PFAS may evaporate or leach from them. PFAS in soils can enter the food chain via uptake by plants

The EU recently established thresholds for some PFAS in drinking waterand food. However, environmental concentrations — including those seen in plants and animals, e.g. fish — often exceed those levels. 

PFAS contamination hotspots  

Europe is seeing an increase in sites identified with high PFAS loads in soil and/or groundwater. The Table above provides a series of examples of hotspots. See the signal Treatment of drinking water to remove PFAS for an overview of the current knowledge in terms of extent and levels of soil and water contamination in Europe based on the work of Dagorn et al. (2023).

High PFAS loads are often related to the use of firefighting foams containing fluorinated substances — i.e. at airports, fire-fighting training facilities and military sites. In fact, PFAS contamination at Duesseldorf Airport, Germany, has impacted both surface- and ground- waters, forcing a nearby lake to close to fishing and other recreational activities. As in many other cases, the remediation process for Duesseldorf Airport is lengthy, expensive and requires significant technical effort. PFAS remediation often forces groundwater wells to close, interfering with private garden irrigation. PFAS hotspots can also be found near fluorochemical manufacturing plants. Here, PFAS can enter the soil and surface water via atmospheric deposition, wastewater and accidental releases


Remediating PFAS-contaminated sites tends to be costly and difficult, if at all possible. Remediation approaches used with other pollutants often do not work for PFAS due to their stability and other properties, as noted in Annex B of the PFAS restriction proposal prepared and submitted by four EU Member States (Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark) and Norway and published by the European Chemicals Agency.  

Due to the diversity of PFAS, specific remediation approaches do not work in all cases. However, soil and groundwater remediation development projects are ongoing in many European countries — e.g. in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden — and some focus on small-scale contamination at airports or former fire-fighting sites. Some PFAS stick to the surface of soil particles and for this reason can be removed from groundwater using activated carbon filters. There are already suppliers in Europe who can repeatedly regenerate PFAS-loaded activated carbon.  

Based on current knowledge, 100% removing PFAS from soils is only possible using a high temperature, combustion-based treatment whose effectiveness is tied to the processing time and the turbulence in the combustion chamber. According to EU regulations on persistent organic pollutants, thermal treatment processes are also well-suited to recovering or eliminating PFAS-containing waste.  

Soil washing is another promising technology, but its viability is highly dependent on soil composition. Although PFAS can be removed from granular soils by washing, they cannot be removed from more cohesive soil types (e.g. clays). It should also be noted that soil washing does not degrade PFAS, but instead transfers them into the washing water, which then needs to be treated. Nevertheless, the process can considerably decrease the soil volumes which have to be processed and incinerated, cutting site-specific costs.  

While water can be treated for PFAS contamination, standard wastewater treatment technologies are currently unable to fully remove PFAS from wastewater. 

In order to contain the spread of PFAS within soils and into groundwater, immobilisation or stabilisation methods have potential. However, as of now, providers cannot guarantee that such solutions would be effective over the long-term. In other words: it is uncertain whether these methods irreversibly bind PFAS in the soil and stop future transfer to groundwater.  

Relevant objectives under the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability

    • Promote decontamination solutions 

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Other relevant indicators and signals

References and footnotes

  1. EEA, 2019, Emerging chemical risks in Europe – ‘PFAS’, Briefing no 12/2019, European Environment Agency.
  2. Held, T. and Reinhard, M., 2020, Remediation management for local and wide-spread PFAS contaminations, UBA-Texte 205/2020, German Environment Agency, Dessau-Roßlau, Germany ( accessed 25 October 2023.
    a b
  3. BMUV, 2022, Guidelines for PFAS assessment – Recommendations for the uniform nationwide assessment of soil and water contamination and for the disposal of soil material containing PFAS, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conversation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, Berlin, Germany.
    a b
  4. EC, 2024, ‘Groundwater - European Commission’, European Commission - Environment ( accessed 14 February 2024.
  5. ECHA, 2023, ANNEX XV RESTRICTION REPORT — PROPOSAL FOR A RESTRICTION, European Chemicals Agency ( accessed 22 February 2024.
  6. Glüge, J. et al., 2020, ‘An overview of the uses of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)’, Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts 12, pp. 2345–2373.
  7. Evich, M. G., et al., 2022, ‘Per- and polyfluoralkyl substances in the environment’, Science 375 (6580).
  8. EU, 2020, Directive (EU) 2020/2184 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2020 on the quality of water intended for human consumption (recast) (OJ L 435, 23.12.2020, pp. 1–62).
  9. EU, 2023, Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/915 of 25 April 2023 on maximum levels for certain contaminants in food and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 (Text with EEA relevance) (OJ L 119, 5.5.2023, pp. 103–157).
  10. Dagorn, G., et al., 2023, ‘“Forever pollution”: Explore the map of Europe’s PFAS contamination’, Le, 23 February 2023 ( accessed 12 March 2024.
  11. LfU Bayern, ‘Bodenbelastungen im Bereich Gendorf‘, Bayerisches Landesamt für Umwelt ( accessed 25 October 2023.
  12. ECHA, 2023, ‘ECHA publishes PFAS restriction proposal’ ( accessed 25 October 2023.
  13. EU, 2019, Regulation (EU) 2019/1021 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on persistent organic pollutants (recast) (Text with EEA relevance) (OJ L 169, 25.6.2019, pp. 45–77).