Editorial Article: Cancer study emphasizes the need for non-targeted PFAS analysis

Non-targeted analysis (NTA) testing can help reveal the hidden dangers of 'forever chemicals’ following findings linking PFAS exposure to thyroid cancer

13 Feb 2024

Headshot of Dr. Toby Astill, Director – Food, Agriculture and Environmental Vertical Marketing, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Dr. Toby Astill, Director – Food, Agriculture and Environmental Vertical Marketing, Thermo Fisher Scientific 

The landscape of PFAS testing is rapidly evolving, driven by the growing concern over the potential human and environmental impacts of these persistent 'forever chemicals.' A new study has found that certain types of these chemicals may be associated with a heightened risk of developing thyroid cancer1. These findings provide critical evidence to support large scale studies further exploring the effects of PFAS exposure. Non-targeted analysis (NTA) testing approaches will be vital in these studies by providing a more comprehensive characterization of PFAS contamination.

With the prevalence of PFAS compounds in the environment and the increasing number of clinical studies finding associations between PFAS exposure and disease development, it is increasingly important that researchers understand how to test for these chemicals. Dr. Toby Astill, Director – Food, Agriculture and Environmental Vertical Marketing, Thermo Fisher Scientific, shares his insights into some of the current challenges in PFAS testing and how these can be overcome with a NTA testing approach.

“One of the biggest hurdles in PFAS testing is preventing background contamination,” explains Astill. “For example, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) which is often prevalent in a laboratory environment, can cause background noise during analysis. It is therefore vital to ensure that the instrumentation used in PFAS workflows is PTFE-free.”

Additionally, emerging regulations and diverse sample types requiring continuous analytical development can be tricky for labs to navigate. “Regulatory requirements are growing in length as more sample types are studied and more PFAS compounds are discovered,” says Astill. “Ensuring labs are aware of the current regulatory demands and using the most up-to-date methods is key in driving PFAS research forward.”

Astill continues, “PFAS testing presents a unique challenge to a scientist on a bench level because there isn’t necessarily any prior work that the scientist can pull from. This is combined with the diversity in the sample types that are studied for PFAS contaminants. Sample types range from clean water to wastewater and include biosolids, food, packaging materials, and biological samples like blood, plasma, and tissue. These sample types themselves present a matrix influence in the testing. Therefore, the analytical development must be tied directly to the type of sample being tested.”

Benefits of non-targeted testing approaches 

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NTA PFAS testing is critical due to the large number of PFAS compounds that are present in the environment. “Non-targeted testing allows a laboratory to screen a sample for the PFAS compounds in it without necessarily having a certified standard on hand through the combination of mass spectrometry and specific PFAS compound libraries that now contain over 40,000 PFAS compounds and fragments,” explains Astill. “Non-targeted analysis has the benefit of allowing researchers to retroactively mine data in the future so they can look for trends or potential environmental exposures that might have been overlooked as the research body grows.”

Non-targeted PFAS testing can also play an important role in discovering the degradation pathways of various PFAS starting components. “We know that these compounds degrade when they are in the environment, whether by UV or other external sources,” says Astill. “By taking a non-targeted testing approach, you can categorize the families of the breakdown pathways to understand what the initial PFAS compound might have been. This is only possible when you look at a full spectrum of the sample using a non-targeted approach to testing.”

Technology innovations advancing PFAS analysis

Due to the global interest in PFAS analysis, development has been focused on workflows that scientists can use to improve throughput, sensitivity, and overall efficiency. “We're seeing huge volumes of samples enter laboratories for testing which presents a considerable turnaround challenge,” states Astill. “Laboratories are looking at new automation approaches to improve efficiency. There are several platforms now available to improve the throughput of the sample preparation.”

Further discussing the innovations set to advance PFAS testing workflows, Astill explains, “Optimizing the mass spectrometer to have the shortest run times possible with the correct sensitivity and selectivity for the method is key. In addition, the development of software that enables researchers to include and integrate compound libraries into the workflow allows scientists to understand what's in their sample far more efficiently and selectively.”

High-resolution accurate mass (HRAM) orbitrap technology from Thermo Fisher Scientific gives labs instant access to a pre-validated method of non-targeted PFAS analysis. “With the orbitrap technology users will appreciate that the transition from a more traditional triple-quadrupole workflow to a non-targeted workflow is not that different,” says Astill. “In addition, if quantitation is needed for the PFAS test and there is a reference material available, you can also do the quantitation at the same time as the non-targeted screen for the overall PFAS profile.”

The future of PFAS analysis

This study is a great example of the research efforts to drive awareness to the potential concerns of PFAS contamination.

Dr. Toby Astill

Thermo Fisher Scientific

There are thousands of types of PFAS, many of which are common ingredients in household products such as nonstick pans, cosmetics, and waterproof apparel. Historically, PFAS compounds were used heavily to fight fires, particularly in more industrial settings. There remains a big concern about where the remains of that foam or material ended up. Due to the robustness and longevity of PFAS compounds in the environment, they can travel long distances and potentially enter the ecosystem or the human supply chain.

The PFAS study conducted by researchers at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine observed that exposure to PFOS — one of the most notorious types of PFAS — led to a 56% increased risk of thyroid cancer diagnosis. A follow-up analysis of a subgroup of 31 patients confirmed this positive association while making similar connections with several additional PFAS compounds1. The results of this study provide further confirmation for the PFAS health crisis and underline the need to reduce, and in the future eliminate PFAS exposure.

Astill concludes, “This study is a great example of the research efforts to drive awareness to the potential concerns of PFAS contamination. The findings emphasize the need for additional large-scale studies further exploring the effect of PFAS exposure on the thyroid gland and the need for innovative technologies and methodologies to support these studies. I look forward to seeing more studies being undertaken in a similar nature as more and more parties and stakeholders get involved in this area of research.”



  1.  Van Gerwen, M. et al. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) exposure and Thyroid Cancer Risk. eBioMedicine. (2023) doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2023.104831