, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 750-758
Date: 21 May 2009

Biomonitoring perfluorinated compounds in Catalonia, Spain: concentrations and trends in human liver and milk samples

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Background, aim and scope

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are global environmental pollutants that bioaccumulate in wildlife and humans. Laboratory experiments have revealed toxic effects such as delayed development, humoral suppression, and hepatotoxicity. Although numerous human blood levels have been reported, little is known about distribution in the human body. Knowledge about PFC distribution and accumulation in the human body is crucial to understanding uptake and subsequent effects as well as to conduct risk assessments. The present study reports PFC levels in human liver and breast milk from a general population living in Catalonia, Spain. Liver and milk levels are compared to previously reported levels in blood from the same geographic area as well as to other existing reports on human liver and milk levels in other countries.

Materials and methods

Human liver (n = 12) and milk (n = 10) samples were collected in 2007 and 2008 in Catalonia, Spain. Liver samples were taken postmortem from six males and six females aged 27–79 years. Milk samples were from healthy primipara women (30–39 years old). Both liver and milk were analyzed by solid-phase extraction and ultra-performance liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry.


Six PFCs were detected in liver, with perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS, 26.6 ng/g wet weight) being the chemical with the highest mean concentration. Other PFCs such as perfluorohexanesulfonate (PFHxS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and acids with chain lengths up to C11 were also detected, with mean levels ranging between 0.50 and 1.45 ng/g wet weight. On the other hand, PFOS and PFHxS were the only PFCs detected in human milk, with mean concentrations of 0.12 and 0.04 ng/mL, respectively.


While milk concentrations were similar to reported levels from other countries, liver samples contained more PFCs above quantification limits and higher PFOS concentrations compared to the only two other reports found in the literature. Differences between the results of the present study and those concerning previous investigations can be due to declining levels of some PFCs, which have been reported for the USA. The relationship between PFC concentrations in human liver, milk, and blood was assessed using blood concentrations previously determined in Catalonia. Those levels resulted in liver/serum ratios of 1.7:1, 1.4:1, and 2.1:1 for PFOS, perfluorodecanoic acid, and perfluoroundecanoic acid, respectively. Accumulation in liver is suggested for PFOS and the perfluorocarboxylic acids with carbon chain lengths C9, C10, and C11. For PFOA and PFHxS, fivefold and 14-fold higher concentrations, respectively, were seen in serum as compared to liver. The mean concentration of PFOS and PFHxS in milk was only 0.8% and 0.6% of the reported mean serum level, respectively.


The results of the present study show that several PFCs could be detected in human liver samples of subjects living in Tarragona. Concerning human milk, the mechanism by which PFCs are transferred from mother's blood to breast milk is still unclear. Considering that PFCs are strongly bound to the protein fraction in blood, the possibility of PFCs entering the milk and accumulating to levels observed in maternal plasma is limited.

Recommendations and perspectives

Interestingly, the potential accumulation difference for PFCs with different chain lengths might be of great importance for risk assessment. Continuing studies on the distribution of different PFCs in human tissue are therefore justified.