Non-targeted identification of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances at trace level in surface water using fragment ion flagging

Thijs J. Hensema, Bjorn J.A. Berendsen, Stefan P.J. van Leeuwen*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

    30 Citations (Scopus)


    The extent of unidentified Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) found in environmental samples has led to the development of non-targeted screening methods. The study presented here reports the use of liquid chromatography hyphenated with high resolution mass spectrometry to detect and identify unknown and unexpected PFASs by fragment ion flagging (FIF). By exploring all ion fragmentation spectra for several characteristic fragments including CnF2n+1, CnF2n-1, CnF2n-3, CnF2n-7, CnF2n-11 and CnF2n+1O the presence of widely different PFAS species can be anticipated without the need for targeted screening methods. These fragments are then related to their precursor ion by retention time matching and subsequently identified. With this methodology 40 PFASs were (tentatively) identified in four surface water samples sampled throughout the Netherlands. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, four PFASs found through FIF are newly discovered species and have not been mentioned in any database or literature. This methodology eliminates the dependence on commonly reported full scan feature selection techniques such as mass defect filtering, homologous series detection and intensity threshold filtering, allowing the identification of PFASs at trace levels. Additionally, eight of the (tentatively) identified PFASs are not part of homologous series, stressing the shortcomings of commonly reported non-targeted PFASs screening methods and demonstrating the importance of more effective identification strategies such as FIF. Moreover, we like to emphasise that this approach is applicable to real-life environmental samples with PFASs at background concentration levels.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number128599
    Early online date10 Oct 2020
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021


    • Fragment ion flagging
    • Non-targeted screening
    • PFAS
    • Trace level


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