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Did you know that the Environmental Protection Agency only tests chemicals after there is evidence they are harmful? Did you know that out of the more than 60,000 synthetic chemicals produced globally, the EPA has only restricted five? (15) In a previous post, I wrote about the negative health effects of Teflon, a member of the chemical family called PFCs. Unsurprisingly, chemicals similar to Teflon also have concerning effects on our health.
What are PFCs?
Perfluorinated Chemicals, or PFCs are a family of chemicals where all molecules have carbon backbones fully surrounded by fluorine atoms. (1) This structure makes them non-polar which gives them the ability to repel other substances.
How are PFCs Used?
Like PTFE (Teflon), these chemicals are incorporated into products to make them more resistant to stains, grease and water. (1) Companies have incorporated PFCs into carpeting, furniture upholstery, clothing, food wrap, fast food containers, car seats, shoes, and even tents. (2, 3, 9)
Anytime a fabric is labeled waterproof, water-resistant, or stain resistant it is most likely made with PFCs.
Independent testing by Greenpeace found PFCs in all of the materials tested from the following companies (brand of PFC treated fabric in parentheses):
- Adidas (Gore-Tex, Formation)
- Columbia (Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective, Omni-Tech Waterproof Breathable)
- Jack Wolfskin (Texapore, Nanuk 300)
- Mammut (Exotherm Pro STR)
- Patagonia (Gore-Tex)
- The North Face (Gore-Tex, Primaloft One)(9)
The Problems with PFCs
One of the most concerning aspects of PFCs is that they have contaminated both our bodies and our environment. Surveys have shown that over 95% of Americans have concentrations of PFCs in their blood. (1)
They have been identified as some of the most persistent synthetic chemicals. The EPA even stated that PFCs present “persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.” (2) Persistence refers to their long half-lives which means they remain in organisms for long periods of time. Bioaccumulation means that the higher an organism is on the food chain, the higher concentration it will have in its body.
Studies show that exposure to PFCs is associated with smaller birth weight in newborns, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, inflammation of the liver, weaker immune systems, kidney and testicular cancers, obesity and even pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia. (2, 3)
To understand the health risks it’s important to understand some of the chemistry of PFCs. Once again, PFCs have a chemical structure that is comprised of a “backbone” of carbon atoms, which are surrounded by fluorine atoms. (1)
Types of PFCs
There are two main groups of PFCs. Long-chain PFCs contain eight or more carbons, while short-chain PFCs contain seven or less. (13)
Long-chain PFCs are more persistent in the environment, and their health effects are more well known. Many have now been banned in the US, but only to be replaced by short-chain PFCs whose effects are still being studied.
The two most problematic long-chain PFCs are PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfate) and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid), both of which have eight carbons. For this reason they are often referred to as C8.
PFOS is a soap-like agent, first used by 3M during the fabrication of Scotchgard. PFOA is most often used to produce PTFE or Teflon. It can be found in fire fighting foams, paints, textiles, lacquers and carpets. (14, 15)
Since its discovery in the early 1950s, PFOA has spread around the globe, even contaminating biota in Antartica and the Arctic Circle. As these are places where the chemical isn’t produced, this is evidence of its ability to be transported long distances via ocean currents. (14)
PFOA can also be transported via the atmosphere in two ways: bound to other particles which are emitted from industrial facilities, or because its chemical precursors pollute the air and they then degrade into PFOA.
Our bodies are contaminated because our food and water is contaminated by it, as is our air, our fabrics, and our cookware. It will even pass through the umbilical cord. (15)
PFOA is the most common PFC found in people’s blood, and this is especially true for those who work with or near the chemical. Some of the most concerning information regarding the chemical’s effects comes from those who were exposed to PFOA while working at the DuPont Plant in Washington, West Virginia. (4)
Dupont Case PFOA Coverup
Below is a summary of the story of how DuPont covered up information about the health and environmental effects of PFOA. The full version is here, and it is both fascinating and sickening.
DuPont Chemical began purchasing PFOA in 1951 from 3M, which invented the compound in 1947. PFOA keeps Teflon (a trademarked invention of DuPont) from clumping during production. (15)
At this time there were no government warnings or regulations regarding PFOA, but 3M recommended that DuPont dispose of the chemical by either incineration, or by sending it to chemical-waste disposal facilities. DuPont’s own instructions specified that PFOA shouldn’t be allowed to enter sewers or water supplies. (15)
But of course, DuPont broke its own rules and hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder made its way through the outfall pipes of DuPont’s facility in Washington, WV, which sits on the Ohio River.
In addition, DuPont disposed of 7,100 tons of sludge laced with the chemical into open and unlined pits. PFOA entered the local water table near the DuPont plant and contaminated the potable water supply used by more than 100,000 people.
To make matters worse, DuPont knew that the chemical could be harmful thanks to its own researchers who had been investigating the effects on animals. Beginning in 1961 they discovered that PFOA could increase the size of livers in rats and rabbits, and they later replicated the results in dogs.
Researchers found that PFOA bound to plasma proteins in the blood and therefore circulated through every organ in the body. By the 1970’s DuPont discovered that workers in its Washington, WV plant had high concentrations of the chemical in their blood, yet they still did not disclose this information to the EPA.
In 1981 3M, still supplying PFOA to DuPont, found that ingestion of PFOA caused birth defects in rats. After learning this, DuPont tested the children born to pregnant employees who had worked in the Teflon division, and found that two of the seven children had eye defects.
In 1984, DuPont became aware that PFOA was present in the local water supply, and unsurprisingly, they didn’t tell anyone. They did however, understand that it shouldn’t contaminate their own water, and in 1991 the company put an internal safety limit for PFOA in their drinking water to one part per billion.
That same year DuPont found that a nearby district’s water supply contained three times that figure, and though the issue was debated within the company, they decided against making this information public.
DuPont later claimed that they did provide this information to the EPA. Their proof was copies of two letters from 1982 and 1992, sent to government agencies in West Virginia, and they both cited company studies as reasons why PFOA was not a concern.
Still, by the 1990s DuPont knew that the chemical caused cancerous tumors in the testes, pancreases, and livers of lab animals, and there was even evidence of human DNA damage and links to prostate cancer in workers exposed to PFOA.
By 1993 DuPont realized there was a need for an alternative, and even though a suitable substance was found, the company ultimately decided against it. It didn’t seem worth it to risk the $1 billion of profit they acquired each year from products produced with PFOA.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, in the late 1980s DuPont began dumping thousands of tons of PFOA sludge into a landfill near their Washington, WV plant. The runoff from this landfill, contaminated the water of a nearby cattle ranch owned by Wilbur Tennant.
Dozens of Mr. Tennant’s cattle became strangely ill. Many died, and when they were dissected he noticed that their organs were enlarged and discolored.
Veterinarians and local authorities had few explanations, but Mr. Tennant suspected the nearby landfill. In the late 1990s, he sought out the help of Rob Billot, an attorney specializing in environmental law.
After months of sifting through documents, Billot disclosed DuPont’s crimes to the EPA in 2001, via a 972 page letter. The company was taken to court, and the result was 16.5 million dollar settlement to the EPA in 2005.
This was the largest settlement in EPA history, however the fine equaled less than 2% of the profits DuPont had earned that year on products made with or from PFOA.
A class-action lawsuit followed which was settled in September of 2004. DuPont agreed to install water filtration systems in the six contaminated water districts near its plant as well as pay $70 million for research.
The money went to fund a study to determine if there was a “probable link” between PFOA and any negative health symptoms. If the link was established, DuPont would have to pay for medical monitoring of any person affected until his or her death.
Seven years later, in December 2011, the results were released: there was a probable link between PFOA and testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, ulcerative colitis, and thyroid disease.
The realization of PFOA potential side effects led the EPA to began its own research. In 2002 it released its initial finding which concluded that PFOA was a danger to the general public. (15)
By 2003 they found that the average concentration of PFOA in the blood of adult americans was 4-5 parts per billion. That’s 4-5 times the concentration DuPont recommended its own water supply have. (15)
The EPA has determined that C8 contaminated the drinking water for more than 6.5 million people in 27 different states. Toxicologists hired by Bilott suggested that PFOA concentrations in water be no greater than 0.2 parts per billion. (11, 15)
In early 2009 the EPA released Provisional Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS which recommended that PFOA levels not be above 0.4 µg/L (micrograms per liter) or 0.4 parts per billion, and that PFOS not be above 0.2 µg/L.4
However, these advisories are not legally enforceable and therefore local water districts don’t have to disclose to their customers if their water is contaminated with PFOA. This should change soon, as the EPA has claimed that they will announce a permanent regulation for PFOA by early 2016. (15)
In 2006 the EPA agreed to a stewardship program which allowed 8 companies to voluntarily phase out their use of PFOA by 95% by 2010, and eliminate it completely by 2015. 3M did so in 2000, and DuPont ceased production in 2013. (4)
The five other global companies which use or produce PFOA are phasing it out. As a result of these efforts, the serum concentration of PFOA in the average American has decreased significantly.
The Food and Drug Administration has taken fewer steps to protect us than the EPA. In January 2016 the FDA banned three C8 PFCs from use in food packaging like microwave popcorn bags, sandwich wrappers, and pizza boxes. (11)
While this may seem like good news, those PFCs had already been phased out of production, and were not the PFCs currently in use. Instead, food companies are using short-chain PFCs.
The Problem with Short Chain PFCs
Short-chain PFCs have seven or less carbon atoms. They have been proven to be less persistent, but their long term health effects have not been well studied. (15)
In fact, in May 2015, 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement- a document which expresses their concern about the health effects of all PFCs. According to the statement, new research has shown that even low doses of PFCs can negatively impact health. The scientists recommend that nations should create legislation which would eliminate all but those PFCs deemed necessary, and “wherever possible avoid products containing, or manufactured using, (PFCs including) many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick.”
How to Avoid PFCs
So we now know that everyone has PFCs in their blood, so what can you do to limit any further contamination?
1. Avoid Products Labeled Nonstick, Waterproof, Stain Resistant, & Water Resistant.
- Of course some fabrics, such as felted wool, have these properties naturally. Ask questions, and read labels!
- Avoid non-stick pans and utensils. Opt for stainless steel pots, ceramic and cast iron skillets, and cooking utensils that are wood or stainless steel. Glass and ceramic are good options for bakeware.
- Cookware made from ceramic-enameled cast iron, while a pricier option, are durable and can be used on a wide variety of heat sources (grill, gas, electric, oven, campfire, etc).
2. Avoid Fast-Food and Disposable Food Packaging
- Another reason to avoid fast food! PFCs are often added to disposable paper food packaging to make it more resistant to grease and water. (3)
- Making real food a priority, especially when traveling, sometimes means relying on disposable plates and bowls. Opt for non toxic alternatives like chemical free compostable paper plates, compostable cutlery, and PFC free compostable paper cups.
- If you eat popcorn, pop your own popcorn on the stove, and avoid the short-chain PFCs found in the microwavable bags.
3. Choose Personal Care Products Without PTFE or Perfluoro Ingredients
- PFCs are sometimes incorporated into cosmetics and toiletries. If you are unsure about a product or ingredient, The Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic database is a great resource for learning more about the ingredients and their risks.
- It’s also another reason to consider making your own cosmetics! Check out these posts for recipes for homemade foundation, DIY creme blush and other makeup recipes.
4. Add a Water Filtration System for Your Home
- This will not only filter out PFCs, but other unwanted substances such as heavy metals, fluoride, and chlorine. There are many options to fit your home and living situation. Check out this post for more information and my review of an under counter water filter.
A Note on Non-Toxic Perfectionism
While the above information is concerning, I hope that by posting it, I am providing you with knowledge that will help you take control of your family’s health. Please think of this as empowering information, not another thing to worry about.
It’s certainly easy to feel overwhelmed with the chemicals found in plastics, or in antibacterial soaps, and now even in our clothes and water, but please know that stress is probably more toxic than many chemicals. In today’s world it is impossible to live a 100% perfectly clean, non-toxic lifestyle. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Even small steps to reduce your exposure to toxins will make a difference!
How are you avoiding toxins in your home? Share below!