What do fast food wrappers, carpet stain protectors, and popular raincoats have in common? They are made with a unique class of chemicals known variously as PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), PFASs (perfluoroalkyl substances), or simply Teflon chemicals. These compounds are designed to repel both oil and water, but with this special chemistry comes a special problem: they are so highly persistent that scientists call them “virtually indestructible.” With their popularity, they have become global pollutants that threaten the health of people and wildlife.
PFCs are most famous for their use in making Teflon pans, but many products are made with these compounds , including:
- Food packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers.
- Non-stick cookware.
- Outdoor gear with a “durable water repellent” coating.
- Building materials.
- Aerospace, medical, and automotive applications.
- Many specialty items such as firefighting foams, ski wax, and industrial applications.
PFCs have been released in large quantities from manufacturing facilities for decades, and thus contaminate our food and some water supplies. PFOS and PFOA are breakdown products of a number of PFCs.
Exposure also occurs from consumer products, house dust, and food packaging.
- Grease-resistant food packaging and paper products, such as microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes, contain PFCs.
- PFOS was used until 2002 in the manufacture of 3M’s Scotchgard® treatment, used on carpet, furniture, and clothing.
- PFOA is used to make DuPont’s Teflon™ product, famous for its use in non-stick cookware.
- PFCs are in cleaning and personal-care products like shampoo, dental floss, and denture cleaners.
PFCs are extremely persistent in people, wildlife, and they environment, and some of them build up in people and animals. They migrate out of consumer products into household dust and air, are released by industries, and contaminate drinking water and food [2, 3]. Once they are in our bodies, they stick around—with half-lives in people of at least three years .
Exposure to these compounds has been linked to a number of health concerns:
- Cancer: PFCs induce several types of tumors in laboratory animals, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated PFOA as a possible carcinogen based on epidemiological evidence linking exposure to kidney and testicular cancer [5-7].
- Hormone disruption: laboratory animals exposed to certain PFCs show abnormal levels of hormones, including thyroid hormones and testosterone . Children exposed to greater levels show reduction in hormone levels and delayed puberty .
- Liver toxicity: PFCs are associated with liver enlargement in laboratory animals .
- Harm to the immune system : recent research has identified the immune system as sensitive to PFCs in both laboratory and epidemiological studies. A 2012 study of 587 children found those with greater exposure to PFCs had significantly poorer responses to vaccines .
- Reduced birth weight: a number of large epidemiological studies have related higher maternal exposure to PFCs to lower birth weight . These are consistent with laboratory findings of developmental toxicity.
PFCs have been detected in drinking water all over the United States, including in Washington, and in both fresh and saltwater.
Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency sampled public water systems around the country for six PFCs, among other unregulated contaminants, beginning in 2013 . PFCs were detected in water from three Washington state water systems, serving more than 100,000 households.
The Washington state Department of Ecology sampled freshwater in Washington in 2008, finding PFCs in all water samples and elevated concentrations in water bodies impacted by wastewater treatment plant effluent . University of Washington scientists sampled 15 saltwater and four freshwater Puget Sound locations between 2009 and 2011, detecting PFCs in all samples with the highest concentrations at sites near urban areas .
PFCs have been produced, used, and disposed of essentially without regulation for the last half-century.
Rising levels of PFCs in the environment and increasing governmental pressure, however, have led to voluntary actions to reduce PFC production and use.
- In 2002, 3M ceased using PFCs for its signature product, Scotchgard®, because of concerns over release of PFOS and PFOA during manufacture and use.
- In early 2006, the EPA, Teflon™ manufacturer DuPont™, and seven other companies announced an agreement to reduce PFOA in emissions from manufacturing plants and in consumer products by 95% by the year 2010.
While these actions are a step in the right direction, they do not adequately protect public health from the dangers posed by PFCs.
The state and federal government should act to phase out PFCs as well as chemicals that break down into PFOA.
- As part of its Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxics Program, Washington state should complete a chemical action plan for PFCs and chemicals that break down into related chemicals.
- New federal legislation should include immediate action to phase out PFCs and other persistent toxic chemicals.
- Avoid purchasing or, at a minimum, limit use of products containing PFCs.
- Watch for packaged foods. Stay away from greasy or oily packaged and fast foods, as the packages often contain grease-repellent coatings. Examples include microwave popcorn bags, french fry boxes, and pizza boxes.
- Avoid stain-resistance treatments. Choose furniture and carpets that aren’t marketed as “stain-resistant,” and don’t apply finishing treatments such as Stainmaster® to these or other items. Where possible, choose alternatives to clothing that has been treated for water or stain resistance, such as outerwear and sportswear. Other products that may be treated include shoes, luggage, and camping and sporting equipment.
- Check your personal-care products. Avoid personal-care products made with Teflon™ or containing ingredients that include the words ”fluoro” or ”perfluoro.” PFCs can be found in dental floss and a variety of cosmetics, including nail polish, facial moisturizers, and eye make-up.
- Avoid Teflon™ or non-stick cookware. If you choose to continue using non-stick cookware, be very careful not to let it heat to above 450ºF. Do not leave non-stick cookware unattended on the stove, or use non-stick cookware in hot ovens or grills. Discard products if non-stick coatings show signs of deterioration.
3. Begley, T. H.; Hsu, W.; Noonan, G.; Diachenko, G., Migration of fluorochemical paper additives from food-contact paper into foods and food simulants. Food Additives & Contaminants. Part A: Chemistry 2008, 25, (3), 384.
4. Olsen, G. W.; Burris, J. M.; Ehresman, D. J.; Froehlich, J. W.; Seacat, A. M.; Butenhoff, J. L.; Zobel, L. R., Half-Life of Serum Elimination of Perfluorooctanesulfonate, Perfluorohexanesulfonate, and Perfluorooctanoate in Retired Fluorochemical Production Workers. Environ Health Perspect 2007, 115, (9), 1298-305.
6. L, B.-T.; B, L.-S.; D, L.; KZ, G.; Y, G.; F, E. G., Carcinogenicity of perfluorooctanoic acid, tetrafluoroethylene, dichloromethane, 1,2-dichloropropane, and 1,3-propane sultone. Lancet Oncol 2014, 15, (9), 924-925.
7. Barry, V.; Winquist, A.; Steenland, K., Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) exposures and incident cancers among adults living near a chemical plant. Environ Health Perspect 2013, 121, (11-12), 1313-1318.
9. Lopez-Espinosa, M.-J.; Fletcher, T.; Armstrong, B.; Genser, B.; Dhatariya, K.; Mondal, D.; Ducatman, A.; Leonardi, G., Association of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) with Age of Puberty among Children Living near a Chemical Plant. 2011.
10. Grandjean, P.; Andersen, E. W.; Budtz-Jørgensen, E.; Nielsen, F.; Mølbak, K.; Weihe, P.; Heilmann, C., Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds. JAMA 2015, 307, (4), 391-397.
14. Dinglasan-Panlilio, M.; Prakash, S.; Baker, J., Perfluorinated compounds in the surface waters of Puget Sound, Washington, and Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds, British Columbia. Mar. Poll. Bull. 2014, 78, 173-180.