“Stain-resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal” is how journalist Callie Lyons refers to a chemical called C8 that’s found in the bodies of nearly all humans and animals on the planet. Exposure to this highly fluorinated chemical has been linked to cancer, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, obesity, ulcerative colitis and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.
Highly fluorinated chemicals (also known as PFCs or PFASs) are now everywhere – deep in the ocean, on mountaintops and in nearly all living creatures. Scott Mabury, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto, has said that this class of chemicals will last in the environment for geological time – that is, millions of years – perhaps even longer than humanity. Making and using chemicals that could be harmful and persist longer than mankind is a serious matter, and it should not be undertaken lightly.
Just days ago, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries reached a consensus * : The entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals such as C8 should only be used when it is essential and there are no suitable replacements. The Madrid Statement documenting this consensus was published May 1 in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a high-impact, peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Highly fluorinated chemicals such as C8 and its chemical cousins are used in outdoor and fashion clothing, carpets, furniture, cookware, food contact paper and even some cosmetics. One question to ask is: Do we really need such chemicals in everyday products? Safer substitutes are already available for water repellency but not yet for oil-repellency. Is it worth risking long-term harm for such a small convenience?
When C8 was released into the water supply near Teflon manufacturing plants in Parkersburg, West Virginia over many years, tens of thousands of people were exposed and many developed health problems believed to be related to the exposure. The disturbing results of this large-scale inadvertent human study contributed to the recent phaseout of C8 in the U.S. You can read EWG’s report about it here.
However, C8 is being replaced with similar chemicals (called C6) from the same family. They also do not ever break down, and studies on their impact on health are limited.
Must people be the guinea pigs to determine if C6 and other fluorinated alternatives are as harmful as C8? Before adding any fluorinated chemicals to consumer products, we should ask whether we really need them. Can the same function be achieved with a safer solution? Maybe we need fluorinated chemicals in our outdoor gear if we’re going to climb Mount Everest, but do we need them in our surfing shorts?
Read more about these harmful chemicals at greensciencepolicy.org/highly-fluorinated-chemicals/
What can consumers do to reduce the use of highly fluorinated chemicals?
Tell retailers and manufacturers you want products without fluorinated chemicals.
Don’t purchase products that are oil-repellent, stain-resistant, waterproof and nonstick unless you really need them.
Avoid cosmetics with PTFE or any word containing “perfluor” or “polyfluor” on the ingredients list.
Purchase cast-iron, glass or ceramic cookware rather than non-stick.
Avoid microwave popcorn and foods wrapped in grease-resistant paper.
- Support companies committed to phasing out fluorinated chemicals, such as the apparel brands that have joined Greenpeace’s Detox campaign and the fast food chains that removed them from food packaging as a result of EWG’s campaign.
Check out the Green Policy Institute infographic here.
* The consensus was reached last year but published on Friday, May 1, 2015.
Arlene Blum Ph.D., chemist, author and mountaineer is a Visiting Scholar in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. The Institute brings government, industry, scientists and citizens groups together to support chemical policies to protect human health and the environment. Their work has contributed to preventing the use toxic flame retardants and other harmful chemicals in consumer products globally. More information at www.greensciencepolicy.org and www.arleneblum.com.