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Poisoned Legacy

Ten Years Later, Chemical Safety and Justice for DuPont’s Teflon Victims Remain Elusive

May 1, 2015

Poisoned Legacy: How Safe are the Alternatives to “Long-chain” PFCs?

With the phase-out of C8/PFOA and PFOS and hundreds of other long-chain PFCs, chemical companies and their customers have switched to alternatives with shorter carbon chains. This difference in molecular structure makes these next-generation PFCs less likely to build up in the bodies of people and animals. But like the chemicals they are replacing, they are persistent in the environment. Studies suggest that short-chain PFCS are more likely to end up in tap water because it is easier to remove long-chain chemicals by water treatment. (Eschauzier 2011)

EPA records contain disturbing indications that some of the new PFCs are as hazardous as their predecessors. But once again, the nation’s chemical regulation system lets manufacturers hide the truth. EPA does not require safety testing before new chemicals are used in products. If a company conducts studies, it doesn’t have to make them public. Manufacturers of new chemicals sometimes do publish their studies in peer-reviewed journals, but they are not required to.

A few industry papers on a select number of replacement chemicals suggest that they have lower toxicity than the C8 chemicals. (Gordon 2011, Hagenaars 2011) Similarly, studies on zebrafish indicate that developmental toxicity drops as the chain length shrinks. (Ulhaq 2013) The data EPA has reviewed suggests a similar toxicity profile for shorter-chain chemicals, because shorter-chain chemicals are cleared from the body faster. (EPA 2009)

A study of the exposure of placental cells to a four-carbon chemical, PFBS[1], associated it with disruption of the endocrine system. (Gorrochategui 2014) A study of the six-carbon chemical, PFHxS[2], found the chemical may cause nerve damage during development and affect cognitive function similar to neonatal exposure to PCBs[3], BPA[4] and PBDEs[5]. (Viber 2013)

Scientists Sound the Alarm

In November 2014, a group of prominent international scientists published the Helsingør Statement, a discussion paper raising concerns about the transition from long-chain PFCs to alternatives with fewer carbon atoms. (Scheringer et al 2014) Numerous other researchers had previously raised concerns about the replacement chemicals and the lack of information on their environmental behavior, degradation and health effects. (Chu 2014, Naidenko 2008, Zhou 2014)

The failure of the Toxic Substances Control Act to require pre-market safety testing means that in many cases hazardous chemicals have been phased out only to be replaced by others that are later found to be harmful. For example, PBDEs, or brominated flame-retardants, are being replaced by alternatives that are also toxic, persistent and build up in living things. (Butt 2014, Green Science Policy Institute 2015) Of the new perfluorinated chemicals, the Helsingør Statement (which refers to PFCs as PFASs) has this to say:

We as scientists working on the characterization of the uses, properties, analysis, environmental distribution and adverse effects of poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, PFASs, are concerned that long-chain PFASs are being replaced by a wide range of fluorinated alternatives for which we have only little information on production volumes, uses, properties and biological effects. Nevertheless, we do know that these replacements will be similarly resistant to ultimate degradation, i.e. persistent, in the environment as long-chain PFASs.

The Helsingør Statement was followed by the Madrid Statement, signed by more than 200 scientists from around the world, urging action to reduce the use, hazard and future consequences of PFCs. (Blum 2014) The Madrid Statement has just been published in the May 2015 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institutes of Health. It recommends:

  • Governments should allow only essential uses of PFCs, require manufacturers to prove the chemicals are safe and provide methods to track contamination.
  • Chemical companies should publicly disclose production data and studies on health effects, develop safer alternatives and label products made with PFCs.
  • Manufacturers should avoid using PFCs, label products that contain PFCs and invest in the development of non-fluorinated alternatives.
  • Scientists should continue to study both the old and new chemicals and work with governments and industry to compile a global inventory of all PFCs, their precursors and breakdown products, properties and health effects.
  • Retailers and consumers should question the use and need for PFCs and avoid selling or buying them.

[1] Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid.

[2] Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid is categorized as a long-chain perfluoroalkyl sulfonate by EPA (EPA 2009).

[3] Polychlorinated biphenyls.

[4] Bisphenol A.

[5] Polybrominated diphenyl ethers.