“Stain-resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal” is how journalist Callie Lyons describes a highly fluorinated chemical called C8. When C8 was released into the air and water supply near processing plants in the mid-Ohio Valley, tens of thousands of people became seriously ill, with a range of health problems including cancer, liver malfunction, thyroid disruption, obesity, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and lower birth weight and size.
The disturbing results of this large-scale inadvertent human study led to the recent phase-out of C8 in the US. However, C8 is being replaced with similar fluorinated chemicals, which are now also building up in the environment, just as C8 did. And studies on health impacts of the replacements are limited. For instance, they don’t test for hormonal effects to which babies and children are most vulnerable.
Arlene Blum, PhD, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute asked, “Must our population be the guinea pigs to determine if similar chemicals are as harmful as C8? Before adding any fluorinated chemicals to consumer products we should ask whether we really need them. Or can the same function be achieved with a safer solution?”
Read more about these harmful chemicals at greensciencepolicy.org/highly-fluorinated-chemicals/
I don’t live near a chemical plant. Am I exposed?
No matter where you live, you’ve probably got highly fluorinated chemicals in your body – nearly all of us do. In addition to now being found in our air, water and food, these chemicals are used in many consumer products we use every day, including clothing, carpets, furniture, cookware, food contact paper, and some cosmetics. They’re used because stain-resistant, nonstick, and waterproof are handy features; they make life “easier”. But wouldn’t you forego those conveniences knowing that adverse health effects were associated with these chemicals?
“As a mom, learning about this caused me to ask if I really need products that are stain-resistant, nonstick, or waterproof,” said Joan Blades, co-founder of MomsRising. “Knowing the potential consequences for my family’s health, I will choose to give up some conveniences and product performance. It’s just not worth it.”
But don’t these chemicals breakdown in the environment and “go away”?
In a word, no. Highly fluorinated chemicals are incredibly resistant to breakdown. Some of them persist in our bodies for years, and all persist in the environment for possibly as long as millennia. So, the convenience we buy today will impact many generations to come.
World-renowned scientist Dr. Theo Colborn, who sadly passed away in December, mused, “It is incomprehensible that any corporation would go ahead … and begin selling tons of fluorinated compounds that persist over geological time — to make fabrics water-proof and soil resistant — and to prevent scrambled eggs from sticking to the frying pan.”
Where do scientists stand on the issue?
200 scientists from 38 countries signed The Madrid Statement, which states that the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals is extremely persistent in the environment, is likely to be toxic, and should be replaced with safer alternatives. On May 1, this scientific consensus statement was published in the high-impact journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
So what can I do?
- Avoid products that are oil-repellant or stain-resistant.
- Only purchase waterproof gear when you really need it.
- Avoid cosmetics with PTFE or any word containing “perfluor” or “polyfluor” on their ingredients list. (These chemicals are also known as PFCs and PFASs.)
- Replace your nonstick cookware with cast iron, glass, or ceramic.
- Avoid microwave popcorn and greasy foods wrapped in paper.
- Tell retailers and manufacturers you want products without fluorinated chemicals.
- Support companies committed to phasing out highly 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 action.
Arlene Blum, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute