Chemicals like PFOA have gotten a good amount of attention in the past decade because they were being used in common household items and as time went on, their devastating health effects became more and more clear. Even though companies like Dupont, who were and continue to be in the crossfire of concerns over personal injury and wrongful death suits over their chemical usage in the United Sates, say they completely phased out PFOA in 2013, humans, animals and the environment are still seeing the devastating effects of this harmful chemical. (1, 2)
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) points out, “It’s been 10 years since the EPA’s history-making judgment against DuPont for keeping secret the dangers of C8, also known as PFOA, but its victims in the Mid-Ohio Valley and other communities are still seeking justice.”
Have companies like Dupont even learned their lesson? In 2018, a federal class-action lawsuit was brought against chemical companies DuPont and Chemours (a DuPont spinoff).
Why? Because Chemours was apparently dumping one of the PFOA replacement chemicals, GenX, into North Carolina drinking water! GenX effects on humans is still pretty unclear, but it’s closely related to PFOA and Dupont was already sued over PFOA’s link to cancer, birth defects and other major health concerns in human victims. (3)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “The most-studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOs can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals.” (4)
According to the American Cancer Society, “PFOA has the potential to be a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time.” (5)
Even though, top manufacturers of PFAS agreed to phase out some of these chemicals like PFOA by 2015, there’s still no solid evidence that the chemicals replacing PFOA (like GenX) are any safer. So now we are facing the unknown effects of more recently created chemicals plus the older offenders have not disappeared from our bodies or our environments.
We can’t undo our past exposure to harmful substances, but let’s talk about how we can avoid these harmful substances as much as possible going forward.
What Are PFAs, PFOA, PFOS and PTFE?
PFAS have been created and used around the world since the 1940s. What are PFAS? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, GenX and many other chemicals. Of this group of chemicals, PFOA and PFOS have been made and researched to the greatest degree. We know that PFOA and PFOS don’t break down quickly — in our bodies or in our environment — and they also build up as time goes. (4)
PFOA is an acronym for perfluorooctanoic acid, which is a manufactured chemical that is part of a larger group of chemicals called perfluoroalkyls. It’s also called C8. PFOS stands for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, an anthropogenic fluorosurfactant and global pollutant.
What about new replacement chemicals like GenX? While GenX have fewer carbon atoms than PFOA and PFOS, they still have very similar physical and chemical traits to these two older chemicals. Many top manufacturers are now using GenX as a replacement PFAS, but as the EPA wisely points out, “There is a substantial body of knowledge for managing risk from PFOS and PFOA, but much less knowledge about the replacement PFAS.” (4)
There’s a big unknown factor with new chemicals like GenX, but from what we do know — its similarity to older harmful chemicals— there is good reason to be concerned.
Products That Contain PFAS
PFAS like PFOA are commonly used in a variety products to make them fire resistant or to have a repellency to oil, stains, grease and/or water.
According to the EPA, PFAS can be found in: (4)
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials or processed with equipment that used PFAS.
- Food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Household products including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
- Living organisms including humans, fish, animals, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.
Currently, PFAS like PFOA and PFOS are no longer produced in the U.S. However, these dangerous chemicals are still being made internationally and can be imported into the U.S. in consumer goods such as carpet, leather, textiles, clothing, paper, packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.
What About PTFE?
What is PTFE? It’s Teflon™. So what is Teflon™? Most people know Teflon™ coating as that nonstick surface lining various types of cookware. It’s also used in other products like fabric protectors. A basic teflon definition: Teflon™ is a brand name for a man-made chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). The polytetrafluoroethylene or Teflon™ formula chemically-speaking is (C2F4)n.
PTFE was first discovered accidentally in 1938 at the Chemours Jackson Laboratory in New Jersey by the chemist, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett. (6) Chemours, the maker of Teflon™, points out that today, “Teflon™ coatings, and additives are used in paints, fabrics, carpets, home furnishings, clothing and so much more.” So there are actually many Teflon™ uses in addition to cookware. (7) Chemours is an American chemical company founded in 2015 as a spin-off from DuPont.
PFOA was previously used in the manufacturing of Teflon™ up until 2013. According Chemours: “If someone tells you ‘Teflon’ is PFOA, they are wrong. Teflon™ is a brand. Even the EPA has said that the Teflon™ brand is not PFOA. In fact, Teflon™ nonstick coatings for cookware and consumer bakeware are made without PFOA.” (8)
Major Dangers of PFAS, Including PFOA and PFOS
1. Damaging Health Effects
Even the EPA warns that multiple studies have shown us that PFOA and PFOS can cause unwanted, reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals. In addition, both chemicals have been shown to cause tumors in animal subjects.
What about humans? According to the EPA, The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to: (4)
- Low infant birth weights
- Immune system impairment
- Cancer (for PFOA)
- Thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)
In addition, birth defects, delayed development and early deaths have been observed in laboratory animals exposed to PFOA during pregnancy. While humans working in a PFOA facility or living near such a facility have shown some increases in prostate, kidney and testicular cancers. (9)
2. Toxic Drinking Water
Before major producers of PFOA and PFOS began phasing out these harmful chemicals, very large amounts of both were being released into the environment during manufacturing. We know that drinking water near many of these manufacturing facilities were contaminated. (10)
If you’re wondering if your drinking water may have been affected, the EPA issued PFOA and PFOS Drinking Water Health Advisories in 2016 that you can check out.
3. Environmental Destruction
As the CDC points out: “PFOA persists in the environment and does not break down. PFOA has been identified in bodies of water and in a variety of land and water animals.” (11)
Environmental Pollutions Centers similarly states, “These chemicals are present virtually everywhere in the environment and in the species that inhabit it, humans included. PFOS and PFOA break down extremely slowly in the environment so the contamination risks are prolonged over a long period. (12)
While animals seem to carry the toxic burden of these chemicals for shorter amounts of times, humans can have these chemicals in their systems for years and years! For PFOA, the half-life is 2.3 to 3.8 years while the half-life of PFOS is 5.4 years. “Half-life” refers to the time it takes for half of these substances to leave the body.
According to the EPA, “Regardless of chain length, it is critical to note that the half-lives of these compounds are measured in hours to days to months in rats, mice and monkeys, but years in humans. This means that these compounds will persist and bioaccumulate in humans, and comparatively low exposures can result in large body burdens.” (13)
How to Avoid PFAS Products
So up until 2013, PFOA was used in the production of Teflon™, which means you may or may not still have cookware that contains PFOA. I personally don’t feel comfortable using any nonstick cookware.
If you’re looking to replace your Teflon™ pans or other nonstick cookware, there’s a lot of great nontoxic cookware on the market today. Are there safe nonstick pans? That seems to be debatable as a lot of these new “healthy” nonstick options haven’t been around very long and there are no long-term studies proving their safety.
The only nontoxic cookware options I use are made of cast iron, stainless steel, glass or copper. All of these options are PTFE- and PFOA-free, and you can create a healthy nonstick cooking surface using grass-fed butter or coconut oil.
Other ways to avoid harmful PFAS: (14)
- Avoid eating take out or f packaged in food wrappers, french fry holders and pizza boxes.
- Avoid microwaved popcorn.
- Don’t buy carpets or furniture that have been treated with stain or water-resistant chemicals.
- Be cautious of purchasing stain- or water-repellant clothing which can contain PFAS.
- Opt for personal care products that do not contain per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals.
- Make sure your local drinking water supply is not contaminated by PFAS.
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, GenX, and many other chemicals. Of this group of chemicals, PFOA and PFOS have been made and researched to the greatest degree.
- What is Teflon™ used for? It’s the brand name for PTFE, and it’s used as a nonstick coating for cookware. It’s also used in paints, fabrics, carpets, home furnishings, clothing and more. Up until 2013, Teflon contained PFOA.
- PFAS like PFOA and PFOS can accumulate in the human body and remain for several years after exposure.
- According to the EPA, multiple studies have shown us that PFOA and PFOS can cause unwanted, reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. In addition, both chemicals have been shown to cause tumors in animal subjects. In humans, PFOA and PFOS have been linked to high cholesterol and some studies also link them to low infant birth weights, immune system impairment, cancer (for PFOA) and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).
- The environment including drinking water, land and animals have been contaminated by past production of PFAS in the U.S. Some companies are apparently continuing to dump the new PFAS into waterways.
- New replacements for PFAS like GenX are different yet similar to the previously problematic chemicals like PFOA and present concerns because their potential health effects are unknown and have not be studied long term.
- You can avoid PFAS by: staying away from fast food and takeout packaging, not consuming microwave popcorn; not buying carpets or furniture that have been treated with stain or water-resistant chemicals; being cautious when buying water-repellent and stain-resistant clothing; using cast iron, stainless steel, glass or copper; and making sure your drinking water is not contaminated.
Read Next: Atrazine: the Most Common Toxic Contaminant in Our Water
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