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 PFCs -- The Stain-Resistant Teflon Chemicals Minimize

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are synthetic chemicals designed to repel grease and water. Used since the 1950s in a wide range of consumer products, PFCs have been used more recently as stain- resistant coatings such as Scotchgard and Stainmaster for carpets, couches, and other upholstered furniture and automobile seats; to make water-repellent fabrics like Gore-Tex, and now in popular clothing lines like Gap Kids, Dockers, and Levis. They are also used to make Teflon coatings for non-stick cookware and grease-resistant food packaging and paper products (food wrap, microwave popcorn bags, French fry boxes, candy wrappers, etc.). Personal care products including makeup, moisturizers, and dental floss may also contain PFCs.

The most widely used and studied among the many different PFCs are the chemicals known as PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perflurooctanoic acid). The use of these two chemicals has led to widespread contamination of people and the environment. Perfluorinated chemicals are extremely persistent. PFOA, which is used to make Teflon and is a breakdown product of stain- and grease-proof coatings, does not degrade at all. It has a half-life in the human body of more than four years. Other PFCs break down and turn into PFOA. PFOS, which was in the Scotchgard formulation until 2000, has a half-life of more than eight years. Exposure appears to be continually renewed through daily contact.

Humans are exposed through contaminated water and food, including fish, and by breathing contaminated air. When Teflon pans are heated, such as during cooking or when discarded products are burned in incinerators, toxic greenhouses gases are produced. The PFCs build up in the bloodstream and liver, umbilical cord blood, and breast milk. In a 2001 study by 3M company, PFOA were found in 96% of 598 children tested in 23 states and the District of Columbia. 3M discontinued production of PFOS in 2001, though other PFCs may degrade into PFOS over time.

PFCs in Maine People

Figure 3 shows that all of the Maine participants were found to have perfluorinated chemicals in their blood. We found six different perfluorinated chemicals of the 13 PFCs that we tested. PFOS and PFOA were the only PFCs that were detected in every Mainer. See Table 2 in the Appendix for complete results.


Figure 3: Total PFC levels, measured in blood serum.

PFOS was detected at the highest level among Maine participants, with a median value of 14.2 ppb. This is lower than the mean estimate for PFOS in a national study of more than 900 people tested in 2001 and 2002. This could reflect a decline in PFOS exposure since production and its use in Scotchgard ceased in 2001. See Table 3 for comparisons.

The median PFOA level among the tested Mainers falls within the national average range for men and women. Three of the other PFCs related to PFOA were found at levels above the average or median levels reported in other studies, while PFOA levels were about average.

State Senator Dana Dow had the highest total PFC level, which was over three times the group median, and the greatest number of PFCs detected—six compounds.
State Senator Dana Dow had the highest total PFC level, which was over three times the group median, and the greatest number of PFCs detected—six compounds. Senator Dow’s levels were more than twice the national average levels for PFOA and related compounds, and for PFHxS (used in carpet treatment). Dana owns a furniture store, and he says that in the past he would spray some furniture in his store with PFC-containing stain-repellent products. He also says he often has new furniture in his home.

HEALTH EFFECTS: Persistent Chemicals Pose Multiple Health Risks

These stain-resistant, non-stick chemicals have been around for decades but have been under scrutiny only recently, and there are few studies of whether low doses of PFCs cause health effects in people. A study of men who had worked in jobs where they were exposed to PFOS found a high rate of deaths due to bladder cancer. Laboratory animal studies show that PFOA and PFOS damage the liver and other organs, cause immune disruption, endocrine effects, reproductive harm, and developmental defects. However, unlike humans, laboratory rats rid their bodies of the chemical in days rather than years.

In response to evidence that PFOA causes testicular, pancreatic, mammary and liver tumors in rats, and increases worker risks of cancer, in January 2006 an expert panel of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) upgraded PFOA to a “likely human carcinogen.” They described the chemical as an indestructible toxic chemical group that pollutes nearly every American's blood. The panel urged the EPA to adopt stricter guidelines to protect human health.

Policy Changes Needed

Under pressure from the EPA, the 3M Company halted production of PFOS-containing products in 2001, reformulating their Scotchgard product to minimize the release of PFCs into the environment. However, non-U.S. producers continue to manufacture PFOS. In 2006, the EPA signed a non-binding voluntary agreement with DuPont, 3M, and six other chemical companies to reduce PFOA from emissions and product content by 95% by 2010, with the ultimate goal of total elimination by 2015. PFOA and related chemicals are still used to manufacture Teflon and Gore-Tex.

While these steps represent tremendous progress, they will not by themselves fully protect public health and the environment from PFCs. Scientific evidence reveals that a wide variety of PFCs that remain in use break down over time into both PFOA and other persistent PFCs. For example, EPA cites a growing body of data indicating that PFCs known as fluorotelomer alcohols degrade or breakdown into PFOA.

Government should review all remaining PFCs and take action to replace any found to be persistent or that break down into persistent PFCs. Health and safety testing should be required for all PFCs and biomonitoring expanded to determine the extent of human exposure.

Reducing Your Exposure to PFCs

To reduce personal exposure, which has not been well studied, avoid purchasing or at least minimize use of products containing PFCs. Consider these tips:

Reduce greasy packaged foods and fast foods in your diet. The packaging for food like microwave popcorn, French fries, and pizza are often treated with grease-resistant coatings.

Avoid stain-resistant furniture and carpets. Decline optional treatments and ask for products that have not been pretreated.

Avoid Teflon or non-stick cookware. If you choose to use non-stick cookware, do not overheat or burn pans, as chemicals can be released when they reach 450F, and discard pans when they get scratched. The fumes from overheated Teflon are deadly to pet birds.

Choose alternatives to clothing with Teflon labels or treated for water or stain-resistance. Many of the treated outerwear and gear are coated with PFCs.

Look out for personal care products. PFCs are added to some cosmetics (nail polish, moisturizers, and eye makeup), shaving cream, and dental floss. Avoid those that have ingredients that include the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro.”

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