Your Health: Perfluorinated Chemicals

Nancy Heppwritten by Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

It isn’t often that a class of chemicals is the subject of three independent news items on the same day, but the perfluorinated chemicals that have helped give Teflon and Stainmaster their nonstick properties received considerable attention yesterday.

The Intercept published a three-part series on DuPont and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which is also called C8. According to The Intercept‘s article, the nonstick properties of the chemicals made them useful, and used, “in hundreds of products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes” in addition to cookware. There’s a very high likelihood that you carry PFOA or related pefluorinated compounds in your body, for at least one such compound was detected in more than 98 percent of blood samples from a large study of Americans conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of their regular assessments. These chemicals have been found in virtually all newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood samples. Even though DuPont has stopped using PFOA, it will be with us for a long time, “expected to remain on the planet well after humans are gone from it.”

DuPont’s own internal experiments on rats, dogs, and rabbits showed that PFOA was associated with a wide range of health problems that sometimes killed the lab animals. After years of research, a science panel convened as part of a lawsuit found that PFOA was associated with ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease in children, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (See the panel’s list of publications.)

cover of the EWG reportThe Environmental Working Group published a separate report yesterday, Teflon Chemical Harmful at Smallest Doses. The report summarizes research finding “that even very tiny concentrations of PFOA—below the reporting limit required by EPA’s tests of public water supplies—are harmful.”

Further recent research was highlighted in an article from Environmental Health News: Breastfeeding exposes babies to water- and stain-proofing chemicals. This study looked at five types of perfluorinated alkylate substances in the blood of 81 children who were born in the Faroe Islands between 1997 and 2000. Regrettably, breastfeeding was found to be “an important exposure pathway to some PFASs in infants.”

A search for ways to reduce exposures to PFOA is just as disheartening as the research about its effects: the US Environmental Protection Agency states: “At present, there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA.” Throwing out your Teflon pans won’t be very helpful, for as the American Cancer Society advises, “while PFOA is used in making Teflon, it is not present (or is present in extremely small amounts) in Teflon-coated products.” The West Virginia Bureau for Public Health (DuPont has a large facility in West Virginia) recommends these steps in a 2009 fact sheet:

  • Public Health officials recommend that mothers potentially exposed to PFOA continue to breastfeed. More than two decades of research have established that breast milk is perfectly suited to nourish infants and protect them from illness.
  • To reduce exposures to infants, caregivers in the area should use premixed baby formula or reconstitute using alternative water sources not containing PFOA. Residents may contact their water supplier for more information about PFOA in their drinking water.
  • Pregnant women, women of child-bearing age, children, and the elderly should reduce exposures to untreated water containing PFOA as much as is reasonably achievable.

This post is part of a regular series that summarizes and highlights recent Your Health items and trends. Readers can follow CHE’s Your Health news feed or subscribe via RSS.

While individual actions to safeguard or improve health are important, we cannot individually address broad issues regarding pollutants, food supply, access to health care, poverty, climate change, infectious diseases and other issues that impact the health of individuals and communities. Join CHE to strengthen the science dialogue on environmental factors impacting human health and to facilitate collaborative, prevention-oriented efforts to address environmental health concerns.

Bringing attention to specific resources and findings does not mean CHE endorses or validates them. We highlight the emerging science and its implications for Your Health, knowing that thinking will continue to evolve as new studies are published.

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