Feature - The Rise and Fall of Teflon
When do you cross the threshold from convenient to dangerous?
– Dan Rather’s news broadcast on PFCs
Perflourinated Compounds (PFCs)
In the late 1940s, the American corporation 3M developed a class of industrial chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Perflourinated compounds are surface treatments that enable products to be water, stain, and grease repellant. They have been used for decades in the manufacture of flooring, carpeting, furniture, cookware, apparel, footwear, fast food packaging, waxing and polishing products, adhesives, paint, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, electronics and fire-fighting foam.
We know them through some of their familiar brand names like Scotchgard, Teflon, Stainmaster, and Goretex.
The Chemical Revolution
Perflourinated compounds were part of the post-war chemical revolution aimed at making modern life more convenient for housewives since the 1950s. We never questioned the safety of these fabulous new products until the people who worked for 3M and Dupont started getting cancer and having babies with deformities. And even then it was all hush for another 20 years before the story finally exploded. By the time the truth came to light perflourinated compounds had already become ubiquitous in the environment across the globe.
It’s in Our Blood
A study done in 2004 found perflourinated compounds in 98% of blood samples taken from the general U.S. population. According to Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, every baby born today has perflourinated chemicals in their blood. He makes an astute observation about involuntary exposure in the 2018 documentary, The Devil We Know:
“No one said I am good with a little Teflon in my baby’s blood, they said ‘I love these pans’!”
PFOA and related chemicals are so widespread they are found in the dust of average North American households, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the cloths we wear. The big concern with PFCs is that they are persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic. Persistent chemicals are generally very resistant to biodegradation and tend to linger for years. Once perflourinated chemicals are in your blood, they stay there for an average of 3-5 years.
It’s in Our Children
Despite regulatory measures to limit perflourinated compounds, a 2017 study conducted by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation found PFCs in 86% of sampled Canadian children’s products ranging from snow suits, winter gloves, rain jackets, outdoor sports wear, baby blankets and bed linens.
PFCs are capable of leaching into the body from sportswear through saliva and sweat, and like many industrial chemicals, the health effects of PFCs are magnified in babies and children because their little bodies cannot metabolize chemicals in the same way adults can.
Perflourinated compounds are classified as carcinogens, liver toxicants, developmental toxicants, immune system toxicants, and hormone disruptors.
In 2001, a class action lawsuit was filed against Dupont on behalf of West Virginian residents living along the watershed where the company dumped PFOA for decades. The plaintiffs used the settlement money to fund one the largest human health studies in the history of the world.
A panel of scientists monitored 70,000 participants over a span of 7 years and concluded in 2012 that there was an uncontestable link between PFOA and 7 diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol.
After the first class action lawsuit was filed, the EPA and eight American manufacturers agreed to a ‘stewardship program’ aimed at reducing emissions and PFCs levels in consumer products, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them entirely by 2015.
The outcome was Dupont formed a spin-off company called Chemours, which began producing a new version of PFOA, called Gen-X, effectively replacing one poison with another.
In February of 2017, Chemours and Dupont paid out $670 million to settle 3,550 lawsuits in Ohio and West Virginia, followed by a third round of class-action lawsuits that were filed in October of 2018 by residents of North Carolina, all claiming to have deleterious health effects from industrial dumping into their water.
The latest suit seeks funding for an epidemiological study to gauge the impact of PFOA, and other polyfluorinated substances, including Gen-X. Toxicologists from Dupont have known about the health risks associated with perflourinated compounds since the 1970s but that did not stop them from using the American people as guinea pigs anyways.
“We don’t want to believe that every day we get up in the morning we are at the mercy of a corporation that might lie to us and poison us for profit.”
-Ken Cook, EWG
The story of PFOA is a perfect illustration of how willing and naive we are to pay for products laden with toxic chemicals in the name of convenience and innovation. We don’t stop to question the products we buy, yet we are dumbfounded by the sheer number of people we know who have been diagnosed with cancer. We can’t sit around hoping corporations will take responsibility. We need to think differently about how we live and what we are willing to buy.