PFOA and PTFE – an environmental disaster

A common synthetic chemical compound used extensively in the preparation of coatings in some non-stick cookware and as component of many other items may be wreaking a horrible environmental toll.

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is used in the production of Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).. It belongs to a group of chemicals known as Perfluorochemicals (PFCs). These don’t break down and as such, increasing amounts of them are building up in our environment, causing bioaccumulation in food chains – and ourselves.

Even if all production of PFCs were to cease tomorrow; in a hundred years, two hundred or even five hundred years from now, the same amount of these toxic chemicals would be present in the environment. It contaminates everything – air, water, soil; permanently.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) based non-stick cookware when heated to high temperatures is known to be deadly poisonous to birds. There are many reports around dating back decades linking the first time heating or over-heating of non-stick cookware to the sudden deaths of domestic birds.  Teflon® fumes generated by over-heating can also cause “polymer fume fever” in people, which is much like the flu.

And yet, items containing these chemicals continue to be sold in huge quantities.

This isn’t breaking news and governments are well aware of the potential toxicity of PTFE,  PFOA and PFC’s generally. In a report submitted to the US Government by 3M in 2001, a major manufacturer of this chemical, scientists reported finding PFOA in the blood of 96 percent of hundreds of children tested. 3M announced in in May 2000 that it would cease producing the chemical.

20 years earlier, DuPont – the makers of Teflon® , found PFOA in the blood of babies born to female workers working in a Teflon®  plant. Out of seven pregnant workers being monitored; two had babies with birth defects. It’s my understanding that DuPont used to source PFOA from 3M, but once 3M stopped production; DuPont built its own plant and is now the only manufacturer of the chemical in the USA.

The warning signs relating to PFCs actually started appearing as early as the 1970’s and many other studies have been carried out since then to now; all sounding alarms about these substances. It really makes me wonder why DuPont would continue with production knowing all this. Well, it doesn’t really. It’s all about shareholders and profits; focus on the  short term buck and future generations be damned. As for government; big business runs it – and DuPont is huge.

PFOA and PFCs are also found in many other products; including stain resistant carpets, lotions, nail polish, and shaving cream. For an indication of their presence, look for any substance containing “fluoro” or “perfluoro” on the ingredient list.

Clothes that have been treated to repel water or stains may also contain these chemicals. Even some fast food packaging may contain PFCs as a way to prevent oil from soaking through.

Play it safe; if in any doubt about a product, ask the manufacturer. The very unfortunate thing is there’s no safe way to dispose of these items; but we can certainly take steps to stop purchasing them.

For further information about PFOA and PFC’s, the Environmental Working Group offers a very comprehensive report.