Non-Stick, Stain-Resistant & Water-Repellent:
Chemicals of Convenience Aren’t Worth the Cost
“Better things for better living — through chemistry.” This popular DuPont slogan solicited customers from the 1940s to the 1980s. But today, some chemicals, such as PFASs, developed by DuPont and other companies during that era are showing how “better living” comes at a very high price.
PFASs are a class of modern chemicals that we all take for granted – they are incredible substances that make life easier and are found in many products: from stain-resistant sofas to nonstick pans, hiking boots, and even dental floss. Some of the most recognizable brand names for PFAS are Teflon, Gore-Tex, Scotchgard, and Stainmaster. The water-repellency, stain-resistance, and nonstick properties that PFASs provide are huge conveniences, especially for parents of small children or outdoor enthusiasts. Unfortunately, these benefits come with a tremendous cost. PFASs are some of the most toxic and pervasive chemicals humans have created, with serious health ramifications and perpetual environmental impact. Luckily, there are ways you can reduce your exposure to these harmful chemicals by learning where they are found and how to replace them (keep reading for our suggestions below).
What are Perfluorinated Substances & What Do they Do
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are an extensive class of fluorinated organic chemicals that make products nonstick, water-repellent, weather-repellent, weather-protective, and stain-resistant. However, these chemicals, while contributing to many modern conveniences, also disrupt human hormones, affect brain development in children, damage male reproductive systems, and even cause cancer.1
PFASs can be divided into two categories – long and short-chain PFAS. The most widely known are the notorious long-chain perfluorinated chemicals or C8 fluorocarbons. These include PFOA used to create the nonstick properties of Teflon and PFOS used to make Scotchgard. They are now being slowly phased out because of health and environmental issues. For that reason the short-chain PFAS or C6 fluorocarbons, are now being promoted by industry as a safe alternative. Unfortunately, they are much the same as the C8 PFASs in terms of their chemical structure and hazardous potential for both the environment and humans.2 In fact, on May 1, 2015, over 200 scientists from 38 countries signed a consensus called “The Madrid Statement”, urging consumers, governments, and manufacturers to avoid the entire class of the chemical family of fluorinated substances (PFASs) – both long-chain (C8 chemistry) and short-chain (C6 chemistry). So, why are scientists questioning these chemicals that are found in many of America’s most popular brands?
The Health Effects of Perfluorinated Chemicals
PFASs have been associated with a slew of serious health effects. In particular, long-term studies by independent panels have correlated C8 exposure with liver malfunction, ulcerative colitis, reduced fertility, endocrine disruption, pregnancy-induced hypertension, birth defects, thyroid disruption, high cholesterol, obesity, arthritis, leukemia, lymphoma, ovarian, testicular and kidney cancer, hyperactivity, altered immune response in children, hypotonia, (or “floppiness”) in infants, and disruption of gene expression.3 As of 2012, scientists have proven that the effects of PFAS on humans, even at low levels of exposure, is widespread (bioaccumulative) and harmful.4
PFASs: Safe or Not, They’re Here to Stay
PFASs have been produced, used, and disposed of without regulation for over 50 years. Air and water currents have carried the waste from production to remote regions of the globe.5 Today, PFASs are found in the bloodstream of 99.7% of people in the United States (according to a 2007 CDC report).6 But humans are not the only ones affected by PFASs – they have been detected in polar bears, dolphins, seals, and other animals all over the world. In addition, scientists have discovered that PFASs are extremely persistent, and have now been been classified as one of the “Dirty Dozen” persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that resist chemical, biological, and photolytic degradation in the environment. PFASs biomagnify in the food chain and bioaccumulate in animal and human tissues.7
A Not So “Happy” Accident – How PFASs Were Born
The discovery of the incredible properties of PFASs occurred during two laboratory accidents. In 1938, Dr. Roy Plunkett, while looking for non-toxic alternatives to refrigerants, stumbled on the discovery of Teflon in a DuPont laboratory accident.8 Then, in 1953, a 3M lab assistant accidentally spilled some experimental compound on her new tennis shoes, which nothing would remove. Patsy Sherman, the chemist in charge, was intrigued. Sherman’s investigation ultimately resulted in the development of Scotchguard.9 In 1956, 3M’s Scotchgard Protector was launched and a voracious market embraced the versatile fabric and material protector. In 1961, the first U.S. based Teflon coated pan, called “The Happy Pan” was marketed in the U.S. and called “a housewife’s best friend”.
How DuPont & 3M Tricked Consumers and Polluted the Planet
By the time “The Happy Pan” was introduced, DuPont already knew that “C8” PFOA was toxic and should be handled with extreme care. In 1954, DuPont started investigating, documenting, and covering up PFOA’s effects on rats, dogs, rabbits, humans, land and water supplies.10 In the early 1960s, DuPont was burying drums of the chemical on the banks of the Ohio River and dumping the chemical into the ocean.11 Like DuPont, 3M had also been doing its own research on Scotchgard. As early as 1976, 3M had discovered that PFOS was in the blood of the general population and had health ramifications. Yet DuPont and 3M aggressively marketed Teflon and Scotchgard as safe technology for consumers to use.
In the late 1990s, the EPA received information indicating that PFOS (found in Scotchgard) was widespread in the blood of the American people and presented concerns for persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity.12 In a voluntary move in 2003, 3M announced its decision to stop making the chemical used in Scotchgard – PFOS. 3M announced that their move was “not because PFOS is harmful to human health – but because of its persistence in the environment”. The feeble requests by the EPA for voluntary action have been mostly ineffectual as demonstrated by DuPont’s and other companies’ continued expansion and production.13 Through lax EPA regulation and oversight, DuPont continued to manufacture and illegally dispose of PFAS chemicals into waterways and landfills near their factories. This improper disposal of toxic waste led to a major class action lawsuit that is now coming to trial this month (September 2015).14
Are the Short-Chain (C6) PFASs safe?
The EPA has recommended that industry find alternatives to long-chain PFAS. Companies have begun voluntarily phasing them out and replacing them with short-chain C6 PFAS.15 But are the short-chain PFASs safer than the long-chain predecessors? The companies using the newer C6 chemicals say YES, but the science is telling us a resounding NO – they are still harmful to human health and the environment.16 For example, a Danish study has already shown that the short-chain PFASs caused a 16-fold increased risk of miscarriage.17 And just like the long-chain PFASs, short-chain PFASs persist in the environment.
The question is, in the absence of indisputably safe alternatives, will the public be willing to give up some of the conveniences, such as stain-resistance and nonstick properties, to protect themselves against potential health risks? Thankfully, we all have a choice to proactively avoid PFASs as much as we are able in our homes. Below are facts about PFAS sources you might find at home as well as tips for replacing them.
Sources of PFASs – How to Identify, Avoid & Replace Them
Despite the widely known human and environmental health effects of PFAS, neither the EPA nor manufacturers of these chemicals have made progress in protecting the public. However, there are ways you can avoid exposure to PFAS in your home and reduce your own contribution to environmental damage from these chemicals. Routes of exposure to PFAS include contact with PFAS products, indoor air, dust, tap water, and food contaminated by packaging containing PFAS.
General Steps to Reduce Exposure to PFAS
- Remove products that you can from your home that contain PFAS.
- Commit to purchasing PFAS-free products.
- Wash hands before eating to reduce PFAS on your hands transferring to your food.
- HEPA vacuum once a week to reduce PFAS in the dust in your home.
- Inquire about products you buy. Avoid products that state they are nonstick, water-repellent, weather-protective, stain-resistant, or products containing ingredients that include “fluoro”, “perfluor”, “perfluoro”, or “polyfluor” in the name. If an item is either nonstick, waterproof, or stain-resistant, it probably has some type of fluoride-impregnated coating. For example, Teflon is a brand name for a chemical owned by DuPont known for its nonstick properties. However, there are many more brand names that contain this chemical group such as Scotchguard, Stainmaster, Stainsafe, Silverstone, Polartec, Texapore, Shamrock, and Gore-Tex. Be aware: many manufacturers, in an attempt to comply with EPA recommendations and consumer pressure, have eliminated the use of highly fluorinated PFAS (C8 chemistry) and replaced them with the short chain PFASs (C6 chemistry). Avoid all PFASs – both C6 and C8.
- Take action and consider signing “The Fashion Manifesto” – a Greenpeace initiative to encourage brands and suppliers to stop poisoning waterways around the world with hazardous chemicals like PFASs.
Specific Products Containing PFASs
- Microwave popcorn bags
- Fact: Microwave popcorn bags are coated with PFCs to help keep oil from permeating and leaking out of the bag.18
- Tip: Use an air popcorn popper (check with the manufacturer to ensure it is PFAS-free) or make your own on the stove.
- Pizza Boxes
- Fact: Although U.S. manufacturers stopped using long-chain PFASs in pizza boxes and other food containers in 2012, they were replaced with C6 PFAS. These replacement chemicals, which have already been proven unsafe, are being detected in the bloodstream of many Americans.19 Plus, as we’ve mentioned before, pizza boxes often contain BPA, which can transfer into the hot pizza as it sits in the box.
- Tip: Consider eating pizza at the restaurant or making your own at home instead.
- Food wrappers and packaging
- Fact: Fast-food packaging, foil cooking liners, pet food bags, and candy wrappers are now often coated with short-chain PFASs to help keep oil from permeating and leaking out of the wrapper.20 Any bag that’s paper on the outside with a plastic interior liner should be in question. Even worse, many restaurants are using imported containers and wrappers that contain the banned long-chain C8.21
- Tip: Avoid consuming food from packaging that contains PFASs. Inquire with the company about their food packaging. Better yet, cut back on carry-out fast foods and candy.
- Tap Water
- Fact: PFASs are contaminating the nation’s water supplies. They do not break down or degrade in the environment, which means they persist in the soil. PFASs in groundwater runoff from landfills contaminate drinking water at levels that have an adverse affect on children’s immune systems.22
- Tip: Drink purified water.
- Cookware & Baking Dishes
- Fact: There is continuing controversy about nonstick cookware treated with PFASs. DuPont owns the trademark for the well known Teflon, which is a specific type of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE coatings are also sold under the trade names Silverstone, Fluoron, Supra, Excalibar, Greblon, Xylon, and others. There are also an increasing number of “green” and “nonstick” cookware options, but the safety of the chemicals being used to replace Teflon are in question. source Remember, it is always important to check if cookware contains any PFAS.
- Tip: Avoid cookware with nonstick coatings. Opt for stainless steel, cast iron, glass, ceramic, or porcelain cookware. In addition to pots, pans, and baking sheets, also check out deep fryers, crock pots, electric skillets, griddles, broiler pans, coffee makers, never-stick-stainless steel stockpots, bread makers, roasters, non-stick cookie or cake molds, lollipop molds, pizza pans, tortilla or sandwich presses, waffle makers, woks, and cooking utensils for PFAS. Replace nonstick cookware as you can afford it. If you must keep your nonstick cookware, for financial reasons or otherwise, make sure you learn how to cook with it and care for it in the least toxic way: Have Nonstick Cookware? What to Do Until You Can Replace It. For cleaning tips, check out Branch Basics Dishwashing 101.
- Fact: PFAS coatings are added to clothing, jackets, and shoes for both their water-repellency as well as their resistance to oil and dirt stains.
- Tip: Buy only PFAS-free clothes. Avoid tags that say “stain-repellant” or “water-repellant” or feature brand names like GoreTex or Teflon, which are still using the short-chain PFAS.23 If you’re curious what brands are leading the way to nontoxic clothing and gear options, check out Greenpeace’s Detox Catwalk (companies committed to Toxic-Free Fashion by 2020).
- Outdoor Clothing
- Fact: Weather-resistant outdoor clothing, such as jackets and shoes, are typically treated with PFAS to provide lasting level of weather protection.24 In 2012, Greenpeace found that the following manufacturers have made products containing the long-chain C8 repellent – PFOA: Adidas (Gore-Tex, Formation), Columbia (Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective, Omni-Tech Waterproof Breathable), Jack Wolfskin (Texapore, Nanuk 300), Mammut (Exotherm Pro STR), Patagonia (Gore-Tex), The North Face (Gore-Tex, Primaloft One).25 Gore-Tex has already switched from long-chain repellents (C8) to the short chain repellents (C6), but this solution is not the best for human health or the environment.26
- Tip: Do your research before buying outdoor gear – there are already companies searching for safer ways to treat clothing.27 Many companies on the list above have responded to the “Detox Campaign” and EPA recommendations by making the switch to non-PFAS treatments – such as Jack Wolfskin.28 Purchase PFAS-free, weather-proof, breathable membranes made from polyester or polyurethane.
- Outdoor Gear
- Fact: Outdoor products such as tents, table cloths, and sleeping bags advertised as “waterproof” or “stain-repellant” may be treated with PFAS. These chemicals have contributed to the contamination of the environment and cause harm to human and animal health. Greenpeace calls these chemical treatments “highly convenient, but lethal”.29
- Tip: Look for products made with non-PFAS treatments such as nylon treated with polyurethane. You can even weather-proof your own canvas or other fabrics using beeswax.
- Household Products
- Fact: PFASs are used as emulsifiers, surfactants/wetting agents in cleaning products, floor polishes and latex paints. They are also used in water-repellent sprays for apparel and footwear, treating textiles, upholsteries, carpets, and leather, in order to impart water, oil, soil and stain-resistance.
- Tip: Read labels and choose products that are free of PFAS.
- Fact: Carpet is typically treated with toxic PFAS-based, stain-proof, and water-repellent treatments. In an EPA government study, carpet and carpet treatment products were found to have very high levels of PFAS.30 Babies, children, and pets are particularly susceptible to exposure from inhalation of PFAS off-gassing from carpet and carpet protectants when they are lying, crawling or spending large amounts of time on the carpet. The EPA began recommending restriction of use in 2013 and some expansion of restriction in 2015, but this is voluntary.31 Since PFAS-based stain-repellents wear off with age and repeated cleaning, many carpet-cleaning products contain stain repellents to “recharge” the carpet’s existing treatment.
- Tip: Avoid carpets treated with perfluorinated compounds and skip optional stain treatments on new carpets. Consider replacing carpet with a chemical-free option or another type of flooring such as tile, hardwood, or untreated cork. Avoid using carpet-cleaning products with PFAS and clean up spills with non-toxic cleaners, like Branch Basics cleaning soap, instead. Use a HEPA vacuum frequently to remove SVOCs released from the carpet.
- Fact: Fabrics on upholstered furniture are often treated with stain-resistant and water-resistant PFAS. Newer nanoparticle-based soil-repellants have also been developed from the fluorocarbon chemistry.32 Beware of fabrics that have been pre-treated – these fabric coatings are often made with PFAS.
- Tip: Avoid all fluorocarbon chemistry-based “repellants” and skip optional stain treatments on furniture. When you are able, replace treated furniture/fabrics. In the meantime, HEPA vacuum weekly to reduce dust contaminated with PFAS. If you’re concerned about staining new furniture – check out our nontoxic stain-fighting recommendations and maybe restrict eating when on upholstered furniture.
- Personal Care Products, Cosmetics, & Dental Products
- Fact: PFASs are added to cosmetics to enhance the way they feel, to aid in ease of application, provide water resistance, and gloss. Personal care products and cosmetics – from eye shadow to shaving cream to lip balm – contain PFASs. The Food and Drug Administration does not review the safety of cosmetics ingredients and no public studies of exposure to PFAS through cosmetic products have been completed.33 Eyeshadow, foundation, facial powder, bronzer and blush account for nearly 80% of the products with PFAS. Some dental floss, like Oral B Glidefloss, is treated with PFAS. Skin Deep also identifies 15 other fluorinated chemicals in cosmetics.34
- Tip: Avoid personal care products and cosmetics with PTFE, or any ingredient that contains “perfluor” or “polyfluor” in the word. Use unwaxed dental floss.
- Fact: A 2010 study found that PFASs were among the top-ranked SVOC contaminants of concern selected for a dust ingestion exposure assessment. In other words, PFASs are found in the dust in your home, which can be harmful if inhaled (or even ingested – a serious concern for babies and small children).source
- Tip: Remove as many sources of PFASs as you can, using this list as a guide. Vacuum with a HEPA vacuum thoroughly, at least once a week. This will reduce SVOC levels and reduce exposure to PFAS in your home.
Other Sources of PFAS
PFASs are found in many more products than listed above.35 Here are a few examples:
- Apple Watch Band (sports)
- thread sealant tape (Teflon tape)
- heat lamps
- portable heaters
- sole plates on irons
- ironing board covers
- burners on stove tops
- burner drip pans
- nonstick rolling pins
- health-protection textiles
- seat covers
You can’t swap out all PFAS products overnight, but you can focus on reducing your family’s exposure to PFASs as you are able. At Branch Basics, we believe that creating a healthy home is one of the most important proactive preventative health steps you can take. Our “Common Household Chemicals to Avoid” series is designed to be a reference you can use to make changes as you are able. As an informed consumer, you can make a difference in your home as well as the environment. Join us in transforming your life and discovering the Power of Pure!