Nonstick pans, waterproof mascara, takeout food boxes that do not let grease seep through, and stain resistant carpeting are some of the modern conveniences brought forth by polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl chemical substances, or PFAs. While widely in use for their properties for repelling water and other substances, hundreds of scientists are urging that restrictions be placed on the use of PFAs for fear the chemicals now found in everything from popcorn bags to pizza boxes to outdoor clothes are dangerous.
On Friday, the Environmental Health Perspectives journal published by the National Institutes of Health, issued what was called the Madrid Statement, signed by over 200 scientists from 38 countries, emphasizing the harm in continued use of PFA chemicals. Some PFAs have been discontinued over the years when shown to be harmful, but the scientists are objecting to the common practice of replacing phased-out chemicals with others that are essentially, structurally similar.
Experts have called the switching of one questionable PFA with another “toxic whack-a-mole.” They cite the U.S. legislation on toxic chemicals that allows substances to remain out there until they are proven to be harmful. As one senior chemist who signed the Madrid Statement, Alex Stone, noted, “Companies can currently produce other chemicals without a good idea of their impact on health and the environment.”
One of the best-known examples involves Teflon, a DuPont chemical product, that was used in pots and pans, stain-resistant fabrics and furnishings. More than 50 years ago, a DuPont scientist warned colleagues that the company’s popular Teflon PFA chemicals enlarged the livers of rats and rabbits. Several studies over the following decades found no safe level for animals and determined that humans, too, got sick when exposed to the chemicals. The studies showed they increase they build up in the body and increase the risks of health issues including cancer. Eventually, DuPont stopped the use of one PFA in Teflon products, but many of the products that included the original chemical are still out there in regular use.
In another example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined DuPont $16.5 million in 2005. The EPA said the chemical manufacturer withheld decades of information on PFAs and their hazardous health effects.
Later this year, more PFAs will be phased out in the U.S. The question the scientists are raising, however, is if the replacement chemicals are any better or basically have the same problematic characteristics. “It’s a very serious decision to make chemicals that last that long,” noted chemist Arlene Blum, from the University of California, Berkeley. Blum was the lead author on the Madrid Statement and serves as executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute. “Putting them into consumer products with high levels of human exposure is a worrisome thing,” she added.
Needless to say, chemical manufacturers, including DuPont, maintain their PFAs are safe. But, the scientists who signed the statement are pushing for more studies to be conducted on the replacement chemicals rather than switching out one problem for another. While the scientists are urging greater testing and restrictions be placed on the chemicals being used in popcorn bags, pizza boxes, clothes, cosmetics and more, they are encouraging consumers to avoid products containing PFAs “whenever possible.”
By Dyanne Weiss