Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are so ubiquitous that many of them are now detected in humans—including children. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a dozen different types of perfluorinated compounds were detected in Americans tested.1
The two most talked about PFCs include PFOA, which was widely used to make non-stick cookware, and PFOS, which was a key ingredient in stain-resistant fabrics. These chemicals have been linked to so many health problems – cancer, miscarriages, thyroid problems, and more – that they’ve been phased out in the US and essentially banned in Europe.
The problem is that PFCs, which are scientifically known as poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), are a family of chemicals, and PFOA and PFOS make up only two of them.
The products being used in their place are structurally similar and likely pose many of the same health and environmental risks. Some of the newer PFCs have even caught the attention of international scientists, who released a statement calling for caution. According to the report:2
“…the most common [PFOA and PFOS] replacements are short-chain PFASs with similar structures, or compounds with fluorinated segments joined by ether linkages.
While some shorter-chain fluorinated alternatives seem to be less bioaccumulative, they are still as environmentally persistent as long-chain substances or have persistent degradation products.
Thus, a switch to short-chain and other fluorinated alternatives may not reduce the amounts of PFASs in the environment. In addition, because some of the shorter-chain PFASs are less effective, larger quantities may be needed to provide the same performance.”
What Are the Health Risks of PFCs?
In 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined PFOA is a likely human carcinogen.3 The chemicals are also known as endocrine disrupters; birth defects, reproductive problems, and other serious health problems have also been linked to their use.
For instance, research from the University of Southern Denmark found women with higher levels of PFASs (specifically PFNA and PFDA) had a 16 times greater risk of miscarriage than women with the lowest levels.4
The statement released by 14 scientists sounded further alarm and urged consumers to avoid the chemicals as much as possible. “PFASs are man-made and found everywhere,” the report noted, adding “PFASs are highly persistent, as they contain perfluorinated chains that only degrade very slowly, if at all, under environmental conditions.”5
The chemicals migrate out of consumer products into air, household dust, food, soil, and ground water, and they make their way into drinking water. The report continues:6
“In animal studies, some long-chain PFASs have been found to cause liver toxicity, disruption of lipid metabolism and the immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, and tumors in multiple organ systems.
In the growing body of epidemiological evidence, some of these effects are supported by significant or suggestive associations between specific long-chain PFASs and adverse outcomes, including associations with testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response… and reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.
Due to their high persistence, global distribution, bioaccumulation potential, and toxicity, some PFASs have been listed under the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).”