Not so Fast: New Stain-Resistant Chemicals Look a Lot Like the Old Toxic Ones (And We Don’t Need Them!)

by Tracey Easthope

Fluorinated chemicals have only been a part of our lives for less than fifty years, but in that time they have infiltrated every corner of our bodies, our homes, and our waterways. A new resource from the Green Science Policy Institute titled Fluorinated Alternatives: Myths versus Facts sheds some light on current research, and suggests alternatives to using these chemicals at all.

Up until the 1970s, there was a craze to protect furniture from kids and pets by using a clear plastic covering on the family’s best seating - usually in the room reserved for guests or important occasions. It had the strange effect of making the room seem like it was embalmed, but it lengthened the life of the furniture by preventing it from being soiled.

(M. Lepis/Flickr)

The introduction of stain repellants for furniture must have seemed like a big advance. You didn’t need the plastic covers; you could just infuse the surfaces with this modern stain and water repellant chemistry called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), or C8 for short, a key ingredient of Teflon. The idea was so exciting and the chemistry so versatile that new uses were developed and applied to everything from Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing to ski wax, from tennis rackets to stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture, from food wraps to fire-fighting foam.

Although concerns about its toxicity were apparent early on, industry continued to manufacture and market it and to conceal the hazards. The story has now been detailed by investigative journalists and in court documents from a massive class action lawsuit, among other legal challenges. The result is that nearly every American is exposed to the highly-persistent and toxic chemical, and 6.5 million Americans in 27 states are drinking water contaminated with it. C8 has been linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer. More recent research suggests a possible link with ovarian cancer; prostate cancer; lymphoma; reduced fertility; arthritis; hyperactivity and altered immune responses in children; and hypotonia, or “floppiness,” in infants.

C8 is being phased out as a result of years of activism, legal action, and public pressure. However, new similar chemistries, including molecules like C6 and C4, are now widely used. A new generation of scientists and activists have started to raise concerns about the new chemistries, while industry claims the products are safe.

One of those organizations is the Green Science Policy Institute. They have just released a new fact sheet called: Fluorinated Alternatives: Myths versus Facts. The information is sobering and should give us all pause because the compounds are still so widely used in everything from food wrappers to carpet and furnishings, and we all have the potential to be exposed to them every day.

Some of the concerns detailed in the new fact sheet include:

  • The new chemicals are very persistent. Like their long-chain (C8) cousins, they will be with us forever.
  • The fluorinated alternatives are even more difficult to clean up from the environment than C8. Activated carbon filtration doesn’t work as well on the new C4 and C6 chemicals.
  • Studies show that highly-fluorinated chemicals can move from contaminated water into food crops such as lettuce and strawberries. The new chemicals are found in such crops at higher levels than C8 chemicals.
  • Experimental animals exposed to the new chemicals had increases in several types of cancer and changes to the liver and immune system.
  • In 2015, more than 200 scientists from around the world signed the Madrid Statement, which called for limiting the production and use of fluorinated chemicals because of concerns about toxicity.
  • A recent study found that concentrations of short-chain fluorinated chemicals were higher than C8’s in human kidney, lung, liver, and brain tissue.

Most importantly, the new chemistries are NOT necessary. Many brands are removing all highly-fluorinated chemicals from their products, such as IKEA, Crate & Barrel, Levi Strauss, and more than 50 others.

Health Care Without Harm has been at the forefront of this issue through the Healthier Hospitals program. The Healthy Interiors goal was designed to reward hospitals that move away from ALL fluorinated chemistry. As part of the program, we helped create lists of furniture, textiles, curtains, and other products that do not contain fluorinated chemistry. Download the lists of products without fluorinated chemicals and join other leadership hospital systems in making a commitment to eliminate the unnecessary use of these problematic chemicals.

Tracey Easthope is the Environmental Health Director at Ecology Center