Recently I listened in on the first in a series of free webinars organized by the Green Science Policy Institute covering six classes of chemicals that are of particular concern because they are common in consumer products, but not adequately regulated.
The first webinar in the series was on fluorinated chemicals (aka PFCs). These are of interest to me because they are used on paper food packaging to make it resistant to moisture and grease. The mystery is which paper products are made with fluorinated chemicals, because there’s no requirement to disclose this information to consumers. Fluorinated chemicals can be used on baking papers like cupcake liners, french fry cartons, and pizza boxes; the most commonly cited food contact use is on the interior of microwave popcorn bags. Fluorinated chemicals are also extensively used to make carpets and fabrics stain-resistant, to make apparel waterproof, to make cookware “non-stick,” and even to make dental floss glide between your teeth.
The most concerning of these fluorinated chemicals, known as “long-chain” or C8 chemicals, are PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), which was banned from production in the U.S. in 2002, and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which is being phased out in the U.S. by 2015. Two similar “short-chain” fluorochemicals–called C4 and C6–are currently being substituted for PFOA. Recently DuPont declared that it was on track to end its use of PFOA in its Teflon products, yet it will continue making products with fluorinated chemicals.
The traits that make PFOA and its relatives, C4 and C6, most useful—their durability and resistance to degradation—are also the features that make these synthesized chemicals a danger in the natural environment. Fluorinated chemicals don’t break down easily or quickly; they are persistent, and the residue stays in the human body for years. Scientists believe that food is an important means of human exposure.
Due to their widespread use, fluorochemicals are now detected globally in soil and sediment, seawater, surface waters, groundwater, air, snow, rain and in land-based and marine wildlife, as well as in humans. Water treatment plants are unable to remove fluorinated chemicals from water. Although a host of negative health effects in humans have been linked to C8 exposure, there is little toxicological data on the closely related C4 and C6 chemicals now being broadly used as substitutes.
In light of the persistence of fluorinated chemicals and the negative human and environmental health effects linked to them, we must ask: is it really necessary to use long-lasting fluorocarbons for applications such as microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers? And the answer is: no!
For specific instances where grease-or water-proof traits are absolutely critical, the Green Science Policy Institute believes we should be actively researching safe, “green” alternatives. One route to finding safe alternatives might be biomimicry, studying Mother Nature’s remarkable ability to create impermeability where needed, without harm to life. If you are unfamiliar with the term biomimicry, I urge you to take the time to watch this fascinating Ted talk by Janine Benyus:[ted id=614]
Upcoming webinars organized by the Green Policy Science Institute will cover solvents, heavy metals and green chemistry. If you are interested in these topics, join in to learn more.