Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a man-made chemical used in the processing and producing of Teflon. Also called C8, the chemical was developed in the 1930s and brought into production in the 1940s. 1 PFOA is one type of perfluorinated chemical (PFC), a large group of compounds used to reduce friction in nonstick cookware and make fabric stain and water resistant. 2
In an effort to ensure their own financial success, DuPont, a manufacturer of C8, became a master of deception and manipulative public relation strategies. Although the company knew about the effects of PFOA on the environment and human health for decades, it repeatedly lied to federal and local regulators, consumers and even their own employees about its toxicity. 3
Nonstick cookware became enormously popular as it was convenient and easy to clean. The same is true for stain- and water-repellent clothing, carpets and fabrics, all treated with PFCs to achieve this result. Despite the convenience and popularity, I began warning about the health hazards of C8 over 15 years ago and as a result was threatened with legal action by DuPont.
Today, the evidence is clear and the dangers undeniable. In a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, data reveals baby boys exposed to PFCs before birth experience a reduction in testosterone, resulting in smaller male organs. 4
Teflon Pans Trigger Reduction in Size and Girth
In 2017, DuPont agreed to pay $670 million to settle 3,500 lawsuits in Ohio and West Virginia, brought by residents who believe they were poisoned by drinking water contaminated with PFOAs the company knowingly released into the surface water. 5
In a continuing study of how the chemical has affected humans and wildlife, data was collected from 383 male high school students (average age 18) from Padua, Italy, including 212 who were exposed to high levels of PFCs in their drinking water. The area is known as having high levels of environmental PFC pollution due to runoff from a chemical factory and wastewater treatment plant. 6
The researchers found young men who grew up in the area had penises 12.5 percent shorter and 6.3 percent thinner than men not exposed to high levels of PFC toxins. PFCs are found in everyday items, including fast food packaging, glues, cosmetics, cleaning products and insecticides. 7
The chemicals enter the bloodstream and bind to testosterone receptors, thus reducing the levels of testosterone used by the body. 8 The result is smaller penises, poor quality sperm and a shorter distance between the scrotum and anus — an external sign of lower fertility . Absorption can occur through the intestines from food, drinking water or inhalation. According to the researchers: 9
“This study documents that PFCs have a substantial impact on human male health as they directly interfere with hormonal pathways potentially leading to male infertility.
We found that increased levels of PFCs in plasma and seminal fluid positively correlate with circulating testosterone and with a reduction of semen quality, testicular volume, penile length and AGD [anogenital distance].
Interestingly, the majority of the exposed male population showed a reduction in testicular volume, penile length and AGD, but not anthropometrics in males aged 18 to 19.
As the first report on water contamination of PFCs goes back to 1977, the magnitude of the problem is alarming as it affects an entire generation of young individuals, from 1978 onwards.”
What Are PFCs?
PFCs are fluorinated chemicals. The fluorine atoms create the nonstick slipperiness giving Teflon its unique qualities. During the legal process of suing DuPont, hundreds of internal documents were uncovered showing the company knew about the chemical's danger to the public and employees, likely as early as 1961.
Although this information has only recently reached the courts, over a decade ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades worth of information about health hazards. It was the largest fine the EPA had ever assessed, but it did not act as a deterrent and DuPont continued to manufacture and release C8 into the environment.
Two PFCs, PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are no longer manufactured in the U.S. but are found in products produced internationally and imported into the U.S. in consumer goods such as leather, textiles, paper, packaging and plastics . 10 Contamination in the Veneto region in Italy where the featured study participants lived, is linked to industrial production.
The chemical plant in the area has been active since 1968, manufacturing herbicides and pharmaceuticals. In a comprehensive two-year study investigating the distribution and sources of PFC in the region, high concentrations of PFOA were found in rivers and samples of drinking water in the Padua and Verona areas.
This suggested to the researchers a common contamination source triggering levels remarkably higher than threshold limits recommended by the EPA and the German Drinking Water Commission. 11
PFCs Associated With a Number of Other Health Concerns
According to the EPA, 12 PFOA and PFOS cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney and immunological problems in laboratory animals. The most consistent findings from human studies have been linked to an increase in cholesterol levels , low infant birth weight, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
Arlene Blum, a University of California chemist, and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, is the lead author of the Madrid Statement, 13 signed by more than 200 scientists from 40 countries, 14 which presents the scientific consensus on the harmful health effects of PFAS chemicals. The statement reveals: 15
“Although some of the long-chain PFASs are being regulated or phased out, the most common 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."
Although older chemicals are no longer in production, as the statement points out shorter chain fluorinated alternatives are persistent, less effective and may require larger quantities to achieve the same result. The Madrid Statement also lists many of the documented health effects associated with long-chain PFASs, including:
Neonatal toxicity and death
Tumors in multiple organ systems
Reduced birth weight and size
Testicular and kidney cancers
Reduced hormone levels
Decreased immune response to vaccines
Adverse neurobehavioral effects
Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine system
DuPont Poisoned the World
For over 15 years, Rob Bilott, an environmental attorney and partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, has waged a legal battle against DuPont. 16 His journey began on behalf of a West Virginia farmer who reluctantly sold 66 acres of land to DuPont in the early 1980s so the company could establish a landfill.
The tract of land sold to DuPont had a creek running through it leading into the area where the farmer grazed his cows. Not long after the sale, his cattle developed mysterious ailments and more than 150 head of cattle had died by the time the farmer, Wilbur Tennant, contacted Bilott.
In the initial lawsuit filed in 1999, DuPont commissioned a study of Tennant’s property with the help of the EPA. Three veterinarians were selected by DuPont and three were chosen by the EPA. The report found DuPont was not responsible for the cattle's health problems; rather, it was poor husbandry, poor nutrition and inadequate veterinary care.
During the ensuing protracted legal battle Bilott received more than 110,000 pages of material from DuPont relating to PFOA dating back nearly 50 years. The documentation demonstrated DuPont had known the chemical was damaging to the environment and human health. 17
Once in possession of this information, Bilott contacted DuPont, which quickly settled with the Tennants, reducing public exposure of the information in court. However, it was only after he pursued another class-action lawsuit against DuPont, representing nearly 70,000 people in six water districts, that the EPA announced PFOA may pose a health risk to the general public.
The contamination problems were not limited to the Ohio and West Virginia areas as demonstrated by the Teflon report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), 18 which found PFOA in 94 water districts across the 27 states. The same report highlighted research demonstrating PFOA is dangerous at levels 1,300 times lower than previously recognized by the EPA.
PFOA is now found in over 99 percent of American blood samples, according to analysis for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 19 and environmentally as far as Sand Island Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific Ocean south of the Bering Sea. 20 The chemical is ubiquitous and does not degrade. In fact, scientists expect C8 will remain well after all humans have perished. 21
Reduce Your Exposure to Damaging Hormone Disrupting Chemicals
It is clear the chemical industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself, and DuPont stands as a shining example of this. It can take decades before a chemical is publically recognized as dangerous, and then the company can simply switch over to another untested, unregulated chemical.
The Madrid Statement 22 recommends avoiding any and all products containing or manufactured using PFASs, noting they include products that are stain-resistant, waterproof and nonstick. Helpful tips can also be found in the EWG's "Guide to Avoiding PFCS." 23
Besides listing a number of sportswear brands known to use PFCs in their shoes and clothing, the guide also notes Apple admits the wristband of its new Apple Watch Sport model is made with PFCs. Other suggestions to help you avoid these dangerous chemicals include avoiding:
Items pretreated with stain-repellent — Opt out of such treatments when buying new furniture and carpets.
Water- and/or stain-repellent clothing — One tipoff clothing includes these chemicals is when the artificial fibers are described as "breathable." These are typically treated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a synthetic fluoropolymer.
Items treated with flame-retardant chemicals — These may include a wide variety of baby items, padded furniture, mattresses and pillows. 24 Instead, opt for naturally less flammable materials such as leather, wool and cotton.
Fast food and carry out foods — These products are often contained in wrappers typically treated with PFCs.
Microwave popcorn — PFOA may not only present in the inner coating of the bag, it also may migrate to the oil from the packaging during heating. Instead, use "old-fashioned" stovetop popcorn .
Nonstick cookware and other treated kitchen utensils — Healthier options include ceramic and enameled cast iron cookware, both of which are durable, easy to clean (even the toughest cooked-on foods can be wiped away after soaking it in warm water), and completely inert, which means they won't release any harmful chemicals into your home.
While some recommend using aluminum, stainless steel or copper cookware, I don't for the following reasons: Aluminum is a strongly suspected causal factor in Alzheimer's disease, and stainless steel has alloys containing nickel, chromium, molybdenum and carbon. For those with nickel allergies, this may be a particularly important consideration.
Copper cookware is also not recommended because most copper pans come lined with other metals, creating the same concerns noted above. (Copper cookware must be lined due to the possibility of copper poisoning.)
Oral-B Glide floss — Also avoid other personal care products containing PTFE or "fluoro" or "perfluoro" ingredients. The EWG has an excellent database called "Skin Deep" 25 you can peruse to find healthier options.