Scientists urge replacement of water and stain repellants

More than 200 scientists from 38 countries come out against fluorinated chemicals thought to cause cancers, hormone troubles, and brain and liver problems

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      The following article was originally published by Environmental Health News

      Chemicals used to make products waterproof and stain resistant are persistent, pervasive, potentially harmful to humans, and should be regulated and largely replaced, according a statement signed by more than 200 scientists.

      The “Madrid Statement” was authored by 14 scientists and signed by 208 more from 38 countries around the world representing a variety of scientific disciplines. The statement was issued amid growing concern that exposure to highly fluorinated chemicals — found everywhere, including in people — is linked to certain cancers, hormone disruption, brain and liver problems and lower birth weights.

      “We call on the international community to cooperate in limiting the production and use of PFASs [poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances] and in developing safer non-fluorinated alternatives,” says the statement published in today’s Environmental Health Perspectives journal.

      A rebuttal published by the journal from Jessica Bowman, executive director of the FluoroCouncil, a trade association representing fluorinated compound manufacturers, argues the potentially harmful compounds are no longer used and alternatives used today are necessary for many products and safe for humans.

      Fluorinated chemicals are often used in waterproof jackets and other apparel.
      Carolyn Willitts/flickr

      The Madrid Statement is also accompanied by an editorial from Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and Philippe Grandjean of Harvard’s School of Public Health. The two call for more research into potential health impacts of highly fluorinated compounds and alternatives.

      Highly fluorinated chemicals are used in products such as upholstery, waxes, non-stick cookware, food packaging and carpeting. They migrate out of products and degrade very slowly — showing up in air, household dust, water, dirt, wildlife and people.

      The scientists say governments should only allow essential uses of such compounds, enforce labeling and do more testing on potential health concerns. In addition, they urge manufacturers to make data on the compounds public, bolster monitoring and develop alternatives.

      “When you put these in the environment, they don’t come back out,” said Graham Peaslee, a chemist and professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and one of 14 of the statement’s authors. “They will only keep building up in the environment and that scares me as scientist and as a parent.”

      The chemical bonds of fluorinated compounds — the fluorine-carbon bond — are among the “strongest known,” Peaslee said. “The bonds don’t break.”

      The FluoroCouncil said in a rebuttal statement that the strong bond is “critical to the reliable and safe function of many products” such as airplanes, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and fire-fighting foam.

      There are two types of these compounds — long chain and short chain, the latter having fewer carbons.

      Long-chain compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (also PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) are more heavily studied, linger longer in the human body, and have been linked to testicular and kidney cancers, low birth weights, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and hypertension and low birth weights.

      Most of the findings were from a large health study in Mid-Ohio Valley communities — dubbed the C8 Science Panel — that started in 2005 in response to widespread PFOA (also known as C8) contamination in the region from the DuPont Washington Works facility near Parkersburg, West Virginia. The massive study had 69,030 participants. 

      In laboratory animal studies, long chain forms of the chemicals have disrupted immune and endocrine systems, harmed brains and caused tumors.

      Due to these health concerns, long chain forms of the compounds have largely been phased out. 3M, a major manufacturer of stain-resistant coatings and additives, phased-out PFOS in 2002 and PFOA in 2008.

      PFOS is regulated as a persistent organic pollutant in the European Union, and PFOA is restricted in Norway and there's a proposal to include it and related substances under the European Union’s chemical regulation program (REACH), said Simona Balan, and co author of the statement and senior scientist with the Green Policy Institute based in Berkeley, California.

      The U.S. EPA in January of this year proposed requiring manufacturers to let the agency know 90 days in advance if they planned on using certain long-chain fluorinated compounds, so the agency could evaluate if the use is necessary. It is accepting public comments until mid-June.

      EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said most U.S. companies are on track to phase-out the long chain perfluorinated chemicals by the end of 2015 and have successfully developed more than 150 alternatives.

      The FluoroCouncil statement said that if the Madrid Statement was only about long chain compounds, the Council would mostly agree with the recommendations.

      Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, wrote in an editorial that the discussion of fluorinated compound usage "cannot be resolved by science alone."

      However, Balan said little is known about short chain alternatives.

      “There’s really a lack of data on health effects for a lot of these chemicals,” Balan said.

      While the short chain chemicals don’t stay in people’s bodies as long as their long chain counterparts, that doesn’t mean they’re harmless, she said.

      “Shorter chain compounds might be eliminated faster from our body, but if they’re used a lot, we’ll see the same problem we have with chemicals like BPA [bisphenol-A]: it’ll constantly be in us because we’re exposed constantly,” Balan said.

      The FluoroCouncil argues that short-chain alternatives have undergone “rigorous review” by multiple government agencies.

      “The published data and data submitted to regulatory authorities support the conclusion that short-chain PFASs [per and polyfluoroalkyl substances] are not expected to be harmful to human health or the environment. Any claim that data are not available on the hazards and risks of these substances is simply incorrect,” the statement said.

      DuPont spokeswoman, Janet Smith, concurred with the FluoroCouncil.

      “We do not believe the Madrid Statement reflects a true consideration of the available data on alternatives to PFOA,” Smith said in an email. “As a result of industry efforts, data indicates that levels of PFOA and related chemicals have dropped over the last several years, both in people's blood and in the environment.”

      Balan said the manufacturers don’t test for potential hormone disruption, which is how many of the compounds could potentially impact health.

      In addition, Birnbaum and Grandjean point out that researchers raised health concerns over the long-chain compounds for years before any action was taken.

      Peaslee said chemistry has no magic bullet to help reduce fluorinated compound use.

      “There is no one replacement. Everything has costs."