Did You Know...

Julie Silas | July 08, 2009 | Materials

...that some chemicals used for stain or water repellency in building products last longer than nuclear waste?

In fact, as far as can be determined, the most studied of these perfluorinated chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) - formerly the key chemical in Scotchgard™ - never breaks down in the environment.[1]

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are manmade compounds, based on the element fluorine, and are the key ingredients in stain- and water-repellent treatments such as Teflon®, Crypton® and Crypton Green®, Gore™, and Stainmaster®, and in nanotech products such as Nano-Tex™ and GreenShield™.[2] Scientists have raised concerns about PFCs because they are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. Moreover, biomonitoring studies confirm widespread human exposure to this class of compounds.

Scientific studies have linked PFCs with developmental toxicity, cancer, thyroid, liver and immune system functions, cholesterol increases, and low birth measurements in newborn humans.[3] The health issues associated with PFCs, coupled with alarming data about the increasing chemical burden of these compounds in our bodies,[4] as well as the widespread exposure in wildlife, have prompted scientists and public health experts to express increasing concern about continued use of these chemicals.

In May 2009, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) added PFOS to a growing list of chemicals (currently 24) recognized by international treaty as chemicals of greatest concern to be reduced or eliminated in the global environment, putting them in league with widely recognized threats such as dioxin and PCBs.

In the U.S., most major fabric treatment brands continue to use PFCs as chemical manufacturers rush to replace the most well-studied PFCs with similar fluorinated compounds that have not been heavily scrutinized. Although chemical manufacturers such as DuPont resist releasing information about the new compounds, it is clear that some are virtually unstudied, and some that scientists have studied are breaking down to PFOS and perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), which would add to the reservoir of these persistent contaminants in the general environment. In June 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report on PFCs, which uncovered evidence that manufacturers’ own tests showed that many of the alternative chemicals lead “to a conclusion of substantial risk to human health or to the environment.”[5]

Like nuclear waste, the problem of PFCs isn’t going away. Still, there are steps that can be taken today to stem the tide of PFCs accumulating in our bodies. For many of the PFC applications in building products, we can start out by simply asking ourselves whether we really need these chemicals at all.

For those wanting to understand more about PFCs and potential health concerns, HBN and Kaiser Permanente have produced a paper that examines PFCs in more detail, which can be found on the website of the Global Health and Safety Initiative (GHSI).


[1] Co-operation on Existing Chemicals – Hazard Assessment of Perfluorooctane Sulfonate and its Salts. Environment Directorate Joint Meeting of the Chemicals Committee and the Working Party on Chemicals, Pesticides, and Biotechnology, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris. November 2002. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/23/18/2382880.pdf.

[2] In addition to these products which are widely used to create water and soil repellency in fabric, furniture, and carpet, PFCs are found elsewhere including fire fighting foams, metal plating, and within the photographic industry.

[3] References for these health impacts and the chemical burden concerns outlined below can be found in the report Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) and Human Health Concerns, from the Global Health and Safety Initiative, http://www.healthybuilding.net/healthcare/2009-04-20PFCs_fact_sheet.pdf.

[4] Calafat A, Kuklenyik Z, Reidy J, Caudill S, Tylly J, Needham L. Serum Concentrations of 11 Polyfluoroalkyl Compounds in the U.S. Population: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2000. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2007. http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/perfluorinated_compounds_3.html.

[5] Nadenko O, Sharp R. Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging and DuPont’s Greenwashing: New Chemicals and Risks are Confidential. Environmental Working Group Report. June 2008. http://www.ewg.org/reports/teflongreenwash. Accessed April 15, 2009.