Although convenient, highly fluorinated chemicals are associated with serious health problems and they can remain in the environment forever.
What are they?
Highly fluorinated chemicals, sometimes referred to as PFCs or PFASs, are used in many consumer products and industrial applications because of their oil-, stain-, and water-repellent properties. Examples of chemicals in this class include PFOA, PFOS, and more than 3000 related compounds.
Highly fluorinated chemicals are used in carpets, cleaners, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, food packaging, furnishings, outdoor apparel, paints, papers, protective coatings and sealants, and firefighting foams. Learn more about products that may contain highly fluorinated chemicals.
What are the health concerns?
The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.
How are we exposed?
Humans are exposed to highly fluorinated chemicals through contaminated food, drinking water, and dust. Products in our homes and workplaces that contain these chemicals contribute to our exposure. Highly fluorinated chemicals are found in the bodies of 98% of Americans.
What are the environmental concerns?
Highly fluorinated chemicals do not break down in the environment. Because of this extreme persistence, these chemicals are transported around the globe. They travel long distances and pollute even the most remote places.
Several so-called “long-chain” highly fluorinated chemicals were recently phased out due to their potential for health harm. They have been replaced by numerous “short-chain” and other related chemicals that are equally persistent and may pose similar health risks. To prevent such “regrettable substitutions”, the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals should be avoided. For more on this problem, see our flyer “Fluorinated Alternatives: Myths versus Facts.”
What Can You Do?
Choose textiles and carpeting without water- and stain-repellency.
Avoid food in contact with greaseproof packaging, such as microwave popcorn and some fast food.
Avoid personal care products with “perfluor-“, “polyfluor-“, and “PTFE” on the label.
Purchase cast iron, glass, or ceramic cookware rather than Teflon.
Only purchase waterproof gear when you really need it.
Note that “PFOA free” products often use similar chemicals instead.
Support companies that are committed to phasing out highly fluorinated chemicals.
Other Videos on Highly Fluorinated Chemicals
Webcast introducing the new Highly Fluorinated Chemicals video featuring conversation with Jen Jackson, Tom McKeag, Marty Mulvihill, and Arlene Blum.
Introduction to Highly Fluorinated Chemicals: Jennifer Field, Oregon State University (2013)
Per and Polyfluorinated Compounds: Health & Environmental Impacts: Mark Strynar, US EPA (2017)
Accumulation of Perfluoroalkyl Acids in Food Crops: Chris Higgins, Colorado School of Mines (2017)
- The Helsingør Statement – 2014 – This consensus statement summarizes the key scientific concerns about the potential impacts of fluorinated alternatives on human health and the environment.
- The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) – 2015 – The Madrid Statement documents the scientific consensus regarding the persistence and potential for harm of highly fluorinated chemicals, and lays out a roadmap to gather needed information and prevent further harm. This consensus statement has over 250 signatories from 38 countries, representing a variety of scientific disciplines. The statement was published in Environmental Health Perspectives in May 2015. Link to press release.
- Detection of poly-and perfluooralkyl substances (PFASs) in US drinking water linked to industrial sites, military fire training areas, and wastewater treatement plants – 2016 – The drinking water of an estimated 6 million Americans contains highly fluorinated chemicals at levels higher than the EPA says is safe. Scientists identify military bases, airports, and wastewater treatment plants as the major sources of contamination. Link to press release.
- Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging – 2017 – Fluorinated chemicals found in about a third of take-out food packaging samples tested. Previous research has shown these chemicals can migrate from packaging into the food that people eat. Link to press release.
- A Never-Ending Story of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)? – 2017 – Researchers explain that it is not feasible to evaluate the safety of all highly fluorinated chemicals one at a time, and call for regulation of the entire chemical class. Link to press release.
- Substitution of PFAS chemistry in outdoor apparel and the impact on repellency performance – 2017 – Scientists at the University of Leeds compared the performance of fabrics with fluorinated and non-fluorinated water repellent finishes and determined that the use of fluorochemical treatments represents over-enginering. Link to news coverage.
- Fluorinated Alternatives: Myths versus Facts flyer by Green Science Policy Institute
- Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) Fact Sheet by Biomonitoring California
- Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs) fact sheet by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) FAQs by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
- PFAS Fact Sheets with a focus on groundwater remediation by the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council
- The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare. The New York Times Magazine. 2016
- Researchers find unsafe levels of industrial chemicals in drinking water of 6 million Americans. The Washington Post. 2016
- The Teflon Toxin. Series in The Intercept. 2015-2016.
- Chemicals in Your Popcorn? The New York Times. 2015.