Smarter Living: Family Health

Used to make non-stick items from cookware to skis, PFOA is suspected of causing reduced fertility, poor birth outcomes, and problems with the thyroid gland, which controls development and growth. Thyroid problems during pregnancy may result in diminished motor skills and learning ability later in life.

PFOA is also suspected of causing cancer. A draft EPA Science Advisory Board report issued in 2005 found that PFOA was a likely human carcinogen, but the agency has never issued a final decision. Several studies have found that PFOA exposure during fetal and neonatal development is linked to altered mammary gland development in mice. Other studies have linked PFOA and similar chemicals to higher cholesterol levels, suggesting these chemicals play a role in our nation’s heart disease rates.

Where Is It Coming From?

More than 98 percent of Americans have PFOA in their bodies, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An extremely long-lived chemical, PFOA can persist in the body for years by binding to proteins in the liver.

Non-stick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, and waterproof clothing are just some of the items made with PFOA and related perfluorochemicals (PFCs), all of which are long-lived. PFCs are also found in water-proofing sprays for clothing, tents, and other outdoor equipment. They can also be found in the waxy paper used to package fast food burgers and some microwavable food itesm. PFCs are also used to make household electronics, building and construction materials, lubricants, and fire-retardant foams.

Although the EPA says that products made with PFCs (such as Teflon-coated frying pans) pose no health risk, many researchers are concerned that when these products break down, they can release PFOA or other PFCs. For example, a 2005 study in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants detected significant levels of PFOA in microwaved popcorn due to its use in the product's packaging.

Many families are already at risk from PFOA and other PFCs in their drinking water. PFCs have been found in the drinking water near PFC-manufacturing plants in Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Alabama and North Carolina. One of these PFCs in drinking water is perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which was used to make the stain-resistant spray Scotchguard(TM). PFOS was voluntarily removed from Scotchguard(TM) products in 2000.

Women with high levels of PFOS and PFOA reported taking longer to get pregnant, according to a 2009 study in the journal Human Reproduction. A 2010 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people with higher levels of PFOA in their blood were more likely to suffer from thyroid disease. Thyroid problems are more common in women, and women who have low thyroid hormone levels are at risk of giving birth to babies who have below-average motor skills, learning difficulties, reduced IQ, and problems with socialization. Another study has linked low prenatal thyroid hormone to Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The EPA has been slowly strengthening its regulations of PFCs through both voluntary and enforcement actions. In January 2010, the agency announced new regulations requiring companies to submit notices when they intend to manufacture certain PFCs. However, environmental groups have called for the EPA to ban these chemicals given their long lives and potential for harm. Several PFCs have been targeted for restricted use under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment.

What You Can Do

When purchasing ski and snowboard wax, choose brands that advertise that they use non-toxic compounds.

Buy rain wear without PFCs. For recommendations, see "Greener Rain Gear."

Use cast iron frying pans, which are naturally "non-stick." Stainless steel and glass cookware are good options for boiling. Pans with non-stick coatings usually contain PFCs, so replace them if at all possible. Do not use non-stick pans if you have a pet bird, as the fumes released during heating can be lethal to birds. See "Outfitting the Green Kitchen: Pots and Pans" for product recommendations.

Pop your popcorn in a large stovetop kettle or invest in an air popper. Avoid microwave popcorn and cut down on your consumption of fast food and pizza.

Choose furniture made without applied stain and water repellents. Decline to have your furnishings and carpets treated with stain and water repellents.

A granular activated carbon (GAC) filter will remove much of the PFCs. The GAC filter combined with reverse osmosis will completely remove PFCs.

Learn More

For the study on PFOA in professional ski waxing technicians, see:
Nilsson, H. et al. 2010. A Time Trend Study of Significantly Elevated Perfluorocarboxylate Levels in Humans after Using Fluorinated Ski Wax Environ. Sci. Technol., 44: 2150–2155.

To read about PFCs and popcorn, see:
Begley TH, White K, Honigfort P, Twaroski ML, Neches R, Walker RA. 2005. Perfluorochemicals: potential sources of and migration from food packaging. Food Addit. Contam. 22:1023-1031.
Also see this article on the research: "It's in the Microwave Popcorn, Not the Teflson Pan." (PDF) Environmental News, Jan. 1, 2006.

Read the EPA Science Advisory Board 2005 draft report on PFOA.

For more information on PFOA and reduced fertility, see:
Fei et al. 2009. Maternal levels of perfluorinated chemicals and subfecundity. Human Reproduction. 24: 1200-1205.

On reduced fertility, see also this study, which demonstrated that poor sperm quality can be associated with PFOS/PFOA:
Joensen UN, Bossi R, Leffers H, Jensen AA, Skakkebaek NE, Jørgensen N.Do perfluoroalkyl compounds impair human semen quality? Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Jun;117(6):923-7. Epub 2009 Mar 2.

To read the study on PFOA and thyroid disease, see: D. Melzer, N. Rice, M.H. Depledge, W.E. Henley and T.S. Galloway. 2010. Association Between Serum Perfluoroctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Thyroid Disease in the NHANES Study. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi:10.1289/ehp.0901584

To read one of the several studies on PFOA and altered mammary glands in mice, see: White SS, Kato K, Jia LT, Basden BJ, Calafat AM, Hines EP, Stanko JP, Wolf CJ, Abbott BD, Fenton SE. 2009. Effects of perfluorooctanoic acid on mouse mammary gland development and differentiation resulting from cross-foster and restricted gestational exposures. Reprod Toxicol. 27:289-298.

To learn about the link between PFOA and cholesterol levels, see:
Nelson JW, Hatch EE, Webster TF 2010. Exposure to Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals and Cholesterol, Body Weight, and Insulin Resistance in the General U.S. Population. Environ Health Perspect 118:197-202.

For more information on the relationship between prenatal thyroid hormone levels and abnormal motor skills and socialization, see:
Berbel P, Mestre JL, Santamaría A, Palazón I, Franco A, Graells M, González-Torga A, de Escobar GM. 2009. Delayed neurobehavioral development in children born to pregnant women with mild hypothyroxinemia during the first month of gestation: the importance of early iodine supplementation. Thyroid. 19: 511-519.

Haddow JE, Palomaki GE, Allan WC, Williams JR, Knight GJ, Gagnon J, O'Heir CE, Mitchell ML, Hermos RJ, Waisbren SE, Faix JD, Klein RZ. 1999. Maternal thyroid deficiency during pregnancy and subsequent neuropsychological development of the child. N. Engl. J. Med. 341: 549-555.

To read about the link between prenatal iodine-deficient hypothyroxinemia and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), see:
Vermiglio F, Lo Presti VP, Moleti M, Sidoti M, Tortorella G, Scaffidi G, Castagna MG, Mattina F, Violi MA, Crisà A, Artemisia A, Trimarchi F. 2004. Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders in the offspring of mothers exposed to mild-moderate iodine deficiency: a possible novel iodine deficiency disorder in developed countries. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 89: 6054-6060.

For more information, see the EPA web site on Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers:

Read more about the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

For the most comprehensive assessment to date of the exposure of the U.S. population to chemicals in our environment, see the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

last revised 8/12/2011

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