The never-ending story: Chemicals that outlive—and harm—us

February 22, 2017, Green Science Policy Institute

Chemical manufacturers have agreed to pay $670 million in damages to people with cancer and other health harm from exposure to a recently phased-out highly fluorinated chemical. In a peer-reviewed feature article to appear February 22nd in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers highlight that thousands of related chemicals continue to provide water-repellant, stain-resistant, and non-stick properties to furniture, carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics, cookware, food packaging, and other products worldwide.

The researchers from Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States call for regulation of the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals. Exposure to the most well-studied of these substances has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning in adults as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children.

This class of chemicals does not break down—ever—and can remain in the environment for thousands of years. "I am concerned that researchers and regulators are continuing to focus on a few phased-out chemicals rather than the thousands of related substances in use today," said Dr. Ian Cousins, co-author of the paper and Professor at Stockholm University. "Unless we broaden our focus, future generations will be increasingly exposed via contaminated water, air, and food."

"Is the convenience of water and grease resistance worth risking our health?" asked Dr. Arlene Blum of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute. "Given their potential for serious harm, we must stop putting highly fluorinated chemicals into consumer products unless they are absolutely necessary."

"The phased-out chemicals, which were found to be harmful, have been replaced by hundreds of related 'chemical cousins'," explains Tom Bruton of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute. "Like the older substances, these new fluorinated compounds stay forever in the environment and may be similarly toxic."

In the 2015 Madrid Statement, more than 200 scientists agreed that the production and use of highly fluorinated chemicals should be limited. "Due to the vast number of chemicals in this family, it is not feasible to evaluate all of them one at a time," says Dr. Jamie DeWitt, a co-author of the feature and Associate Professor at East Carolina University.

The industry claims the replacements for the phased-out chemicals are safe because many do not build up in humans like the old ones did. Nonetheless, we are constantly exposed if these chemicals are in the food we eat or the water we drink," explains Dr. Christopher Higgins, a co-author of the paper and Associate Professor at the Colorado School of Mines. "Current data suggest that the replacement chemicals are just as likely—if not more likely—to end up in our drinking water and in our crops due to contamination of soil and water."

These chemicals travel the world in water and air currents and can now be found in the ocean depths, mountain tops and every living creature. "It is surprising and sad that the planet, all people and all wildlife are contaminated with highly fluorinated chemicals," said Blum. "It is indeed 'a small world after all' when it comes to toxics."

Some good news is that a number of leading retail brands including IKEA, Crate and Barrel, H&M and Levi Strauss are eliminating all highly fluorinated chemicals from their products. And Target and GoreTex just announced they are also beginning the process of removing them.

"We are using these chemicals in a wide range of applications where they are non-essential," says Dr. Zhanyun Wang, lead author of the article and Senior Scientist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. "Maybe we need them for a Himalayan expedition, but do we really need them in our surf shorts or our blue jeans?" he asks. "The public should be involved in defining 'essential' and 'non-essential' uses, and the needs to develop safer alternatives for essential uses."

Explore further: Fast food packaging contains potentially harmful chemicals that can leach into food

More information: greensciencepolicy.org/highly- … luorinated-chemicals

Related Stories

Fast food packaging contains potentially harmful chemicals that can leach into food

February 1, 2017
Many Americans, with the start of the New Year, will resolve to cut back on fast food to avoid an overload of fat and calories. Yet, there is another reason to resist the temptation to indulge in fast food. The greaseproof ...

Potentially harmful chemicals widespread in household dust

September 14, 2016
Household dust exposes people to a wide range of toxic chemicals from everyday products, according to a study led by researchers at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington ...

Recommended for you

Just a few minutes of light intensity exercise linked to lower death risk in older men

February 19, 2018
Clocking up just a few minutes at a time of any level of physical activity, including of light intensity, is linked to a lower risk of death in older men, suggests research published online in the British Journal of Sports ...

Calcium and Vitamin D supplements are not associated with risk of heart attacks

February 16, 2018
New research from the University of Southampton has found no association between the use of calcium or vitamin D supplementation and cardiovascular events such as heart attacks.

Women who clean at home or work face increased lung function decline

February 16, 2018
Women who work as cleaners or regularly use cleaning sprays or other cleaning products at home appear to experience a greater decline in lung function over time than women who do not clean, according to new research published ...

Study shows options to decrease risk of motor vehicle crashes for adolescent drivers

February 16, 2018
Adolescents who receive comprehensive and challenging on-road driving assessments prior to taking the license test might be protected from future motor vehicle crashes, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham study ...

Being a single dad can shorten your life: study

February 15, 2018
The risk of dying prematurely more than doubles for single fathers compared to single mothers or paired-up dads, according to a study of Canadian families published Thursday.

Keeping an eye on the entire ageing process

February 15, 2018
Medical researchers often only focus on a single disease. As older people often suffer from multiple diseases at the same time, however, we need to rethink this approach, writes Ralph Müller.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.