Trading your health for stain- and waterproof clothing?

“Stain-resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal” is how a journalist once referred to a highly fluorinated chemical called C8 found in the bodies of nearly all humans and animals on the planet. Exposure is linked to cancer, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines in children, hypertension, and other health problems. Despite the known health harm, C8 was used for decades, and is only now being phased out by most manufacturers. However, the major replacements are approximately 30 different highly fluorinated chemicals known as C6, which have a potential for similar toxicity but little to no health data.

The problem is even bigger than that. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identified over 3000 highly fluorinated chemicals currently in use. These chemicals are suspected for adverse health effects, but very few of them have been tested. These highly fluorinated chemicals are found in, or used in the manufacturing of, many consumer products, including outdoor and fashion clothing, carpets, furniture, cookware, food contact paper, and some cosmetics.

A major characteristic of these highly fluorinated chemicals is that they are almost impossible to break down. They can last for up to millions of years in the environment, which means that many future generations will be exposed to the highly fluorinated chemicals produced during our lifetimes. They are now found in the deepest ocean, in the highest mountains, and in nearly all living creatures.

Two hundred scientists from 38 countries have signed the Madrid Statement, which documents the scientific consensus on the persistence and potential for harm of highly fluorinated chemicals (also known as PFCs or PFASs), and outlines a roadmap to prevent further damage. On May 1, the Madrid Statement will be published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a high impact peer-reviewed scientific journal.

As the Madrid Statement demonstrates, the scientific consensus is that all highly fluorinated chemicals are too problematic due to their extreme persistence and potential for human and environmental harm, and need to be replaced with safe nonfluorinated alternatives, before it’s too late.

We know about the human health impacts of C8 because it leaked into the water supply near production plants in West Virginia and southern Ohio. Tens of thousands of people were found to have C8 in their bodies and also a wide range of health problems associated with this exposure.

“Must our population be the guinea pigs to determine if the replacement chemicals are as harmful as C8?” said Arlene Blum, PhD, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute and first author of the Madrid Statement,  “Before adding any fluorinated chemicals to consumer products we should ask first whether we really need them. And if they are indeed necessary, can the same function be achieved with a safer solution?”

In a response to the Madrid Statement, published in the same issue of EHP, the FluoroCouncil states that it “could support many of these policy recommendations if they were limited to” chemicals like C8 that have already been banned or phased out. However, as Dr. Blum points out, members of the FluoroCouncil have been producing long-chain highly fluorinated chemicals for use in consumer products for decades, despite knowing of extensive research since the 1960s that linked exposure to these chemicals to adverse health effects in humans and animals.

In an editorial accompanying the Madrid Statement, Linda Birnbaum, PhD, Director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, and Philippe Grandjean, PhD, Adjunct Professor, Harvard School of Public Health, are calling for more research on the health effects of highly fluorinated chemicals and on safe non-fluorinated alternatives. They ask, “in the meantime, given their persistence in the environment, should these chemicals continue to be used in consumer products? And, in the absence of indisputably safe alternatives, are consumers willing to give up certain product functionalities, e.g., stain resistance, to protect against potential risks? These conundrums cannot be resolved by science alone but need to be considered in an open discussion informed by the scientific evidence. ”

Awareness of the harm associated from the use of these chemicals is gaining momentum. In March 2015, the Scientific Guidance Panel voted unanimously to recommend adding the entire class of PFASs as designated chemicals to the Biomonitoring California Program. In Europe, as a result of Greenpeace’s Detox program in Europe, at least 5 major apparel brands have already phased out this entire class of chemicals from their products, and 10 more have committed to phasing them out between now and the end of 2017. This shows it is possible to have safer alternatives, but consumers need to know where these chemicals are used in order to make educated choices.

Armed with the information presented in the Madrid Statement, consumers now have a choice. “As a mom, learning about this research caused me to ask if I really need products that are stain-resistant, nonstick, or waterproof,” said Joan Blades, co-founder of MomsRising. “Knowing the potential consequences for my family’s health, I will choose to give up some conveniences and product performance. It’s just not worth it.”

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