UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, June 2019

Your Frying Pan and Rain Jacket May Be Harming Your Health

You may be surprised to learn that a variety of items in your home—from non-stick pans and microwave popcorn bags to rugs and rain gear—may pose a threat to your health because of toxic chemicals they contain. These items and a wide array of other consumer goods (even some dental floss!) often contain perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of chemicals used to make products repel water, grease, and stains. 

The most notorious product made of these chemicals is Teflon, which was used to create the non-stick cookware of the same name. Another well-known example is Scotchgard, a fabric and upholstery protector used in numerous clothing and furniture items. Though the specific PFAS chemicals originally used to make Teflon and Scotchgard (PFOA and PFOS, respectively) have been banned in the U.S., the PFAS chemicals that have replaced them may be just as toxic.  PFAS chemicals have been linked to a host of serious health issues including several types of cancer, thyroid disease, tumors, colitis, liver malfunction, obesity, endocrine disruption and low birth weight. 

As Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes on its website, PFAS chemicals are referred to by some scientists as “forever chemicals” due to the fact that they don’t break down and tend to persist in the human body and the environment. In fact, they have been found in the blood of people around the world, including 99 percent of Americans. Both manufacturing and widespread use of these chemicals—including their use in military firefighting foams—has led to the contamination of over 600 sites in the U.S. alone, including drinking water systems serving an estimated 19 million people. Analyzing EPA data, EWG estimates that up to 110 million Americans are exposed to PFAS contaminated tap water. 

Legislators, Citizens, and Regulators Push Back on PFAS Chemicals
This extensive pollution of waterways and drinking water has led to U.S. class action lawsuits against chemical companies such as DuPont, manufacturer of Teflon, and 3M, manufacturer of Scotchgard, from numerous individuals, towns, and water districts. The dumping of water tainted with Teflon into river systems in Ohio and West Virginia has led to the filing of more than 3,500 personal injury and wrongful death suits—some making the connection between the contamination and cancer—against DuPont by residents in those states. Lawsuits have continued to be filed into the present day, including suits filed this March by the state of New Jersey against DuPont, Chemours Co., and 3M accusing them of contamination and demanding they pay to clean up years of industrial contamination.

As reported in a May article in Bloomberg Environment, UN chemical regulators at the Conference of the Parties meeting this spring in Geneva approved a global ban on the use of PFOA, the PFAS chemical mentioned above that was used to make Teflon and is used to manufacture non-stick and stain-resistant coatings in consumer and industrial products worldwide. As part of the Stockholm Convention, the participating governments agreed to include PFOA on its list of Persistent Organic Pollutants to be eliminated and agreed to measures to “eliminate the production and use” of PFOA within 12 months. As quoted in the article, a spokesman for the Stockholm Convention says, “It’s probably the biggest Stockholm listing for ages.” 

In the U.S. regulators and lawmakers are also exploring new restrictions on PFOA and PFAS. The EPA announced earlier this year that it will begin the process of establishing maximum contaminant limits for these chemicals in drinking water. It will also soon issue a proposal to list PFOA and PFOS on its list of hazardous substances under the Superfund law, which would help communities deal with contamination and recover costs from responsible parties. Several lawmakers—Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.)—have introduced the PFAS Action Act of 2019, a bill that would require the EPA to clean up PFAS contamination sites and would allow the government to sue polluters to recover the costs of cleanup.

Three Ways to Take Action
#1: Help stop the spread of PFAS contamination. Go here to ask your representative to support the PFAS Action Act of 2019.

#2: Keep your closet free of clothing treated with Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Polartec, and Gore-Tex and your kitchen free of toxic non-stick cookware. Check out this list of non-stick cookware alternatives. 

#3: Learn more about the dangers of PFAS chemicals. Review the information and news releases on the EWG website. Check out the documentary film The Devil We Know about the struggle between W. Virginia residents and DuPont and the larger problem of chemical contamination in drinking water.