The High Price of Stain Resistance: Environmental Persistence

Perfluorochemicals increase product longevity. Though these PFCs don’t last forever on our textiles and carpets, they do stick around in our bodies.

Teflon flu: that’s the name workers at a DuPont plant in West Virginia gave to the vomiting, fevers, and other symptoms they had when exposed to high levels of PFOA, a perfluorochemical (PFC) made at the factory. As explained in January 2016 by Nathaniel Rich in the New York Times, public discovery of the far-reaching and long-lasting health and environmental effects of PFOA led to its eventual phase-out.

PFOA (formerly the main ingredient of Teflon) and PFOS (formerly the main ingredient of Scotchgard) make it so oils, dirt, and moisture bead up on a surface, an excellent property with many uses. But both are “long-chain” PFCs, with eight or more carbon-fluorine (C8) bonds, and they have been associated with health concerns ranging from testicular and thyroid cancers to obesity. They are considered persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic chemicals (PBTs), and PFOS is listed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) by the Stockholm Convention; PFOA is under review.

Published February 9, 2016