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Stain-protectors Leave An Indelible Mark

Pollution in People Report - Chapter 4 - PFCs - section 1

Bill Finkbeiner-lgSenator Bill Finkbeiner is the picture of health. At thirty-seven, he has the energy to maintain a seat in the legislature, run the family property-development business, and play with his two young children. He keeps in shape running, biking, and coaching his daughter’s soccer team, and doesn’t expect unpleasant news from routine medical tests. But when he donated his hair, urine, and blood for toxic chemical testing, he was a bit apprehensive about what he might learn. It turned out his apprehension was warranted.

Bill topped the list of Pollution in People study participants for levels of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and the pesticide carbaryl. He had the second-highest levels of the toxic flame retardants PBDEs, the second-highest level of phthalates, and the third-highest level of mercury. Some of these results are understandable—the carbaryl, for example, probably comes from the conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables he eats. Others are more difficult to explain, particularly his level of PFCs.

Deb Abrahamson-lgAt the far eastern edge of the state, Deb Abrahamson’s lifestyle doesn’t have too much in common with Bill Finkbeiner’s. In Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Tribe Reservation, Deb’s family eats rainbow trout caught in nearby Turtle Lake, digs camas roots, and gathers huckleberries and serviceberries for dessert. But their study results show Deb and Bill have more in common than they bargained for: toxic chemicals they knew about, like mercury, and some they never suspected, like PFCs.

PFCs—unique chemicals that are possibly best known for their use in the manufacture of Teflon cookware and Scotchgard—are incredibly resistant to breakdown and are turning up in unexpected places around the world. Though they’ve been used for more than fifty years in countless familiar products, from fire extinguishing foam to microwave popcorn bags, they’ve been subjected to little government testing.

PFCs come in many forms, but two have received considerable attention in recent years. PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate, is a member of a family of chemicals once used in treatments for paper food containers, fire-fighting foams, and pesticides, as well as for preventing stains in textiles. Until 2002, the Minnesota company 3M was the major global producer, using PFOS-related chemicals to make Scotchgard, used to treat carpet, furniture, and clothing.

DuPont is currently the major manufacturer of the PFC called PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. The company uses PFOA in the manufacturing of Teflon non-stick cookware. PFOA may also be generated by the breakdown of related chemicals that DuPont uses to make stain-protection treatments for paper products and textiles.

Bill Finkbeiner tested positive for five of the twelve PFCs in our study. PFOS was the highest PFC in each participant. PFOS does not break down under normal environmental circumstances, and builds up in people and wildlife. PFOS levels in our participants ranged from 3.3 to 49.4 ppb, with a median of 21.3 ppb. Bill topped the list for PFOS levels with 49.4 ppb in his blood.

Extensive information on PFC levels in the general population has been lacking, but the CDC recently published data from samples taken in 2001 and 2002, in which blood from 1,832 individuals was pooled into 54 samples for testing. These data revealed that non-Hispanic white males had the highest levels of PFOS, with a mean of 40.2 ppb, while women had somewhat lower levels, with an average of 17.9 ppb for non-Hispanic black women and 24 ppb for non-Hispanic white women. Mexican-American women had the lowest levels, at 10.4 ppb (Calafat 2006). Reasons for the gender and racial/ethnic differences are not known but may be due to varying use of PFC-treated consumer products.

PFOA is also commonly found in people. In the CDC study, levels varied by gender and racial/ethnic background, from 2.1 ppb for Mexican-American women to 7 ppb for non-Hispanic white males.

Previous studies have documented PFCs in specific populations. A 3M-funded study of Red Cross blood donors in Maryland found PFOS at a median level of 34.7 ppb and PFOA at 5.6 ppb (Olsen 2005). A global look that included individuals from the United States, Colombia, Brazil, Belgium, Italy, Poland, India, Malaysia, and Korea found considerably higher levels in residents from the United States and Poland, with the lowest levels in India (Kannan 2004). The wide variation is likely due to greater use of PFC-treated products in some countries. A 2002 3M study of 599 children revealed that children have unexpectedly high concentrations, with PFOS at a mean of 37.5 ppb but up to 515 ppb in some children (Olsen 2002).

Bill Finkbeiner’s PFOS level (49.4 ppb) is somewhat higher than the national average for white men (40.2 ppb). The women in our study ranged from well below the national average, at 3.3 ppb, to somewhat above, at 29.8 ppb.

PFOA levels in our participants ranged from 0.7 to 7.4 ppb, with a median of 3.6 ppb. While these levels are lower than our participants’ levels of PFOS, they may well be on the rise as other PFCs continue to break down into PFOA, which does not degrade.

Although not as well studied, two other PFCs, known as PFDA and PFHxS, are developing a reputation for toxicity. We detected at least one of these chemicals in six of our participants.

Figures 4 and 5 shows our participants’ levels of the two compounds most commonly found, PFOS and PFOA.

Figure 4 - PFOS Levels in Washingtonians

Figure 5 - PFOA levels in Washingtonians

Figures 4 and 5:  Levels of PFOA and PFOS measured in participants’ blood serum.