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March 2022: PFAS Harms You Haven't Heard About?

In this edition:

I am just back from the American Alpine Club’s Annual Benefit Gala in Colorado, where I received an Honorary Membership—the club’s highest award. A short film about my Annapurna climb in 1978 was premiered.

View Arlene's short Annapurna film above

I also spoke at the American Mountaineering Museum’s opening reception for an exhibit from my 1970 Denali Damsels expedition—the first team of women to summit the highest peak in North America. The exhibit contained the puffy down parka and mittens, rubber Korea boots, and other gear I wore to the top of Denali--saved in my garage since 1970! You can see the Denali Damsels photographs and bios in this online exhibit. My talks and the exhibits include our Institute’s work to reduce the use of harmful chemicals—such as PFAS in outdoor gear.

Working with the Green Science Policy Institute reminds me of climbing the highest mountains. It requires a strong team (scientists, NGOs, business and government colleagues) determined to overcome obstacles, such as storms, avalanches and even some Yetis as we move steadily towards our goal of healthier products, people, and planet.

So much progress is being made in reducing the use of PFAS since we helped sound the alarm a decade ago. I’m optimistic that this year will be the most productive yet with more than 196 bills about PFAS introduced in 29 states. There are also landmark federal and international policies in progress.

A large part of our Institute’s contribution to this momentum is based on our effective communications strategy. From removing flame retardants from furniture to getting PFAS out of carpets, our strategy has been providing useful science to decision makers in government and business to reduce toxics and protect health.

Sadly, important health research studies are often published without any media coverage. We are analyzing the press received and impact of several hundred human epidemiology papers on PFAS. To our surprise, we found that many important papers showing strong connections to health harms from PFAS such as miscarriages and cancer are published without a press release and receive little coverage, and few views. It’s like the old thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest…” except the question is “if a paper is published and few people read it, can it make an impact?” We continue to share our communications strategy with other scientists to help them increase the impact of their research.


Dr. Susan Shaw

Some sad news. Dr. Susan Shaw, a pioneer in ocean health research, recently passed away. In 2010, Susan and I led a team of scientists in writing an extensive review documenting the harm and lack of benefit of flame retardants in furniture. This paper contributed to the San Antonio Statement, the first of our scientists’ consensus statements on classes of chemicals.

We appreciate her many contributions to the environmental health movement. Susan’s legacy will continue on at the Shaw Institute.

Finally, our hearts go out to the brave people of Ukraine fighting to keep their freedom and democracy.

We hope you are enjoying the beginning of spring.

Kind regards,

Arlene and the Green Science Policy Team

Victories in Brussels

In good news, recent legal victories in Europe will help reduce the use of both PFAS and flame retardants. First, the EU Court of Justice upheld the designation of GenX PFAS chemicals as “substances of very high Victories in Brussels concern,” which comes with strict reporting requirements and could prime them for a ban. The chemical industry has long claimed that short chain GenX is a healthier replacement for long-chains like PFOA.

Also, a chemical industry group recently lost its court challenge to the EU’s prohibition of halogenated flame retardants in plastic electronics cases. This follows our Institute’s successful joint petition to the CPSC for a such regulation and bodes well for similar legislative efforts in the US.

PTFE: Producing Toxic Fluorochemicals?

Fumes produced from overheating Teflon pans can kill pet birds

By Jonas LaPier

If you have had the courage to attempt a plumbing project, you may have used PTFE tape to seal pipe connections. PTFE stands for polytetrafluoroethylene and is the most popular fluoropolymer on the market; It is used in multitudes of products under names such as Teflon. Fluoropolymers are long molecular chains built from individual PFAS monomers.

These PFAS monomers are associated with harmful health effects including cancer. The chemical industry claims that fluoropolymers are not dangerous because they are too large to enter our bodies. However, other toxic PFAS can be released during the manufacturing and disposal of fluoropolymers and PTFE can be broken down under certain conditions while in use.

The production of fluoropolymers is a large contributor to PFAS contamination in the environment. For one category of category of commonly produced PFAS – PFCAs – fluoropolymer manufacturing accounted for approximately 80% of the estimated total historical environmental pollution.

The production of PTFE at the Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia resulted in the release of millions of pounds of toxic waste into the water and air. While this example is well-documented, the amount of PFAS pollution from many other similar facilities remains unknown.

Further, when products such as Teflon pans are overheated, toxic gasses are released that can kill pet birds and can cause polymer fume fever in humans. Incineration of fluoropolymers has the same effect and creates toxic emissions that can harm nearby communities.

What can be done? The best way to prevent harm from fluoropolymers is to stop producing them. This should begin with the immediate elimination of non-essential uses like PTFE dental floss. For essential uses, such as medical devices, companies can develop safer alternatives to PTFE. You can help by avoiding products that contain PTFE and supporting legislation limiting the use of the entire class of PFAS, including polymers. Remember that fluoropolymers have a toxic lifecycle, and don’t be fooled by claims to the contrary.

For further information see:


Healthier Affordable Housing Leads the Way

Healthy and affordable complex in Morgan Hill

By Carol Kwiatkowski

One of our Institute’s partners, the Healthy Building Network, recently collaborated with SERA Architects and First Community Housing to plan an affordable housing project that is a model for healthy materials selection. The Magnolias, a beautiful 66-unit complex in Morgan Hill, CA, will serve veterans and low-income residents. Goals of the project include increasing occupant health while reducing impacts to installers, manufacturing workers, and communities living near manufacturing plants.

Using the Healthy Building Network’s Hazard Spectrum that rates materials from red (worse) to green (better), the designers were able to choose materials to meet these goals. Some examples are flooring without vinyl (PVC), paints without alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), and insulation without halogenated flame retardants. Other tips for low- and no-cost ways to choose healthier materials are available from the Healthy Building Network. This project also promotes the importance of planning early for healthier materials selection, being aware that recycled content is sometimes better for the environment but not for our health, and when options are limited, use that opportunity to push manufacturers to develop safer materials.

Leading the way by designing healthier affordable housing raises awareness of the potential to increase environmental justice in the building sector. Communities of color and low-income families and children are disproportionately affected by hazardous materials, which makes this the best place to start building healthier.


The “One Health” Approach and “One Planet” Progress

Managing chemical pollution and waste is important for people, animals, and the environment alike

By Brandon Brown

The innovative “One Health” program of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages collaboration between three different health research and policy areas which have traditionally been separate: human health, animal health, and environmental health. According to the One Health philosophy we cannot solve problems in one area without considering effects from the others. A human pandemic of animal origin, for instance, highlights this interplay. An animal virus can jump to a human more easily when environmental degradation forces the two into closer contact.

The One Health approach is based on the fact that we all inhabit an interconnected planet. A year ago, our international colleagues published a paper in Science, calling for an intergovernmental science-policy panel on chemicals and waste. This call was supported by nearly 2,100 scientists and practitioners from over 90 countries.

The United Nations Environment Programme recently placed chemical pollution and waste on a similar global level of urgency as that of climate change and the planet’s loss of biodiversity. While large intergovernmental bodies are already working to address climate change and biodiversity, “there is no coordinated global science-policy effort for tackling the serious threats associated with chemical pollution,” noted our Executive Director, Arlene Blum.

We’re happy to report that, at the recently concluded 2022 United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, member nations passed a resolution to initiate “a comprehensive and ambitious science policy panel on the sound management of chemicals and waste and preventing pollution.” We hope this positive momentum will continue with a growing number of scientists, policymakers, and nations providing support for an intergovernmental body focused on utilizing science to address the global threats of chemical pollution and waste – for people, animals, and the environment alike.


Building Awareness of PFAS

Harvard's new Engineering and Applied Sciences building is a notable green building

By Hannah Ray

Are there PFAS in your building? The healthy building community is now on high alert.

For its 2022 Red List update, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) added 4,844 PFAS to its banned list of chemicals. ILFI also added 5,947 new PFAS chemicals to its Priority Watch List. This update reflects the best available science and is consistent with our Institute’s recommendation to treat PFAS as a class.

The ILFI’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) Red List is a tool for building product transformation. It documents the “worst in class” materials, chemicals and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the environment. The addition of several thousand PFAS to this list sends a strong signal to architects, designers and manufacturers of building products to identify where PFAS are used, and to reduce or eliminate them where possible. (If using PFAS is absolutely necessary, LBC project teams will have to document why).

ILFI will fully prohibit PFAS use in the following products: Carpets, flooring, ceilings, sealants, upholstery, fabric window coverings, fabric wall coverings, systems furniture, and interior paints. Read our PFAS in Building Materials page to find out where else PFAS could be used in a building.


April 14, 1pm Pacific:

On the next Alaska Community Action on Toxics’ CHE-Alaska webinar, Carol Kwiatkowski of our Institute will be speaking on “The Urgency of Addressing “Forever Chemicals:” The Scientific Basis for Managing PFAS as a Chemical Class.

May 21 & 22, 2022:
Annual Berkeley Himalayan Fair
Live Oak Park, 1300 Shattuck Avenue at Berryman, North Berkeley

Enjoy the food, music, dance, crafts and arts of the Himalayas. Profits to Himalayan charities. More information here.

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