Trading your health for stain- and waterproof clothing?

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Price too high, scientists warn

Stain-resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal” is how journalist Callie Lyons refers to a chemical called C8 found in the bodies of nearly all humans and animals on the planet. Exposure is linked to a wide range of health problems including cancer, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, obesity, ulcerative colitis, and decreased immune response to vaccines in children. 

Over 200 scientists from 38 countries have reached consensus: the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals such as C8 (also known as PFCs or PFASs) is extremely persistent, potentially toxic, and should be replaced with safer alternatives. The Madrid Statement documenting this scientific consensus was published May 1 in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Highly fluorinated chemicals are used in many consumer products, including outdoor and fashion clothing, carpets, furniture, cookware, food contact paper, and some cosmetics. They are extremely persistent and can last for thousands of years in the environment, which means that many future generations will continue to be exposed via contaminated water, air, and food. These chemicals are now found deep in the ocean, on mountains tops, and in nearly all living creatures.

“Must our population be the guinea pigs to determine if similar 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, the FluoroCouncil states that it “could support many of these policy recommendations if they were limited to long-chain” highly fluorinated chemicals like C8, which have been mostly phased out in the US. However, as Dr. Blum points out, members of the FluoroCouncil were producing long-chains for use in consumer products for decades, despite extensive research showing harm.

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, ask, “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?

Awareness of the harm of this class of chemicals is increasing. In March 2015, the California Biomonitoring Program Scientific Guidance Panel voted unanimously to recommend adding the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals as “designated chemicals” for study. In Europe, as a result of Greenpeace’s Detox program, 5 major apparel brands have phased out the entire class from their products, and 10 more have committed to phasing it out between now and the end of 2017. Still, 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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