Watching our nation’s top skiers fly down the slopes during the Winter Olympics was inspiring. However, I was less than inspired to find out ski wax contains toxic and persistent chemicals that may harm a woman’s ability to give birth to a healthy child.
A study published in February 2010 in Environmental Science & Technology found that professional ski-waxers, the people that help Lindsay Vaughn fly, have higher levels in their bodies of the toxic chemical C8, also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The levels of PFOA were 50 times greater than are found in the general population.
Used to make non-stick items from cookware to skis, PFOA is suspected of causing reduced fertility, poor birth outcomes, and problems with the thyroid gland, which controls development and growth. Thyroid problems during pregnancy may result in diminished motor skills and learning ability later in life.
PFOA is also suspected of causing cancer. A draft EPA Science Advisory Board report issued in 2005 found that PFOA was a likely human carcinogen, but the agency has never issued a final decision. Several studies have found that PFOA exposure during fetal and neonatal development is linked to altered mammary gland development in mice. Other studies have linked PFOA and similar chemicals to higher cholesterol levels, suggesting these chemicals play a role in our nation’s heart disease rates.
WHERE IS IT COMING FROM?
More than 98 percent of Americans have PFOA in their bodies, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An extremely long-lived chemical, PFOA can persist in the body for years by binding to proteins in the liver.
Non-stick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, and waterproof clothing are just some of the items made with PFOA and related perfluorochemicals (PFCs), all of which are long-lived. PFCs are also found in water-proofing sprays for clothing, tents, and other outdoor equipment. They can also be found in the waxy paper used to package fast food burgers and some microwavable food itesm. PFCs are also used to make household electronics, building and construction materials, lubricants and fire-retardant foams.
Although the EPA says that products made with PFCs (such as Teflon-coated frying pans) pose no health risk, many researchers are concerned that when these products break down, they can release PFOA or other PFCs. For example, a 2005 study in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants detected significant levels of PFOA in microwaved popcorn due to its use in the product’s packaging.
Lots of families are already at risk from PFOA and other PFCs in their drinking water. PFCs have been found in the drinking water near PFC-manufacturing plants in Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Alabama and North Carolina.
One of these PFCs in drinking water is perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which was used to make the stain-resistant spray Scotchguard(TM). PFOS was voluntarily removed from Scotchguard(TM) products in 2000.
Women with high levels of PFOS and PFOA reported taking longer to get pregnant, according to a 2009 study in the journal Human Reproduction. A 2010 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people with higher levels of PFOA in their blood were more likely to suffer from thyroid disease. Thyroid problems are more common in women, and women who have low thyroid hormone levels are at risk of giving birth to babies who have below-average motor skills, learning difficulties, reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) and problems with socialization. Another study has linked low prenatal thyroid hormone to Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The EPA has been slowly strengthening its regulations of PFCs through both voluntary and enforcement actions. On Jan. 27, the agency announced new regulations requiring companies to submit notices when they intend to manufacture certain PFCs. However, environmental groups have called for the EPA to ban these chemicals given their long lives and potential for harm. Several PFCs have been targeted for restricted use under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
– When purchasing ski and snowboard wax, choose brands that advertise that they use non-toxic compounds.
– Buy rain wear without PFCs. (For recommendations, see “Greener Rain Gear”: http://www.simplesteps.org/home-garden/stuff/greener-rain-gear)
– Use cast iron frying pans, which are naturally “non-stick.” Stainless steel and glass cookware are good options for boiling. Pans with non-stick coatings usually contain PFCs, so replace them if at all possible. Do not use non-stick pans if you have a pet bird, as the fumes released during heating can be lethal to birds.
– Pop your popcorn in a large stovetop kettle or invest in an air popper. Avoid microwave popcorn and cut down on your consumption of fast food and pizza.
– Choose furniture made without applied stain and water repellents. Decline to have your furnishings and carpets treated with stain and water repellents.
– A granular activated carbon (GAC) filter will remove much of the PFCs. The GAC filter combined with reverse osmosis will completely remove PFCs.