Perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs – the class of chemicals used in DuPont’s Teflon, 3M’s Scotchgard and many other products – pollute the bodies of people and animals in every corner of the world. In the latest findings, Canadian scientists have detected PFCs in virtually all of the eggs of herring gulls sampled in the Great Lakes region.
Researchers from the National Wildlife Research Center in Ottawa report that measurable concentrations of PFCs were found in more than 97 percent of the herring gull eggs they collected in 2012-2013 from sites in Canada and the U.S.
PFCs are used to make heat-resistant, stain-resistant and water-resistant materials. They build up in living things and the environment, and in people can cause cancer, birth defects, heart disease and other diseases. Studies have also found that in animals PFCs can cause tumor growth, reproductive problems and disrupt liver and thyroid function.
Concentrations varied depending on location in the region, with the highest levels found near cities.
In 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFCs in the blood of almost all Americans, with the average level less than 10 parts per billion, or ppb. In the gull eggs, the Canadian researchers found concentrations of more than a dozen types of PFCs ranging as high as 113 ppb. This suggests that people in the Great Lakes may be at heightened risk of exposure from eating fish or other wildlife that live and drink from these highly polluted lakes.
So-called “long-chain” PFCs, with molecules containing eight carbon atoms, have been largely phased out in the U.S. by the end of 2015. However, chemical companies replaced them with dozens of short-chain chemicals that may have some of the same health hazards but have not been adequately tested for safety. Many of the chemicals found in the gull eggs were short-chain PFCs, indicating that like their predecessors these repolacements are building up in living things.
One way people in the Great Lakes can limit their exposure to PFCs is to reduce the amount of fish and other wildlife from that area to no more than one meal a week. For others, EWG advises staying away from pre-treated carpets, non-stick pans and water-repellent outdoor equipment. To learn more, check out our guide to avoiding PFCs.
But the long-term solution to pollution from PFCs and other toxic chemicals is to pass stronger regulations.
This month the Food and Drug Administration banned three long-chain perfluorinated compounds from food packaging, ten years after EWG and other environmental health groups sounded alarms over the safety of similar chemicals. Last year, Congress passed two bills to update the nation’s badly broken and outdated chemicals law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. But neither “reform” bill goes nearly far enough. Real TSCA reform would ensure that both new chemicals and those already on the market are safe and that the most dangerous substances are quickly reviewed and regulated.