Perfluorinated Chemicals: Not Your Friend

Hiking Oil Creek State Park in our likely-perfluorinated gear 

Hiking Oil Creek State Park in our likely-perfluorinated gear 

Pefluorinated chemicals are ubiquitous in our lives; not only are they used to make nonstick pans, waterproof and stain-resistant treatment for fabrics, camping equipment, workout clothes, Goretex, dental floss, and food packaging, but the chemicals themselves lurk in all of our bodies. First produced the in the 1950s, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are organic molecules in which C-H bonds have been substituted with C-F bonds, giving them slippery, hydrophobic, low-friction properties.

This past May, scientists from around the world issued a statement urging consumers, governments, and companies to reduce and avoid the use of these substances due to their extreme persistence and toxicity. 

Next month, the next round of lawsuits against DuPont, the maker of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, used to make Teflon) and other PFCs will go to trial. Following a class action lawsuit ten years ago, thousands of individuals are suing DuPont for exposure to PFCs, which have been epidemiologically linked to testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines, reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty, and increased risk of miscarriage. Many of the plaintiffs are family members of those who have died from these conditions. (For references, see Madrid Statement).

DuPont knew for decades that PFOA caused cancer and was a risk to pregnant women, but covered up the evidence and continued to produce PFCs and dump the waste into the environment. Two recent investigated journalism series have been released on the story behind DuPont’s deception, and they are definitely worth a look:

Read either or both, but just do it. 

When you’re done, look at this interactive map from EWG that shows what counties’ water supplies are contaminated with PFCs. Scientists have also recently published that the “safe” limit for PFCs in water set by the EPA is probably 100x too high. 

You may know that PFOA has been phased out, but keep in mind that the new chemicals replacing it are similar in structure, still fluorinated, and have many of the same heath risks; clearly, our chemical regulation system is broken.

The EWG has some useful resources for limited your own exposure to PFCs:

I’ve been trying to remove sources of exposure to PFCs by buying untreated clothing (Bluesign certified for workout gear), avoiding stain and waterproofing treatments, and phasing out my nonstick cookware. Unfortunately, it’s harder than I thought because even some of my most trusted companies (Patagonia, looking at you) still use fluorinated chemicals for waterproofing.

 

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Update on Flame Retardants in Furniture

A lot has changed since I bought my flame retardant free couch two years ago. (Policy-wise, that is. My couch is still awesome.) America has made unprecedented improvements in embracing science over the garbage spewed by the $-motivated chemical industry, both via policy and changes made by manufacturers. I think it is safe to say that chemical flame retardants in upholstered furniture are on their way out. 

First, California recently passed a law that requires furniture makers to indicate on the label whether chemical flame retardants are added as of Jan 1, 2015. You might remember that California started the whole chemical flame retardants in furniture trend with the TB 117 regulation, and that it became a national de facto standard because manufacturers didn’t want to make a separate product for California. Hopefully, this labeling requirement, which will make your couch shopping so much easier, will also effectively become a national standard. TB 117 was also modified in 2013 (label will read TB 117-2013) to allow foam furniture to pass the flammability standard without added chemicals; the presence of this label on furniture does not guarantee the absence of chemical flame retardants, but the new yes/no label will. 

Additionally, many big name furniture manufacturers have announced that they are phasing out chemical flame retardants in some or all of their products:

  • Room and Board : All sofas free of chemical flame retardants as of July, 2014 
  • Ikea : No chemical flame retardants used in manufacturing as of Jan. 1, 2015. 2014 stock will still contain FRs.
  • Crate and Barrel : As of Jan. 1, 2015  
  • West Elm : As of Jan. 1, 2015 
  • Pottery Bard : As of Jan. 1, 2015 
  • Design Within Reach : select models
  • Lay-Z-Boy 
  • The Futon Shop 
  • Dania 
  • Scandinavian designs 
  • Wal-Mart
  • Ashley Furniture 
  • Ethan Allen 
  • Restoration Hardware
  • Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams 

Sources for this store list: here and here. There may be more companies; if you come across any, let me know!

Lastly, here you can find a list of companies selling flame retardant free office furniture.

When shopping for a new sofa or other upholstered furniture, don’t forget to check the labels and call the company to make sure no chemical flame retardants are present. 

You can read more about chemical flame retardants and how to avoid ingesting them if you aren’t shopping for new furniture at the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group