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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In the News: Target Announces Sustainable Product Standards

Last month, Target announced a new program in which it will rate products based on their transparency, ingredients, and environmental impact.  According to Target’s website, the 100 point system will be implemented first on personal care, beauty, household cleaning, and baby care products.

Given how big of a reach Target has, this is big news: zillions of customers, average Americans (as opposed to the average Whole Foods shopper), with more sustainable and less toxic affordable products at their fingertips.   Continue reading

Toxic Air Fresheners

I hate air fresheners.  Hate hate HATE.  All they do is cover up smells with other sickly smells.  Seriously people, there are better ways to make your home or car or garbage cans more olfactorily pleasing.  (Is that a word?)

Taylor and I recently came in close contact with a hawaiian scented Febreeze thing that was meant to cover up garbage stench in our building. A few minutes later Taylor was turning pink and having a hard time breathing.  Meanwhile, I was shuddering at the thought of all the hormone disrupting chemicals in those things.

A little research when I got home told me that the only “ingredient” in that air freshener is “fragrance,” which we’ve talked about before. Fragrance is a catch-all term that may include tens or even hundreds of different ingredients.  Fragrances are proprietary, so companies don’t have to disclose what is in them. Additionally, the government does not have any safety regulations in place for air fresheners.

So how do we know what’s in them if the ingredients aren’t disclosed? Continue reading

Twelve Endocrine Disruptors to Avoid

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a “dirty dozen” list of endocrine disruptors to avoid, similar to their dirty dozen list of produce to buy organic.

Endocrine disruptors, quite simply, are chemicals that interfere with hormones in the body. They’re particularly scary because very small amounts can have very big effects, particularly during development.  

You and I don’t have unlimited time to investigate every single ingredient in our shampoo, so it is great to have a list like this to know what to look for, just like we know to buy strawberries and apples organic but not worry too much about avocados.

Most of the endocrine disruptors on the list are names you will recognize, big baddies like lead and dioxin, but some you may not recognize by name.  The list describes in plain English what is so bad about these chemicals and gives suggestions for avoiding them; most enter our body either through food or water.  It’s definitely worth taking a look at. Continue reading

Take This Tomato Project BPA Poll!

Aside

Hey everybody, please take this quick poll to help with the tomato project & my second year graduate seminar.  I want to know what you think! You can choose up to two answers.

Questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome.

The Tomato Project: An Introduction

We are in the midst of tomato season right now, which means I am busy stockpiling oven roasted tomatoes in my freezer to use as sauce base for the rest of the year, but my sister told me yesterday that even during the summer she only buys canned tomatoes.  In bulk, she says, they are the cheapest option, and they taste pretty darn good.  I was aghast at the idea of consuming so much BPA, but Mark Bittman made the same point in the Times this past weekend in his piece “Not All Industrial Food is Evil.”  Bittman doesn’t even mention BPA! Canned tomatoes do taste better than the hydroponically farmed ones in supermarkets in the winter, but this is August.

My sister is stubborn, and we argued for a while about the cost of canned tomatoes vs. the risk of BPA exposure.  She is committed to living on the cheap, and will probably never switch away from canned food, no matter how toxic, unless a cheaper option is presented.  And as Bittman points out, canned tomatoes are dirt cheap thanks to the international market.

Home canned tomato sauce, yum! I wish the lids of Ball jars weren’t also lined with BPA/BPS.

My mind is blown by how difficult it is to avoid foods packaged with BPA. You have to really TRY, and in my experience, you pretty much have to spend either a lot of money or a lot of time (i.e. buy organic tomatoes in fancy jars or can your own).  I don’t think that this doesn’t have to be the case, though.  Living in a city, I have a lot of options for buying food, and I bet that I can find cheap, non-BPA tomatoes in bulk for at least a reasonable price.

…and so the tomato project was born.  I am going to be living in this city for a while, and I certainly buy lots of groceries, so I think it will be worth the time to study sources of tomatoes and other major foodstuffs in the city of Pittsburgh. Plus, I need to prove to my sister that it is possible to live cheaply and avoid major, um, not-so-beneficial food additives.

Here’s how this is going to work: I am going to visit all of the places in the city I can think of from which I can buy tomatoes (fresh, canned, jarred, or otherwise) and document them with my camera. I don’t have a car, so everywhere I go will be accessible by public transportation. I plan to check out:

  • Giant Eagle Market District (standard grocery store chain)
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s
  • East End Food Co-op
  • various farmer’s markets
  • Pennsylvania Macaroni Co (huge Italian specialty store)
  • Costco

In my assessment, I will be considering:

  • Price (by weight)
  • Packaging*
  • Source (domestic or international)
  • Organic (or not)
  • Additives (sugar and other unnecessary additives are a no go)

*Note: I do not consider cans designated “BPA free” to be ok if they don’t say what replaced it.  Most BPA free plastics use BPS instead, which is a structurally similar molecule with similar endocrine disrupting properties.  It just hasn’t gotten as much publicity yet. 

While I am investigating tomatoes, I am going to research a few other major foods as well. I most often shop around for dairy and nuts because they are expensive.  Because of the high fat content in dairy products, it is important to me to buy organic (and hormone free) because many toxins, especially pesticides, partition into fat rather than water. Nuts I would prefer to buy in bulk because it is usually cheaper and saves packaging, but I have found that the nuts in the bulk bins at Whole Foods are much more expensive per pound than the packaged ones because the bulk bins are stocked with “fancy organic pecan halves” whereas the packaged ones are just pieces and almost half the price. (Whole Foods is probably set up like this just to trick conscientious shoppers.) Finally, I’d like to find the cheapest and least packaged way to buy unbrominated unbleached and preferably organic flour.

The project will start this weekend, and probably will take a while.  In the meantime, the next post in the tomato project series will be an exposé on the threat of BPA with the purpose of convincing you that you should want to pay more to avoid it. Hopefully I will soon be able to prove that you don’t have to.

 Any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for other foods I should look into? Leave a comment!

A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong. Continue reading