Thinking ABOUT the Box

Scientists have reignited a debate over the class of chemicals known as bipoly- and perfluoro-alkyls.  “PFASs,” as they are commonly called, are used in thousands of products, such as electronics, footwear, sleeping bags, tents, protective fire gear, fire extinguisher foams, and pizza boxes.  On Friday, May 1, 2015, a top federal health official and 200 health experts (toxicologists and epidemiologists among them), voiced new concerns about their toxic nature because the substances linger in the human body for years after exposure and increase the risks of kidney cancer, thyroid disease and other health problems.  DuPont banned the use of one type of PFAS in its Teflon products years ago (and other companies followed), but the present controversy concerns whether enough research has been conducted with regard to the replacements.

Linda S. Birnbaum, the head of the national toxicology program for the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote a commentary for Environmental Health Perspectives, positing that “The question is: should these chemicals continue to be used in consumer products in the meantime, given their persistence in the environment? Research is needed to find safe alternatives for all current uses of PFASs.” The American Chemistry Council, however, maintains that tests, reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that these alternatives were safer than the chemicals they were replacing.  DuPont rejected the concerns, its head of risk management stating, “We don’t dismiss the right of folks to debate this…we just believe based on the 10-year history of extensive studies done on the alternatives, that the regulatory agencies have done their job of determining that these things are safe for their intended uses.”  Another environmental scientist, Dr. Paul Brooks, warns, “When you have something that is a first cousin or brother-in-law to a chemical that we are certain is carcinogenic, you have to somehow prove that it is safe before you use it — that it is not injurious,” he said. “You just have to be cautious.”

The class of chemicals is known for its durability and water-resistant properties.  Cardboard pizza boxes treated with the chemicals, for example, stay sturdy even when grease seeps into them.  The fluoro-technology industry is estimated to have reached $19.7 billion in sales in 2013.

“It’s likely they’re going to have some health effects, it just may take us a while to figure out what it is,” said Thomas F. Webster, a professor of environmental health at Boston University’s school of public health who was an author of a paper seeking more scrutiny of PFASs. “It might take five or 10 years to really do the research.”