Teflon and eternal chemicals: hidden poison in the body | Knowledge & Environment | DW

The “Forever Pollution Project” has been investigating sites tainted by the Eternal Chemicals. They found more than 17,000 polluted locations, including over 2,000 hotspots.

What do rain jackets, pizza boxes, frozen vegetable packaging and coated pans have in common? They all very likely contain so-called perfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFAS). Including fall over 4500 different man-made substances, which can harm our health and cannot be degraded in nature or only after a very long time. That’s why experts call them “forever chemicals”.

“PFAS are among the most threatening chemicals ever invented,” says Dr. Roland Weber, Environmental Advisor for the United Nations. Residues of it have long been found everywhere in the world – in soil, drinking water, animals, food – and also in the human body.

PFAS have even been detected in polar bears in the Arctic

Am I affected myself?

98 percent of US citizens have PFAS in their blood. Studies in India, Indonesia and the Philippines found the toxic substances in almost all breast milk samples. And in Germany, too, every child has permanent chemicals in their bodies; one fifth in such a high concentration that critical values ​​are exceeded.

I ask myself: Do I have this stuff in me too? It is not that easy to find out, because only a few specialized laboratories in Germany can carry out the analyses. But then it works and I send a blood sample to the Institute for Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine (IPASUM) in Erlangen, southern Germany.

I have to say goodbye to the hope that I might not have any PFAS in my body myself.

blood draw

I’m having my blood tested for eternal chemicals. Only a few special laboratories in Germany carry out the analyzes at all.

The institute tested my blood for the most well-known “forever chemicals”: PFOA and PFOS. They can cause liver and kidney damage, lead to reduced fertility in men, reduce the weight of newborns and the effectiveness of vaccinations, and in high concentrations Cancer to lead. Recent studies also show one connection with severe COVID-19 courses.

For me, the lab test shows 0.0000045 grams of these chemicals per liter of blood – that’s a thousand times a fraction of a grain of sand. That puts me in the German average – and I only reach a tenth of the critical limit values.

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“According to the current state of knowledge, there is no risk at these concentrations,” says Professor Thomas Göen from IPASUM, who analyzed my values.

But that doesn’t reassure me, because science has not yet conclusively clarified when exactly there is an increased risk. “The substances are very persistent. They can accumulate in the body. And that’s the main problem, that in the end a dose can accumulate that could be a problematic concentration,” explains Göen.

Tray with Mc Donalds waste and packaging waste

Coated paper for fast food packaging also contains eternal chemicals – McDonald’s wants to do without them by 2022

Because these chemically produced substances are so stable, they cannot be biodegraded in nature and the body can only eliminate them very slowly. Procedures to split them up artificially are still in their infancy.

How do they get into the environment and our bodies?

It is precisely this stability that makes PFAS so useful, they are extremely water, grease and dirt-repellent and are used in almost every industry; in imitation leather, photographic paper, pesticides, foams for fire extinguishing as well as in paints or in aircraft construction. Humans ingest PFAS primarily through food. Especially fish, meat, milk, eggs and vegetables from contaminated regions can have elevated PFAS levels.

Molecules pollution theme

PFAS can now be detected worldwide, and the level is often particularly high near factories

Infographic Map Contaminated Drinking Water in the USA DE

The drinking water of at least 200 million Americans is contaminated with perennial chemicals

Residues are released into the environment via landfills, industrial wastewater and exhaust fumes, or when washing outdoor clothing. Most sewage treatment plants cannot filter them out.

PFAS have already been found in remote mountains of Patagonia, in the snows of Antarctica and the Altai mountains of Russia, in polar bears, birds and dolphins.

Some animals exposed to high levels of PFAS show changes in hormone levels and in liver and thyroid function. The effects of the substances on ecosystems have hardly been researched to date.

First for the atomic bomb, then for the budget

One of the first of these PFAS was manufactured by the American chemical company DuPont in 1938: PTFE. Because it can protect metal from corrosion even at high temperatures, the new substance was also used in the Development of the first atomic bomb for use

Big Black Bomb

During the secret construction of the first atomic bomb, one of the first PFAS was used for valves and seals to protect against highly reactive uranium hexafluoride

Under the brand name “Teflon”, PTFE later found its way into households all over the world in the form of coated pans. Teflon became a huge commercial success. But in 1998, the effective non-stick coating took a serious hit when a rancher’s hundred cows near a Teflon manufacturing plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, “dropped dead one after the other,” says Robert Bilott. He is an environmental lawyer and longtime defense attorney for the rancher in his lawsuit against DuPont.

Netherlands Dupont / Chemours plans in Dordrecht

In Dordrecht, the Netherlands, people suffered from increased cancer rates and autoimmune diseases for years. Local residents blame the PFAs from the DuPont factory

The farmer “could see white foamy water coming out of a landfill site next to his property,” Bilott told DW. It emerged that thousands of people in the region were contaminated by the DuPont factory’s PFAS-containing wastewater and leaking dump. Documents show that DuPont — unlike government agencies — had known about the hazard for decades, but continued to release the toxic material into the environment. studiessuggest that the high PFAS levels in the region are linked to increased cases of kidney and testicular cancer. In 2017, DuPont agreed to transfer $671 million in compensation to victims in 3,550 cases of personal injury.

Industry creative with loopholes – and alternatives?

There were also other countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy PFAS contamination incidents in the environment or in drinking water. Individual PFAS are gradually being banned in the EU, the USA and Japan. The exposure of the population to these substances has steadily decreased since then. In Germany, it has more than halved on average since 1990.

The industry is therefore switching to a new generation of PFAS, which chemically differ only minimally from their predecessors, but have not yet been banned.

How can I protect myself?

And what does that mean for me personally? I’m at a loss – how am I supposed to avoid something that’s in almost everything without even saying it on the box? After all, coated pans have had their day for me now. I’ve never been a fast food fanatic and don’t really like to-go food and drink that much anyway, so the portion of my menu now slides even further down to avoid single-use tableware containing PFAS. But I won’t be able to say no to the pack of frozen spinach (a childhood memory). For this I am considering installing a water filter, which is available as a carafe or for the tap, to filter at least some PFAS out of the drinking water.

And the pressure on the PFAS is growing. Since oneGreenpeace campaign, several outdoor brands such as Vaude, Paramo or Rotauf are now producing their clothing without “forever chemicals”. According to the Swedish furniture chain Ikea, they have also banned them from their products. And countries like Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are pushing to phase out all PFAS in the EU by 2030.

The technical term polytetrafluoroethylene is used in the article. The abbreviation for this is PTFE and not PFTE. We corrected the mistake.

This article was originally published on March 12, 2021 and has now been supplemented with the new findings of the “Forever Pollution Project”.

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