Fluorochemicals are synthetically produced chemicals, which repel water and oil and are persistent towards aggressive physical and chemical conditions in industrial processing. These characteristics have made the fluorochemicals useful in numerous processes and products, such as coatings for food paper and board.
The problem with fluorochemicals is that they are difficult to break down and accumulate in both humans and the environment. Some fluorochemicals have known correlations with harmful health effects, such as cancer, increased cholesterol and a weaker immune system in children. They can also decrease men's and women's ability to reproduce, and the chemicals can be transferred from mother to child during pregnancy and through breastmilk.
Research chemist, Dr. Xenia Trier from the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark and a number of international research colleagues therefore recommend that fluorochemicals are only used where they are absolutely essential, as long as measurement methods and knowledge about their potentially harmful effects are limited. The researchers drew up the statement after attending a scientific conference about fluorinated substances (5th International workshop on poly- and perfluorinated substances (PFAS)), held in Helsingør, Denmark in October 2013.
Fluorinated alternatives possibly not better
There is strict regulation around the use of some fluorochemicals in countries like Norway and Canada, and in the US the industry has voluntarily phased out the production of the fluorochemicals which accumulate most in humans. One of these substances is perfluorooctanoic sulfonate (PFOS) and chemicals made from it. These substances are also on the UN's list of known persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which may only be used for a few purposes. Instead industries use other types of fluorochemicals, which accumulate less. Unfortunately, since the fluorinated alternatives in some cases are less effective than those they replace, the alternatives are used in greater quantities, which offsets the benefits of accumulating less. In addition, these alternatives are also persistent.
"Before alternatives are put on the market we recommend that they are tested better than is done today. Just as is required for pesticides and veterinary drugs, producers should be required to develop sufficiently sensitive methods to measure the alternative fluorochemicals for example in food and consumer products and determine the toxicity of the chemicals before they are put on the market. In addition, they should specifically check if the alternatives have similar harmful health effects as those fluorochemicals they replace. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistake of substituting one harmful substance for another similarly harmful chemical," Xenia Trier says.
"It is expensive and time-consuming to investigate the potential harmful effects of new fluorochemicals. This bill and the bill for treating people who become sick or have difficulties conceiving, often ends up getting paid for by society," Xenia Trier says.
The authors of the Helsingør Statement therefore urge that producers and suppliers not only investigate the alternatives properly, but also make existing data on the substances' chemical and toxicological properties publically available.
If, in future, it turns out that use of the new fluorochemicals creates environmental and health problems that are as big as the ones created by the substances they were meant to replace, the researchers warn it may take several decades to correct the global contamination problem.
"We recommend that known and safe chemicals are used, or that new alternatives are developed which are not toxic, persistent and do not accumulate in humans or the environment. Fluorochemicals should only be used were they are truly essential, and not in common consumer products," Xenia Trier stresses.
On August 31, 2014 at a pre-meeting in Madrid to an international conference on dioxin in September 2014, researchers from around the world will discuss which scientific and political initiatives can be taken by scientists, government and industry to phase out the use of fluorochemicals.
The statement on fluorchemicals is written by researchers from Denmark, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Switzerland and the US, and is published in the research journal Chemosphere: Helsingør Statement on poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (pdf).
Also read the National Food Institutes press release from October 23, 2013: Extensive use of fluorinated substances with potentially harmful effects, and the press release from November 16, 2011: Polyfluorerede stoffer i emballage kan smitte af på fødevarer (in Danish, only).
Research chemist, Dr. Xenia Trier, firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: +45 35 88 74 71
Fluorochemicals repel water, grease and soil and can resist aggressive chemical and physical conditions. They are therefore useful in e.g. firefighting foams and in the acid baths used for hard metal chrome plating.
The substances are also used in a variety of common consumer products such as repellent coatings for clothes and furniture, and in cleaning agents for floors. In food packaging the fluorochemicals are used for e.g.coatings on microwave popcorn bags, fastfood paper packaging and cake and sandwich paper.
Fluorochemicals have been applied in a variety of products since the 1960's, but their use has increased in the past decades. In the past 5-10 years the use in food packaging and textiles in Denmark has to some extent been replaced by other fluorinated and non-fluorinated alternatives.
Poly- and perfluorinated chemicals are man-made chemicals, and particularly the perfluorinated substances are known to harm both the environment and humans, because they accumulate in humans and animals. The half-life in humans can be up to eight years, which is amongst the longest known half-lives for any chemical. Half-life is the time it takes for the body to excrete 50% of the chemical after the person is no longer exposed to the chemical.
Some of the fluorochemicals have been linked to harmful health effects, and can e.g. cause cancer, increase cholesterol and decrease the immune system of children. They can also decrease people's ability to reproduce, and be transferred during pregnancy from mother to child and through the breast milk.
A Nordic literature review, which in 2013 was undertaken among others by the National Food Institute, shows there are substantial gaps in knowledge about most of the fluorochemicals used in consumer goods. This includes information about the quantities of fluorochemicals that are produced worldwide, how much is used in the Nordic countries, the specific chemical composition in commercial products, how toxic they are and which specific mechanisms that make the fluorochemicals toxic.