By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now
PFOA, aka Perfluorooctanoic acid, is everywhere. It’s in the wrappers of frozen pizza and microwave popcorn; it’s in Teflon pots and pans; it’s in the stain resistant coating that protects new carpets.
PFOA is a stable man-made chemical used in industrial and consumer goods because it is good at repelling heat, water, grease and stains.
It is found in the blood of 98 percent of Americans and in 100 percent of all newborns, according to Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group.
British researcher Tamara Galloway, who is the author of a new report on PFOA, says there’s some debate about how exactly PFOA gets into the body. ” It’s generally thought to be from the diet (e.g. fast food wrappers), from handling consumer and industrial objects and from ingesting household dusts.”
Concerns about PFOA have been around since the ‘70s, and the EPA has labeled PFOA as a potential carcinogen.
Now, British scientists have come up with additional cause for worry: people with higher concentrations of PFOA in their blood appear to have higher rates of thyroid disease.
The new study that was published this week in Environmental Health Perspectives, observed 3,966 adults 20 or more years of age. Their blood serum was tested between 1999 and 2006 for PFOA and all were questioned as to whether they had had thyroid problem. The researchers discovered that those with the highest 25 percent of PFOA levels were more than twice as likely to report being on medication for ongoing thyroid disease compared to those with the lowest 50 percent of PFOA concentrations.
The study was led by Galloway, a professor of ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter (U.K.) School of Biosciences, who notes, “These results highlight a real need for further research into the human health effects of low-level exposures to environmental chemicals like PFOA that are ubiquitous in the environment and in people’s homes. We need to know what they are doing.”
A scientist with the EWG reports that PFOA doesn’t break down and because it can live forever, it contaminates the environment, the food chain and the population.
The chemical industry has often defended its product saying that a small dose of PFOA is not a concern, but Walker disagrees.
“We now know that small amounts of PFOA exposure at the wrong time – such as to the fetus or to an infant, are of even more concern than PFOA exposure to an adult.” Olga Naidenko, senior scientist with EWG, agrees, adding that while no scientific study is definitive, “this paper strengthens our understanding that these chemicals have an effect on hormones.”
More research is needed, says Galloway, to determine how PFOA affects the functioning of the human thyroid. It’s possible that the PFOA compounds might be disrupting the binding of thyroid hormones in the blood, or might be altering their metabolism in the liver. Another point she makes is that it’s nearly impossible to figure out whether the higher PFOA levels already existed before the thyroid diagnosis.
So, what’s the answer? Naidenko says the best thing to do is decrease the source of our exposure to PFOA. “Avoid microwave popcorn. Try making good old-fashioned popcorn on the stove,” she says. “Also, instead of buying clothes that are coated with PFOA, consumers need to ask tough questions of their manufacturers. “Don’t buy it, if you discover that the item may be made with PFOA.”
In addition to curbing individual exposure, local governments need to monitor drinking water that has been found to have detectable levels of PFOA.
PFOA is not just an American phenomenon. It is a global problem, says Galloway. “PFOA is very hard to break down once it’s been made, which makes it a very persistent compound. It is found in humans, wildlife and in soil and water samples from across the globe, even in the Arctic. The data we used is from the largest study to have measured the chemical in the general population — studies that suggest that human and wildlife populations in other countries are exposed to similar levels.”
“We will definitely be doing more research to find out more about the links between PFOA and adverse health,” she says.
EHP is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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