Also known as perfluorooctanoic acid (or C8), PFOA has been used most commonly as a surfactant in many factory manufactured products since the 1950’s.
Surfactants are substances that lower the surface tension between liquids and other materials. Basically, if a manufacturer wants their product to resist staining or water damage, the product is treated with PFOA to repel liquids.
You may also see PFOA categorized as a PFC (perfluorinated compound). These are man made compounds and are not found naturally in the environment.
These substances are known for being quite stable and non reactive. Hence, this is why they were commonly used to repel other substances. They’re inert and won’t react with other materials.
Since PFOA isn’t reactive, it also takes a really long time to decompose and break down. One study showed that the average half life of PFOA in humans was around 2-3 years but could be as high as 7-9 years depending on the level of exposure.
PFOA will also bio-accumulate. Meaning the more exposure to PFOA, the more will build up in your system at higher concentrations until the exposure stops.
Those who live near or work in a factory that uses PFOA have higher concentrations found in their systems. But approximately 98% of the general population has a detectable level of PFOA in their system. That’s a pretty scary stat.
Where is PFOA found in the kitchen?
In cookware, PFOA is most commonly seen when when manufacturing PTFE or Teflon materials. This is because as a nonstick material, the manufacturer wants the surface to resist any liquids or foods coming in contact with it. Makes sense.
Teflon and other nonstick cookware manufacturers insist that all PFOA is burned off during the manufacturing process. However, small amounts have been detected on finished products.
There’s a few other sneaky places PFOA can turn up in the kitchen. Many food contact materials are known to contain it. Food contact materials are used for storage or transport of certain foods. The PFOA makes sure the both the food and the packaging are not damaged by any moisture or greases from the food.
Some examples of food contact materials that have been known to contain PFOA are:
- Fast food wrapping and boxes
- Bread paper wrapping
- Pizza boxes
- To-go boxes
- Certain disposable plates and cutlery
- Microwave popcorn bags
Another unfortunate place PFOA can be found is drinking water supplies. It can get in the ground from bad disposal practices at factories or landfills full of PFOA lined products.
PFOA is one of the toxins that has been contaminating the drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
Other areas of PFOA exposure
You can find PFOA outside of the kitchen in many places as well. Some products that have been treated to be stain or water resistant are big offenders.
It’s also found in floor waxes and other sealants that are used to protect against moisture and to make surfaces easier to clean.
Voluntary phase out and regulations
The EPA has classified PFOA as an “emerging contaminant”.
In the early 2000’s the EPA contacted several large companies to ask if they would stop manufacturing with PFOA. They agreed and formed a stewardship program to eliminate PFOA from modern manufacturing practices.
The goal was to phase out PFOA in products and factory emissions completely by 2015 with a 95% reduction by 2010.
This has resulted decrease in the concentrations found in the populations blood in the last 15 years, which is great! But the work’s not over by a long shot.
PFOA has only been phasing out for a few years now. It’s going to take a really long time before it naturally decomposes to the point of nonexistence.
And while many manufacturers have voluntarily phased out the use of PFOA specifically, they are being replaced with other PFCs. Many of these other substances don’t have as much research and data behind them yet.
These PFCs could have similar or worse even effects, but because they aren’t specifically PFOA, they haven’t yet been targeted.
Health effects of PFOA
There have been many animal studies on the effects of PFOA exposure. Data from humans has been examined as well, especially in populations that were highly exposed (such as factory workers and those who live near these factories).
Some of the health effects found in adults include:
- Testicular cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver damage
- Thyroid disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Cholesterol issues
- Early menopause
- Low fertility rates
PFOA exposure has negative effects on pregnant women and their babies as well:
- Hypertension during pregnancy
- Low birth weight
- Early puberty
- Immune system problems
- Changes in growth of the developing fetus
- Learning and behavioral issues in children
How can you avoid PFOA?
You can never be too careful when it comes to toxins. Most (if not all) traces of PFOA are burned off during the manufacturing process of PTFE and nonstick pans.
But if there are some still hanging around, you’ll want to avoid overheating your pan to the point of the toxins burning off into your kitchen.
Never overheat any nonstick pan – low and medium cooking temperatures only. This actually goes for PFOA-free nonstick pans too. If you need to cook on high, grab a cast iron or stainless steel pan. And always keep your kitchen very well ventilated.
Never use metal or anything abrasive on nonstick cookware either. That goes for both cooking and cleaning utensils. One scratch and little bits of the coating can come off in your food. Gross. And remember that stuff will stay in your system for a long time.
Fast food and take outs
We all give in to fast food or take out sometimes. I’m totally guilty. While researching any fast foods and/or processed foods, you’ll want to do your research on the packaging too.
I’m sure not many companies have this information readily available on their websites but if you do a little digging and reach out to customer service, you might be able to find some answers on whether they use PFOA in their food contact materials.
The EPA doesn’t look like it’s going to set a standard for allowable levels of PFOA in water any time soon. In my opinion that limit should be 0! But hey, that’s just me.
If you suspect there is PFOA in your groundwater, there are some good water filters you can buy. Granular activated carbon (GAC filters) and
reverse osmosis systems are the most effective in removing PFOAs. But nanofiltration filters do a good job too.
Stain and water resistant textile products
Avoid purchasing fabrics that use stain and/or water resistance as a selling point. Some companies give you the option of adding a stain resistant spray, so always opt for no. They are basically spraying the product with PFOA or other PFCs. It’s worth a stain or two if it means no ill health effects if you ask me.
What can I do about PFOAs in my system already?
Now that you know where to look to avoid PFOA exposure, you might want to do a little detox action to help the process along to get it out of your system.
Unfortunately since PFOA is so stable and persistent in any environment, time is probably the most effective process that is going to ultimately eliminate it from your body. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try and help it along a little!
Drink lots of water! (Water that doesn’t contain PFOA that is.) The more you flush your system out, the more toxins can be released.
Green tea is another great drink option. Both green and black tea will help flush toxins out your body. Tea also supports liver health, which is one of the areas PFOA attacks and accumulates.
Focus on foods that keep your liver and kidneys healthy. Blueberries are filled with antioxidants that are so good for both the liver and kidneys.
Don’t abuse alcohol to be sure your liver and body are healthy overall so you can process out any toxins.
While PFOA is on the decline, we’re not out of the woods just yet. It will take many years of consistently phasing it out. And many more years of slow decomposition in the environment before it’s gone for good.
But we’ll get there one day!