by Zoe Christopher, Resource Liaison and Office Manager                                                                         

Many of us are aware that corporate greed, along with our obsession with consumerism, speed, and convenience, is making us and our planet sick. I try to make personal choices that don’t do harm to the environment or threaten public health, but a recent purchase prompted me to learn more about a group of chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyls) and now I’m hopping mad. 

It all started when I bought a new pair of shoes. Sounds harmless enough, right? But when I got home, I noticed that the tag on my shoes included the ubiquitous 3M Scotchgard emblem, assuring me that the shoes were stain and water resistant. I found this information disturbing rather than reassuring –I know that Scotchgard contains PFAS. Because of my work at Breast Cancer Action, I know that PFAS are dangerous chemicals, but I decided to do some research to find out more.

Forever Chemicals Everywhere

I learned that PFAS is a class of “forever chemicals” and though the nickname may sound quaint, it means that these chemicals NEVER  break down. They’re everywhere, we’re constantly exposed, and they accumulate and stay in the body. Included in this class are PFOA and PFOS, formerly produced by 3M for decades and the basis for the company’s success. They’re in non-stick cookware, antimicrobials, adhesives of all sorts, carpeting, flame retardants, waterproofing, stain repellents, corrosion-resistant pipes and wiring, phthalates, some solvents and metals, surgical gowns, firefighting foam, and bisphenols. Even my friends who live “off the grid” aren’t safe: these chemicals travel long distances via wind, air, and water, and are found in incredibly remote places.

They are also critical to the manufacturing of cell phones so I can only imagine what we’re doing to the planet and future generations by constantly scrapping one cell phone for the next bigger, faster model. PFAS were discovered by accident during research associated with the Manhattan Project – the birthing ground of the atomic bomb! Now there are more than 3,000 synthetic chemicals classified as PFAS, most of which have never been tested for long-term human safety. They are known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens – chemicals that may increase our risk of breast and other types of cancer.

3M’s Dangerous Deception

All the way back in the 1970s, 3M knew that PFAS posed serious health risks, but they chose to conceal their data from regulatory agencies and denied the danger for decades, while continuing to produce and sell the chemicals. Finally, around 2002, 3M voluntarily phased out long-chain PFAS, only to tweak their formulas and replace them with similar compounds called short-chain PFAS. Scientists and other concerned environmentalists refer to these as “regrettable substitutions,” meaning they were reformulated but not proven to be safe. In other words, they may have the same detrimental effects or worse.

What aggravates the heck out of me is that we are all being exposed to potential health and environmental hazards, bombarded with chemicals that aren’t necessary. By adding PFAS to everyday products, like my shoes, these companies are increasing the load of chemicals that wind up in landfill that seeps into waterways and enters our bodies through food and drinking water.

Chemical Nightmare

A dairy farmer in England was recently forced to close down the family operations because of high levels of PFOA found in his blood and that of other family members. “When the contamination was discovered at the farm, we assumed that it must have gotten inside of our bodies, because we have been drinking the water and milk for many years,” he explained. “These blood test results add injury to insult. First, it was our farm, then it was our cows and now it’s us?  When will this nightmare end?”

It’s outrageous that we continue to be victims of manufacturers that put public health at risk for profit. The United Nations and the European Union are already in the process of banning PFOA and PFOS, but corporate greed in the U.S. sees to it that we’re all still swimming in this toxic soup–not to mention that even if these chemicals are completely banned, they will stick around forever. And I don’t feel reassured when corporations tell us these short-chain chemicals are less toxic, when what we need is proof they are non-toxic.

I’m not in a position to go into battle with these corporate behemoths but I’m willing to join others in educating our communities. I don’t care if my shoes get stained or my feet get a little wet. I just want these companies to stop poisoning us with their forever chemicals.