Also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, it’s a man-made chemical. You’ll find it in products that resist sticking, heat, water, stains, and grease.
The most famous brand name for products with resistant qualities is Teflon. It’s a coating mainly used on cookware but it’s found in many other consumer goods.
But they aren’t the same. “PFOA is not Teflon -- it’s not even in it,” says Bill Walker, vice president and managing editor of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit concerned with health and the environment.
“It is an ingredient that’s used to make Teflon and to make it easier to work with,” Walker says. But it burns off in the creation process.
Other products made with PFOA include stain-resistant carpet, water-repellent clothes, paper and cardboard packaging, ski wax, and foams used to fight fires. PFOA is also created when other chemicals break down.
PFOA works well in these products because it’s so stable. But that also means it lasts a long time in the environment -- and in people.
Where Is PFOA Found?
Nearly all of us have small amounts of PFOA or chemicals like it in our blood. “Because they’re used in a number of consumer products, most people have been exposed to them,” says Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water.
They can also get into the air, water, and soil as byproducts of the manufacturing process. Because it doesn’t dissolve in water or on the ground, PFOA can travel many miles. “Drinking water can be an additional source in the small percentage of communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies,” Beauvais says.
If you live near or work in a plant that used or made PFOA, or if you install or treat carpets for a living, you may have higher levels of PFOA in your blood.
Now that the EPA is monitoring district water supplies around the country, we’re starting to see more how prevalent this chemical is in water, Walker says. Measurable amounts of PFOA have been found in drinking water in at least 29 states.
Is It Harmful?
In May 2016, the EPA issued a lifetime health advisory for PFOA after multiple studies showed it could harm humans. The effects, studied both in lab animals and by gathering data from large groups of people, showed that high levels of exposure may cause:
How Can I Limit My Exposure?
PFOA belongs to a class of chemicals known as PFCs, for perfluorinated chemicals. Now that major U.S. manufacturers have agreed to no longer use or make PFOA, other PFCs have taken its place.
“We know the formula has been tweaked a little bit so that newer PFCs are not quite as persistent as PFOA, but they do show some of the same characteristics,” Walker says. “Our fear is that down the line we are going to find that they are just as bad as PFOA.”
To help protect yourself:
- Don’t get stain- or water-repellent treatments for new carpet and furniture.
- Eat less fast food and carryout food. It often comes wrapped in paper made with PFCs.
- Don’t wear stain- or water-repellent outerwear.
- Check labels and avoid products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” on the ingredients list.
What’s Being Done About PFOA?
In 2006, the EPA asked eight major U.S. companies that made and used PFOA to stop making the chemical by 2015, which they did. The companies, which also do business outside the U.S., also agreed to work toward eliminating PFOA worldwide.
The EPA requires firms that manufacture or import substances like PFOA to alert the agency 90 days before they create new uses for these chemicals.
Your local government can lower levels of PFOA in water with various treatments.
The efforts are working: PFOA levels in people are lower -- at least in the U.S. Researchers have seen a 40% decrease in PFOA in blood tested between 2000 and 2010.
But there’s still cause for concern, says David Andrews, PhD, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “We’re working to ensure that there’s much more awareness of this class of chemicals and their extreme persistence in the environment and potential toxic effects,” he says. “Some of the hidden health costs in the consumer products that we use are, in most cases, completely unnecessary.”