PFCs – Perfluorinated Compounds

by Risë Rafferty, RDN  |  February 28, 2018

It was the Native Americans who first made popcorn in this country. They popped it over fire on flat rocks. Today we microwave it in bags lined with substances called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), also referred to as perfluorochemicals. PFCs are a class of persistent organic pollutants. There are 853 different perfluorinated compounds—PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, PFOSA, and PFDA are just a handful.

PFCs are not naturally present in nature. Their production began about 50 years ago. They’ve since become ubiquitous. They are used to produce water, oil, and stain-resistant coatings in many textiles; in cooking utensils, oil-resistant coatings for culinary paper products, and non-stick coatings; and in photographic emulsifier, aviation hydraulic fluids, and fire-fighting foams. They aren’t reactive and don’t degrade easily, making them persistent and able to bioaccumulate. Their presence has now been found in nature in various bodies of water, in wild animals, human blood, and even breast milk.

PFCs are toxic to humans and animals. In research using rats and monkeys, it was found that the liver, kidneys, and thyroid are the most sensitive organs to PFOS exposure. Levels of thyroid hormones T3 and T4 were lowered in PFOS-exposed rats. Hepatotoxic and carcinogenic effects were observed in the rats after exposure. A reduction in blood and testicular testosterone and an increase in a form of estrogen was observed in male rats that were exposed to PFOA for 14 days.

PFOS and PFOA have reproductive and developmental toxic effects in different species and their organs. In animal studies exposure to PFOS and PFOA, during the gestational and/or the neonatal period, have toxic impact on the developing lungs and different effects on the developing nervous system, delayed development and impaired behavior, learning and memory. Decreased fertility has also been observed.

…liver, kidneys, and thyroid are the most sensitive organs to PFOS exposure.

Pre- and postnatal exposure to PFOS was found to impair spatial cognition and memory in rats. Researchers documented impairment of cognitive performance in chicks that had been exposed to PFCs before they were hatched. PFCs have also been found to be toxic to the immune and nervous systems. Unfortunately, PFCs can be transferred from the mother to the offspring during pregnancy and while nursing. In humans, exposure to PFCs increased production of reaction oxygen species while decreasing the body’s capacity to neutralize their damaging effects.

While extensive research has not been conducted on humans for obvious ethical reasons, we know that we, not just lab animals, have experienced significant exposure to PFCs. The Canadian Total Diet Study examined the chemical contamination of food collected from 1992 to 2004. They found microwave popcorn had the highest levels of PFOA. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported coated paper as the largest possible source of exposure to PFCs.

A California study was conducted measuring PFC levels in a population group of children, parents of young children, and older adults. Researchers assessed PFCs in the participants’ blood, measured PFC in house dust concentrations, and gave questionnaires. The average PFOS concentration was highest for the older adults. In contrast, PFOA was highest for children. The researchers found moderate correlation between children and their parents.

“For adults, age, having occupational exposure or having used fire extinguisher, frequencies of consuming butter/margarine, pork, canned meat entrées, tuna and white fish, freshwater fish, and whether they ate microwave popcorn were significantly positively associated with serum concentrations of individual PFCs. For children, residential dust concentrations, frequency of wearing waterproof clothes, frequency of having canned fish, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, French fries, and chips, and whether they ate microwave popcorn were significant positive predictors of individual PFC serum concentrations.”1

A Danish group studied pregnant women, comparing diet with PFC levels. They had similar results. PFOS levels were positively associated with intake of red meat, animal fats, and snacks, such as popcorn. Vegetable and poultry intake were inversely associated.

While there are multiple possibilities for exposure to PFCs, food is the major pathway for the majority. Food wrappers and containers that surround hamburgers and carry French fries are concerns, yet fish is a larger one. “According to the exposure assessment of the German BfR consumption of salt water and fresh water fish accounts for approximately 90% of the total dietary exposure to PFOS.”2 Fish have been found to be highly contaminated as a result of biomagnification. Drinking water is another area of concern.

…fish accounts for approximately 90% of the total dietary exposure to PFOS.

PFCs are used in the production of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) with Teflon being the best-known name brand of PTFE-based formulas. The concern with Teflon is the exposure to its contaminants that might escape into the air after being heated, as well as direct contamination through the food.

According to the FDA, nonstick frying pans are an insignificant source of PFCs in comparison to coated papers or cardboard boxes. However, some think that the possibility is underestimated.

Thankfully manufacturers have voluntarily eliminated or modified the production of PFOS and PFOA. PFOS was phased out in the United States in 2002. Since then, a decreasing trend in its concentrations in the general population has been observed. However, other PFCs are being used to replace PFOS and PFOA.

What’s the take-home? Cook popcorn with hot air. Face the sad fact that fish are no longer the healthiest meat when toxic accumulation is considered. Try cooking with cast-iron. In truth, we need Jesus to rescue us from our self-pollution and our poor stewardship of the environment. Because of us, “the creation was subjected to futility,” but God has “subjected it in hope,” and it will be delivered with us from the “bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty . . .” (Romans 8:20-21, NKJV).

  1. X. (May) Wu, D. Bennett, A. Calafat, K. Kato, M. Strynar, E. Andersen, R. Moran, D. Tancredi, N. Tulve, I. Hertz, 2015, “Serum concentrations of perfluorinated compounds (PFC) among selected populations of children and Adults in California,” Environmental Research, p. 136, 264–273.
  2. T. Stahl, D. Mattern, H. Brunn, 2011, “Toxicology of perfluorinated compounds,” Environmental Sciences Europe, 23:38.
Risë Rafferty, RDN Health Educator
Light Bearers
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