In an early scene of the 2019 thriller Dark Waters , Cincinnati-based lawyer Rob Bilott spots a term that at the time was completely unknown: PFAS. He circles it multiple times while paging through documents released by chemical company DuPont, but when he types it into his late 90s Microsoft Explorer search bar to find out more, nothing comes up. The classification of chemicals, which would go on to be attributed to a host of health issues including cancer and birth defects, was then unknown despite that DuPont had been manufacturing it and putting it in products like Teflon for decades.
Directed by Mark Rufallo (who also stars as the determined Bilott), Dark Waters is based on real events that occurred in the late 1990s in Parkersville, WV, a small town that had unwittingly become a dumping ground for the waste created by DuPont’s manufacturing of PFAS. Today, information about PFAS (commonly referred to as PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, which encompasses both PFAS and PFOA) is abundant, thanks in large part to Bilott who is still working on the case. And although strides have been made to regulate the use of certain categories of the chemicals, they’re still being put into nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, fire fighting foams and the Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatments used to waterproof the outerwear we depend on to keep us warm and dry in the outdoors.
So what are PFCs and why are they so bad? And, absent consistent regulation, how can consumers make choices to avoid the chemicals? Read on to find out.
What they are
PFCs are a class of synthetic chemicals, meaning they are entirely man-made. Think back for a minute to the fundamentals of basic chemistry: everything begins with a carbon atom. If you put a chain of carbon atoms together and fluorine atoms on the ends, you create a bond that is literally unbreakable. It’s been chemically manufactured to persist in the environment and never biodegrade, hence the nickname 'forever chemicals'.
But it is also manufactured because that particular composition gives it unprecedented water, oil, stain and heat repellency. Perhaps you’ve heard of Teflon? PFCs provide the magic surface to stop your eggs from sticking.
There are several different varieties of PFCs, the worst of which is the one with the longest chain––the C8. That’s the chemical Bilott is hunting down in Dark Waters and it’s the only one of the class to be phased out of production in the US and banned in Europe. (It’s worth noting that you can still encounter C8 through products that were made before these actions, though.)
When the chemical industry moved away from C8, it turned to the still effective if slightly less durable C6, particularly as the go-to additive for DWR treatments. C6 and its cousin C4 are thought to be more environmentally friendly but also haven’t been studied to the extent of C8. There is also an emerging class of PFCs called GenX chemicals, which share properties with the C-chain groups and have taken their place in some applications. They’ve also been studied far less. Basically, we don’t know if the claim of safer PFCs is true, or even possible.
What is true is that PFCs of all varieties have been found as far afield as in Arctic snows and polar bear tissues, and as close to home as drinking water in cities around the country. It’s estimated that every living being on earth has some level of PFCs in their blood, including 99% of humans. Yes, that probably means you, too. PFCs have a half life of 3-4 years , meaning the amount present in your blood decreases by half in that time period, assuming you haven’t had any additional exposure.
PFCs get into the atmosphere during manufacturing, but also during use. We ingest them when we eat food cooked on PFC-coated pans or microwave popcorn out of a grease-proof bag. Our skin can absorb them when we wear clothing treated with DWR finishes, and firefighters who depend on PFCs in fire-suppressing foams inhale them. Entire communities near chemical plants in West Virginia, Michigan and Washington have drunk them from contaminated water wells and public water systems. Studies have shown the chemicals are an endocrine disruptor, known to cause birth defects, decreased immunity, thyroid cancer, kidney failure, and testicular cancer, to name a few.
What’s being done?
Regulation of PFCs has been relatively slow and inconsistent in part because it’s such a broad class of chemicals, and because it’s in chemical companies’ best interest to keep them in circulation. When their toxicity began to be more widely studied and understood in the early 2000s––thanks in part to the Bilott lawsuit and a corresponding health study–– 3M and Dupont began to voluntarily phase C8 out of production. In Europe, the chemicals were restricted to essential uses in 2006 and added to the Stockholm Convention list of organic hazardous chemicals.
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of long-chain PFCs in food packaging , including grease-proof pizza boxes, cupcake wrappers and paper plates. Finally in October 2021, the Biden Administration announced that it would set legal limits and issue restrictions on industrial production of PFCs.
The outdoor industry had its own reckoning with the chemicals in the past decade, in part due to a 2016 campaign by Greenpeace that called out major brands including Mammut and The North Face on their use of PFCs in DWR treatments. Since then, both the mainstream and outdoor apparel industries have trended toward eliminating PFCs in their products, and embracing PFC-free DWR coatings on outerwear. Unfortunately this is not yet the status quo, especially in the US.
What you can do
One of the best things consumers can do is inform themselves, and choose brands that don’t support the use of PFCs. This includes foregoing non-stick cookware in favor of cast iron, ceramic or glass. If you’re buying a carpet, look for a PFC-free label, especially on ones that tout stain resistance. While shopping for outerwear, read the fine print to ensure the jacket or pants you’re buying use a PFC-free DWR alternative. And keep an eye out for makeup or other personal care products that have 'perfluor-', 'polyfluor-', and 'PTFE' on the label.
“The brands that are specifically not using PFCs are usually pretty vocal about it,” says LifeLabs Director of Sustainability Nicole Kenney. “If you’re trying to make a conscious decision for the sake of personal health and environmental health, shopping with one of those brands is a very accessible way to wear your values.”
All of LifeLabs products, including the waterproof WarmLife and MegaWarm jackets use PFC-free DWR coating. They also have been lab-tested to meet industry standards for waterproofness and repellency, ensuring their effectiveness without the use of forever chemicals.
Another effective tactic is to spread the word. Despite how wide the uses and impacts of these chemicals are, their harmfulness is less known. Share information with your friends and family, and keep up on policy developments and news at PFAS Central .
At the end of Dark Waters, 15 years after Bilott started pursuing the case, he wins his first three multimillion dollar settlements against DuPont and the chemical giant settles the class action suit for $671 million. While this victory was crucial to alerting the world of the presence and persistence of PFCs, there’s still work to be done. Educate yourself, spread the word, and support companies that don’t use PFCs.