It was 1928 when Frigidaire patented a miracle compound called Freon, a new class of chloro-fluoro-carbons (CFCs) that were non-flammable, non-corrosive gasses of extraordinary usefulness as refrigerants. This invention brought on the advent of CFCs and ushered in a new era of organic chemistry exploration. In 1938, the semi-accidental discovery of PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) revolutionized the plastics industry and, in turn, gave birth to limitless applications of benefit to mankind. As it turns out, the discovery also gave birth to what are perhaps some of the most ubiquitous and difficult to remove toxic trace contaminants of all time.
Fast forward to 1949. DuPont introduced Teflon, made at their Washington Works Plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia. The precursor chemical was made by 3M. In 1967 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Zonyl, a class of PTFE powders, for use in food packaging. Zonyl was remarkable because it repelled both grease and water. It was cheap and effective and became the go-to chemistry for the packaging of many products, such as microwave popcorn, fast-food wrappers and pizza boxes.
Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are generally nonflammable and non-corrosive; as close to inert as any chemicals ever synthesized. As a class, PFCs fulfill chemists dreams for materials that are relatively easy to make, and which do not have undesirable chemical properties. PFCs do not burn, degrade or react with other chemicals. Their chemical properties make PFC’s particularly useful as fire retardants.
PFCs repel both water and grease. This property makes PFCs useful for water repellent clothing, waxes and protective coatings of many kinds. PFCs are used in hundreds of consumer and industrial products because of their water and grease repellant properties.
The older PFAS compounds (the C8 compounds such as PFOA and PFOS) have been studied long enough that we know they present very real health risks. These compounds also remain in our bodies for very long periods of time. GenX, DuPont’s replacement for PFOS, is not much if any better, based on current research. As a general statement, the further away from what nature a compound is, the more likely it is to be bad for us, is certainly true. There is still much to be learned about how PFAS compounds affect our health. The longer chain compounds, notably PFOA, PFOS, and especially PFHxS are not excreted rapidly and stay in our bodies for years, eventually reaching concentrations hundreds or even thousands of times higher than the concentrations we were initially exposed to.
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