A Chemical That Keeps On Keepin’ On
Perfluorooctanoic acid is back in the news. And you may be thinking, perfluoro-what? PFOA, as it’s more commonly known, is a key component of non-stick cookware coatings, stain resistance treatments, greaseproof food packaging and other products. As we reported a few years ago, scientists discovered that it is bad news where human health and the environment are concerned. So the companies that make it invented a substitute. Which, it turns out, is equally bad for human health and the environment, according to scientists.
And around and around we go. But let’s start at the beginning of the ride: Researchers believe that once PFOA is created, it quite possibly never goes away. They think it literally lasts forever. When certain non-stick pan and stain-resistant fabric coatings break down with use, PFOA is released. It gets in the environment. It gets in us. And, well, you know the rest. Cancer. Immune problems. Reproductive disorders, etc. etc. etc. That’s why PFOA got canned. The new problem, according to the Environmental Working Group, is that the replacement chemical is just about as troubling.
The new chemical is simply the old chemical with a couple of carbon atoms lopped off. And therein lies the rub: when we re-engineer a technology by playing around with the existing one, we usually don’t get anywhere substantive. This is especially true in the chemical realm, where all too often companies jiggle a couple of atoms and then trot out a PR rep to say they’ve fixed the problem when all they’ve really done is change its cause around a bit.
A new strategy is clearly needed, one that involves more than the cosmetic makeover the industry keeps trying to pass off as genuine change. We need to figure out ways to make technologies work utterly without side effects like disease and environmental degradation or we need to go without them. Which means we require legitimately greenwashing different approaches.
Until then, as always, precaution is advised. In the case of stain-repellent furniture and fabric coatings, refuse them. Stay away from fast food and takeout containers. And instead of non-stick pans, get some good old fashioned cast iron cookware. When properly seasoned, cast iron works like a charm. Our family threw out all its non-stick cookware a few years ago, and we’ve never looked back. You won’t either.