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PFCs: In our blood, in polar bears – and in packets of microwave popcorn! (updated with Danish controls)

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) have been used in some of our favourite products including waterproof clothing and non stick pans, but their persistence means they’re found all over the globe, in wildlife and in our blood and other tissues. As the amount of research showing the harmful effects of these widely used chemicals grows, many of them are still in use – including in the packaging of microwaveable popcorn.

Popcorn pic

Many microwave popcorn packets contain PFCs [image National Cancer Institute via Wikimedia]

What are PFCs and where are they found?

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are a large group of chemicals, but this article will focus on two sub-categories: perfluoroalkyl sulfonates (PFAS) and long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (PFAC). These man-made chemicals have been in use for over 60 years in an array of applications, due to their many useful properties.

They have been used to make non-stick frying pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and many other products that we are exposed to everyday. A particular worry is their use in food contact packaging, where PFC’s grease proofing properties have made them desirable for fast-food packaging such as pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags. It’s very hard to know which products contain PFCs unless the manufacturer or retailer tells you, though research in Denmark has found PFOA, one of the PFACs, in the packaging of all the brands of microwaveable popcorn that were tested.

So what’s the problem?

PFCs are extremely persistent in the environment and accumulate up the food chain; they’re so persistent they are found in humans and animals across the world, even in remote locations. They’re known to accumulate in wild fish and have even been found in the tissue of polar bears.

There have been a number of studies into the effects PFCs are having on human health. One study looked at the effects PFCs have on vaccination in children. The study took place in the Faroe Islands, where despite its remoteness, PFCs are found in blood serum of the people who live there at levels similar to those in other parts of the world. This study is part of a bigger ‘cohort’ study following children from development in the womb through childhood and beyond. The research found that children who were exposed to higher levels of PFCs in the womb showed a reduced immune response to tetanus and diphtheria vaccines. This shows that PFC exposures are leading to real impacts on children, with the reduction in antibody level creating a risk that levels of antibodies could be below those needed to provide long-term protection from the diseases.

Surprisingly, it has emerged that back in 1978, the chemical company 3M found that PFOA could be immunotoxic to monkeys. Despite this they continued to produce PFCs.

The Madrid Statement

As a result of the increasing amount of concerning research about PFCs, a group of scientists and experts from a variety of disciplines came together to produce a peer-reviewed analysis, “The Madrid Statement“. The statement includes the following conclusions:

“Animal studies showed that some long-chain PFASs have been found to cause liver toxicity, disruption of lipid metabolism, the immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, and tumours in multiple organ systems.”….

“… Some of these effects are supported by significant or suggestive associations between specific long-chain PFASs and adverse outcomes, including associations with testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines, and reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.”

The Statement concludes with a number of recommendations, including recommending that the chemical industry develops nonfluorinated alternatives that are neither persistent nor toxic, while governments should create legislation to ban all non-essential uses of PFASs.

What’s being done?

Despite all the research showing the problems of PFCs, many are still in use.

For example, a potential ban on some or all uses of PFOA in the EU is currently being discussed, but nothing is yet in place. In addition, the EU has proposed that PFOA be added to the global list of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which would lead to further restrictions.

Despite this processes, use of PFOA continues, including, bizarrely, in the packaging of microwavable popcorn. The Co-op supermarket in Denmark asked its suppliers to find alternatives to PFCs in the packaging of microwaveable popcorn, but they they failed:

“We have worked hard with our suppliers to find alternatives to PFCs in the packaging of microwave popcorn – but so far, unfortunately there is no solution yet. Therefore we have decided to completely stop the sale of microwave popcorn until safer alternatives are available on the market” [translated from Danish]

In CHEM Trust’s view these chemicals should be rapidly phased out.

Update, 25th Aug 2015: Danish Government announces restrictions on PFCs in paper and card packaging

What you can do

Find out what you can do as a consumer to reduce your exposure to PFCs and other harmful chemicals on our Take Action as a Consumer page:

Find out how you can lobby policy makers on our Take Action as a Citizen page:

For further information see: