Environment Science & Technology

Toxic PFCs: Not As Non-Reactive As Once Thought

PFCs; the very useful and ‘non-reactive’ chemical compound that is used to make 1000s of products that we use everyday; from pizza boxes to waterproof jackets. Thing is, they aren’t as non-reactive as we once thought- in fact, under the extreme conditions of the stratosphere they break down and become highly reactive. And reactive chemical compounds are never a good thing in the environment, or ultimately, in us.

In recent years, scientists worldwide have dug deeper into the issues surrounding PFCs. This research has brought to light some invaluable details. In 2015, scientists collaborated together to publish the Madrid Statement which highlighted their concerns regarding the production and release of these polyfluorinated compounds (and perfluorinated compounds) which are notorious members of the perhalogen family.

There is increasing evidence showing that PFCs are bioaccumulative and, crucially, toxic, in the environment and within the human body. A number of the compounds have been listed as persistent organic pollutants. In a time where science and technology is at the forefront of civilisation, driving forward change, sometimes we develop before we know the full story – and sometimes it is the only way.

1However, now, in 2016, we should be focusing on sincerely caring for this planet that we have stripped so much from. We have synthesised these fascinating chemicals but later come to realise that they bite us in the tail. It is now that we need to increase our awareness and conscientiousness of what is going on around us at the microscopic scale. We can no longer rely on our senses to judge our surroundings as we cannot see or hear the chemicals making up a product, in our drinking water or the waves that our emitted from our wifi. We need to use our minds to evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly and take a critical approach to everything that we accept as fact.

For example, we accept that our waterproof coat is indeed waterproof – but we need to look further – why is it waterproof? We know that these are synthetic materials, what happens when these break down?

PFCs are derived from saturated hydrocarbons in which all the hydrogen atoms have been replaced with a fluorine atom – hence the prefix ‘per’ which stems from Latin meaning ‘thoroughly’; the carbon chain can be no further fluorinated. The most well known usage of PFC is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon.

C6 Fluorocarbon

PFCs have many useful applications due to their omniphobicity which allows them to repel water and oil. This makes them ideal for composing coatings for products in the sporting industry (waterproofs), fast food wrappers/ anti-stick cooking utensils and pans and stain resistance for clothes and furnishings.

Fluorocarbons have very high stability as a compound. Fluorine is the most electronegative element (attracts other atoms) and once bonded, it has fulfilled its desire to have a full octet of electrons- therefore, there is little to make it want to dissociate from its carbon bond. It was this chemical inertness that meant for many years, it was believed that PFCs were biologically inert and unable to break down in the body. It was this stability of halogens in the troposphere that led to their use in aerosols back in the 70s. It was then discovered that once these compounds are subject to extreme conditions in the stratosphere, this leads to photolysis of the halogenated compounds which in turn produced halogen radicals which are highly reactive. It was this reactivity that caused damage to the ozone layer and produced the hole over Antartica prior to the Montreal Protocol of ’89.

There is no evidence to suggest that PFCs go directly through the skin. They enter the body through breakdown in the environment which then ends up in the food chain and water supplies which can then enter your body. The majority of PFCs that enter the environment from repellent materials is during the manufacturing process.

PFCs greenpeace

One industry that is taking steps to eliminate PFCs from their products is the outdoor industry. There has been a recent movement towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC) within the textile and footwear supply chains.

Greenpeace have been pushing this move with their Detox campaign for a number of years. The following video by Greenpeace gives an excellent summary of the issues facing us.

Many outdoor clothing manufacturers have moved away from the more harmful C8 fluorocarbon constructions and towards using C6 fluorocarbon compounds which offers a well-performing product made from a compound that is less hazardous than its longer-chained predecessor. For most companies, C6 compounds are seen as an intermediate on the journey to high performance, PFC-free products- but for the time being, the technology needed to obtain this balance is simply not quite there.

Watch this space.


Greenpeace Tell outdoor brands to detox! Available at: http://detox-outdoor.org/en/about-pfc/ (Accessed: 8 June 2016)