PFAS: Why toxic chemicals might be lurking in your Christmas presents
Kiwi businesses face increasing questions regarding the use of harmful chemicals. Jehan Casinader explains.
Is there anything more therapeutic than scrambling an egg? One recent morning, I was gazing thoughtlessly into the frying pan when something caught my eye: black spots in the middle of my breakfast.
For weeks, my non-stick spatula has deteriorated. Sometimes he left tiny flakes of plastic in the pan. I was too busy – and lazy – to buy a new one, so I kept using it.
As I turned the egg over my toast, I noticed something else. The nonstick coating on the frying pan was worn. The waxy surface once prevented food from sticking. Now bare spots were starting to appear. Where did the coating go?
I’m not the type to be afraid of swallowing a few pieces of plastic. Humans are pretty tough creatures. We are exposed to a wide variety of synthetics in our daily lives, and they don’t kill us. Or are they doing it?
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Recently, I heard about a bunch of chemicals that could harm our health in ways we don’t even understand yet.
“PFAS” is a family of over 4000 registered chemicals. They have been used in manufacturing for decades. These wonder compounds can repel water, oil, and even fire.
Want to create the perfect non-stick pan? Spray it with PFAS. A totally waterproof raincoat? PFAS will do the job. A carpet that prevents stains? A drink bottle that can hold hot liquid? A box of burger that doesn’t grease? PFAS will help you.
They are known as “eternal chemicals” because they never break down. Great for manufacturers, but terrible for the environment. Authorities around the world are scrambling to decontaminate land and waterways that have been contaminated by industrial use of PFAS.
I was not surprised that these chemicals are found in the environment. But I was amazed to learn that they also accumulate in our bodies. The Ministry of the Environment said that “all New Zealanders should have measurable PFAS in their blood, given the widespread use of PFAS since the 1950s”.
Sorry what? All Kiwis walk around with chemicals in their bloodstream – chemicals that don’t break down and are potentially toxic?
The ministry says the PFAS chemicals “will not have significant short-term health effects.” But in the same breath: “potential harmful effects on human health cannot be excluded”.
Translation: There is simply not enough research to know the long-term health effects of exposure to PFAS. This is the perspective of four Kiwi academics I spoke to, including Dr Lokesh Padhye, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland.
“PFAS chemicals can stay in your body for many years,” he explained. “Research abroad has shown that some of these compounds can affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid – even fertility and cholesterol levels. Recent studies show that high levels of PFAS intake can cause cancer.
“This is concerning because, unlike the United States and Australia, we have not done extensive studies on PFAS in New Zealand. We are totally lacking in information, but we still use products containing PFAS. “
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I contacted a handful of retailers to find out if they sold any products containing these chemicals. Briscoes was the only company to report that its entire product line is PFAS-free. She confirmed this to her suppliers.
Bunnings stocks a “small number” of products that may contain PFAS. Kmart has banned two of the chemicals and is “committed to totally eliminating PFAS” from its line. McDonald’s takes a similar position and says only “a handful” of its packaging contains these compounds and they will be phased out in 12 to 18 months.
The weakest response came from The Warehouse. It admitted that its suppliers are not required to disclose the presence of PFAS in their products, so the company cannot confirm that its product lines are PFAS-free. He promises to look into the matter.
Farmers and Restaurant Brands – which operates Pizza Hut and KFC – did not answer questions.
In recent years, New Zealanders have demanded to know more about what goes into our food. Now we deserve information on chemicals used in everyday products. If your baby is going to crawl on a couch that has been sprayed with PFAS, you probably want to know this.
However, even companies that no longer use PFAS seem reluctant to talk about it. Last year, rug maker Bremworth proudly announced it would stop making synthetic rugs. In a public relations blitz, the company said it would only sell products made from natural wool.
Bremworth is doing the right thing for consumers and the planet. But when asked to comment on the use of PFAS in their industry, company representatives froze. They repeatedly refused an interview, citing legal reasons. They have stopped resending my emails and texts.
But some business leaders are ready to speak up. Entrepreneur Geoff Ross, who founded 42below vodka, studied the impact of PFAS.
“Until six months ago, I didn’t know PFAS existed,” he told me. “When I learned about its uses, I was surprised and, like most people, worried.
“Researchers have found PFAS in dolphins in New Zealand waters. The dolphins are very far from the average living room. So if it’s in ocean dolphins, how much is it in our daily environment – and in our bodies? “
These questions also arise in the United States. Last month, the Biden administration announced a US $ 10 billion program to combat PFAS contamination.
New Zealand has not experienced US-wide PFAS pollution problems. But our government does not seem overly concerned about the use of these chemicals in consumer products.
The Environmental Protection Authority says the risk of exposure is “extremely low” and that some of these chemicals are already banned or restricted here.
But Dr Padhye points out that there are thousands of other PFAS chemicals on the market. “We cannot afford to be complacent. These chemicals last forever and they will continue to build up in our blood. Until we do a full local study, we cannot conclusively say that this is not a problem.
Most of us shop online. We buy inexpensive Christmas gifts from overseas retailers – and often we have no idea what those products are made of. But we can always choose to ask questions before pressing the “Add to cart” button.
In New Zealand, Geoff Ross says there should be mandatory labeling on products containing PFAS chemicals, so consumers can make an informed decision about their purchase. In some cases, we can choose sustainable alternatives made from natural materials like wood or wool.
Already progressive companies like Allbirds have declared that all of their products are PFAS-free. In the future, consumers will demand more transparency – and Geoff Ross thinks that’s a good thing.
“Globally, we are starting to see a move away from PFAS. As New Zealand manufacturers, we have the ability to ensure that what we produce is PFAS free. This will give us a competitive advantage around natural products with high added value.
Let’s be clear: there is no need to panic. Chemicals have played a useful role in our lives, from removing bacteria from our homes to creating vital medical equipment. But we can also learn about their presence in our daily life, and ask ourselves, “What exposure is really necessary?” “
I don’t want chemicals to build up in my body, whether or not they are toxic. And that’s why I gave up my old flaky frying pan, because I couldn’t verify what it was made of.
So far, I’ve traded it in for an uncoated cast iron skillet. The egg doesn’t slide out as easily, but at least I can eat it with peace of mind.