Perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are two environmentally persistent chemicals that build up in both people and animals. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected them in the blood of 98 percent of the participants in their most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The chemicals have also been found in dolphins, orcas, and Arctic polar bears . PFOA is widely used to keep food, water, and oils from sticking to surfaces in consumer products from guitar strings to raincoats to skillets. PFOS is much less common nowadays, but continues to show up in fish and domestic farm animals raised in the U.S. Now the first study of its kind suggests that the chemicals may contribute to infertility.
THE DETAILS: Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, studied data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, in which women were interviewed four times during and after pregnancy. They randomly selected 1,400 women who had planned their pregnancies, and who had provided maternal blood samples, which were analyzed for PFOS and PFOA. Women who had the highest levels of the two chemicals in their blood took the longest time to get pregnant, and had the highest rates of infertility (defined as taking longer than 12 months to get pregnant).
WHAT IT MEANS: This is the only study of its kind, says Loren Lipworth, PhD, senior epidemiologist at the International Epidemiology Institute and one of its coauthors, so it’s difficult to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions. While other studies need to be done that replicate its findings, she says, “our data suggest that women with higher levels of PFOA and PFOS in the blood during pregnancy reported increased waiting time to pregnancy.” If you’re planning on getting pregnant and want to hedge your bets, you can at least cut down some of your exposure to the chemicals with a little planning. “These chemicals are widely used in many consumer products,” Lipworth says. “They have been removed from a lot of products in recent years, so we may see decreases in exposure down the road.”
Until then, here are a few ways to reduce your daily contact with these chemicals:
• Ditch the microwave popcorn. According to a study published last year in Environmental Science and Technology, the levels of PFOA detected in microwave popcorn bags were, in some cases, 6 times higher than the levels of PFOA detected in nonstick pans. Watch our video on how to make microwave popcorn in an ordinary, uncoated brown paper bag. (PFOA is also used to line fast-food sandwich wrappers, pizza boxes, and some waxed deli papers. So this is one more reason to ditch the processed foods in favor of home-cooked meals.)
• Switch to better pans. Overheating chemical nonstick pans can expose you to small amounts of PFOA. Switch to cast iron, which, if seasoned properly, is naturally nonstick, or look for new products with nonstick coatings made from ceramic, such as Todd English’s Greenpan line sold through the Home Shopping Network.
• Rid your life of fabric finishes. Stain- and water-repellent treatments may make your life easier, and sometimes they’re hard to avoid, especially on pretreated sofas and carpets. But avoid the ones you can, especially on clothing and bedding (labels like “stain resistant” or “permanent press” should raise red flags). Not only will they expose you to PFOA, they release formaldehyde as they break down.
For a comprehensive list of products that are treated with PFOA, visit the Environmental Working Group’s report “PFCs: Global Contaminants.”