Perfluorochemicals: If it doesn't stick to the pan, what does it do in our bodies?

Fertility can be affected by many factors: age, health, genetics, and stress to name a few. Studies in recent years have found relationships between chemicals in our homes and environment and the ability of a couple to conceive. Chemicals that alter the action of natural hormones in our bodies are known as hormone disruptors, or endocrine disrupting compounds. Some experts are taking a new look at familiar products found in our homes, and asking: can the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the pans we cook in affect fertility?

Since the 1950's, manufacturers have been using a family of chemicals called perfluorochemicals (PFCs) in a variety of products designed to make life easier. PFCs are water and oil repellent, and when added to household products, they make things slide right off. Within the PFC family, specific chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, or C8), perfluorooctanyl sulfate (PFOS), polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), or fluorotelomers are used in products like Teflon, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex. PFCs can also be found in stain resistant carpets, furniture, clothing, and microwaveable popcorn bags. In addition to being found in consumer products, industrial releases of PFCs have also caused contamination of drinking water in some areas. l1, 2, 13, 14

Recent scientific evidence supports the idea that PFCs act as endocrine disruptors in the body. PCFs have been linked with changes in puberty, sperm quality, ability to conceive, and menopause. For example, in a community that was exposed to C8 from a manufacturing plant, delays of puberty were observed in both boys and girls. 3 In a 2009 study, men with higher levels of PFOA and PFOS had a 60% reduction in normal sperm, as compared to men with low levels of the chemicals. 4 A number of studies have reported adverse effects on the male reproductive system in rodents following exposure to high doses of PFOS. 5

Some of the more striking information on the effects of PFCs comes from the Danish Birth Cohort study. Researchers measured the blood levels of PFCs in 1,240 pregnant women when they were between the 4th and 14th week of their pregnancy. They found that women with higher blood levels of PFOS and PFOA had taken longer to become pregnant. This study defined infertility as taking longer than 12 months to conceive or requiring medical treatment to achieve pregnancy. Women with higher levels of PFCs in their blood had a 60% to 154% greater risk of infertility than women with lower levels of the chemicals. Women with high levels of exposure also tended to report irregular menstrual cycles, suggesting that PFCs may have an effect on reproductive hormones. 6 In animal studies, PFOS has been shown to cause pre-term birth and stillbirth. 7

Further connections between PFC exposure and changes in women's hormones comes from a large scale health monitoring project in West Virginia, following industrial releases of C8 into the community. This study looked at 25,957 women between the ages of 18-65 years. In women aged 51 and older, those with the highest PFOS levels were twice as likely to have gone through menopause as those with the lowest levels of the chemical. 8

As the evidence of the endocrine disrupting properties of PFCs continues to mount, federal regulating agencies have begun to act. The EPA has been investigating PFOA (ie. C8) because it is very persistent in the environment and in people's bodies, is found at low levels in the general population, and has been demonstrated to causes developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals. 2 In 2005, the EPA's Science Advisory Board found PFOA "likely to be carcinogenic to humans". In 2006, EPA asked eight companies producing products containing PFOA to reduce the amount of chemical in products and factory emissions by 95% by 2010, and to eliminate PFOA by 2015. 9 While the phasing out of some types of PFCs will eventually minimize their prevalence in the environment, there are steps we can take now to reduce the exposure to PFCs in our homes.

Those concerned with the health effects of PFCs can avoid purchasing products containing PFCs, or minimize the use of such products.

Ideas for limiting PFC exposure include:

  • Look for clothing that has not been treated with that has been treated for water or stain resistance.
  • Choose carpeting and furniture without stain-resistant chemicals added.
  • Cook with stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic or glass cookware. These substances are inert, and won't transfer chemicals into food.
  • Use real plates instead of paper. The waxy coating on many disposable plates can contain PFCs
  • Cut back on packaged and fast foods. Greasy foods are often wrapped in oil-resistant packaging that may contain PFCs.
  • Pop popcorn the old-fashioned way: stovetop or air-popper. Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated with PFCs.
  • Choose cosmetics and personal care products without "PTFE", "perfluoro"or "fluoro" on the ingredient list. Visit the Environmental Working Group's on-line database, Skin Deep, to view the ingredients in thousands of and to find safer choices.

If tests have shown that your household water supply contains PFCs, use a water filter for drinking and cooking water. To find out about local water quality, look at the EPA Consumer Confidence Report for your area. 10, 11, 12 , 13, 14, 15

While it's impossible to eliminate all the chemicals in our environment that affect health and fertility, it makes sense to reduce the exposures that we have control over. By avoiding products with PFCs, we can reduce the toxic burden in our bodies and minimize the risks these chemicals present.


1. Perfluorochemical Dictionary (2006). Environmental Working Group.

2. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Flourinated Telomers (2010). US EPA

3. C8 Science Panel (2010). Patterns of age of puberty among children in the Mid-Ohio valley in relation to PFOA and PFOS.

4. Joensen UN, Bossi R, Leffers H, Jensen AA, Skakkebaek NE, Jorgensen N. Do perfluoroalkyl compounds impair human semen quality?. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2009 Jun;117(6):923-7.

5. Wan H, Zhao Y, Wong M, Lee CK, Yeung WS, Giesy JP, Wong CK. Testicular Signaling Is the Potential Target of Perfluorooctanesulfonate-Mediated Subfertility in Male Mice. Biology of Reproduction 2011 Jan;.

6. Fei C, Mclaughlin JK, Lipworth L, Olsen J. Maternal levels of perfluorinated chemicals and subfecundity. Human Reproduction. 2009 May;24(5):1200-5.

7. Luebker DJ, Case MT, York RG, Moore JA, Hansen KJ, Butenhoff JL. Two-generation reproduction and cross-foster studies of perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) in rats. Toxicology. 2005 Nov;215(2-Jan):126-48.

8. Knox SS, Jackson T, Javins B, Frisbee SJ, Shankar A, Ducatman AM.

Implications of Early Menopause in Women Exposed to Perfluorocarbons (2011). The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

9. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Flourinated Telomers: Risk Assessment (2010). US EPA

10. Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition (2006). Pollution in People

11. Environmental Working Group (2006). EWG's Guide to PFCs.

12. Environmental Working Group (2011). EWG's Skin Deep Database.

13. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (2009) Meet perfluorooctanic acid.

14. Collaborative on Health and the Environment (2010). Practice Prevention: PFCs- Perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA and C8.

15. US EPA Consumer Confidence Reports (2011). Where You Live:
Your Drinking Water Quality Reports Online.

Karin Gunther Russ MS, RN is the National Coordinator for Fertility & Reproductive Health Working Group Collaborative on Health and the Environment

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