Perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFCs) are a class of chemicals whose unique atomic properties have been exploited to make numerous everyday products cheaper. In particular, PFCs are the non-stick coating of cookware, they provide water-repellent, stain-proof and stain-resistant surfaces for fabrics and carpets and are used to pack fatty foods for fat-proof packaging. Yet, like so many "miraculous" chemicals discovered or created in the 20th century, PFCs have some seriously damaging effects that we have only recently begun to document and understand.
An increasing amount of evidence has already proved quite convincingly that PFCs can damage the human reproductive system by interfering with hormone signaling and, at the latest, and certainly more tangibly, the investigation of the impact of chemicals , a team from the University of Padua, Italy, found that young men who grew up in a PFC-contaminated drinking water area had significantly smaller penises and a less mobile sperm than those who grew up with clean water .
Taking the study further, the first author Andrea Di Nisio and his colleagues used a series of laboratory-based cell experiments to provide the first direct evidence that two of the most common PFCs, compounds called PFOA and PFOS, will easily bind to the testosterone receptor and block the activation. Their complete results are published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
"This study documents that PFCs have a substantial impact on human health as they directly interfere with the hormonal pathways that potentially lead to male infertility," they wrote. "We found that increased levels of PFC in plasma and seminal fluid are positively correlated with circulating testosterone and decreased quality of sperm, testicular volume, penis length and AGD [anogenital distance]. "(The shortened AGD is a marker of abnormal development of the male reproductive tract).
The Veneto region, which contains the province of Padua, is one of the four locations in the world that are known to be heavily polluted by PFCs. The other members of this depressing club are the Dordrecht area of the Netherlands, the Shandong district of China and the Mid-Ohio Valley, in West Virginia, where a DuPont factory dumped a bunch of waste in a river (covering the trials of PFCs & Danger).
"Since the first report on the contamination of PFC water dates back to 1977, the magnitude of the problem is alarming since it affects an entire generation of young people, from 1978 onwards", wrote the researchers . To further worsen, all PFCs that have been introduced into the environment continue to pose a threat – scientists estimate that these extremely stable chemicals will survive human life on Earth.
So, what can we do to keep us safe? Di Nisio believes that the next priority is to understand how to safely remove PFCs from the blood. Until we are able to do so, and until more PFCs are banned or eliminated, the prospects are all but sunny.
"At least here in Italy, it's very difficult to know if a product contains these chemicals," he told IFLScience. "In the case of a product where it is explicitly declared" free of PFOA ", I do not feel secure anyway, because PFOA is just one of hundreds of possible PFC compounds, and they can all be dangerous … so it is very difficult to avoid any contact with any PFC. "
[H/T: The Intercept – for an excellent summary of PFCs’ known effects and how the chemical industry has tried to sweep such findings under the rug, check out their investigative series]