A thumbnail sketch of PFOA, also known as the forever chemical – Mansfield News Journal

This is the first of a series to run over the next few months about the “forever” chemical, per-fluoro-octano-ate, also known as PFOA, and similar chemicals.

You have likely read about “forever” chemicals in the news or saw the movie “Dark Waters,” where excess exposures to these chemicals were alleged to cause a number of significant health problems in people and farm animals. The first part of this series will give a thumbnail sketch of these very useful chemicals. The second part will describe how scientists go about estimating their safe levels and the ongoing scientific arguments. The third part will discuss why you might want to care and how to view these chemicals through a risk-benefit process that we all do every day.

PFOA is one member of a group of chemicals that all have a fluorine atom attached to a carbon atom. Such an attachment does not often occur in nature. The reason that this attachment is naturally infrequent and why we humans find it so very useful is that it’s super strong — so strong that our bodies cannot break the attachment; so strong that foods cooked in a pan coated with a combination of PFOA-like chemicals do not stick; so strong that clothing treated with these chemicals are water resistant; so strong that food wrappings treated with these chemicals keep out bacteria; so strong that electrical and oil fires are more easily extinguished using fire fighting foams, and so strong that drugs made with this attachment allow our medicines to stay in our body longer to help us fight diseases.

n alpaca looks into the camera at Stephan Thompson's Kinkora Alpaca Farm in Pemberton Township, Pennsylvania. The property is one of 55 in the township that the military suspects may be contaminated by PFOS and PFOA, an unregulated chemical found in firefighting foam.

And the list of uses goes on and on. For example, the American Chemistry Council lists these chemicals as: “a large and diverse chemical family that makes possible products that power our lives — the cellphones, tablets and telecommunications we use every day; aircraft; alternative energy sources; and even medical equipment.”

So if these chemicals are so very useful, why is everyone so concerned about excess exposures? Well, it turns out that some of the chemicals with this carbon-fluorine attachment, PFOA in particular, and perhaps a few others, like to hang around quite a bit in our bodies, mainly because PFOA resembles something else that also hangs around — fat! Seriously? Yes, PFOA can also be referred to as a fluorinated fatty acid.

Its natural counterpart is referred to as caprylic acid and it has a number of beneficial uses in addition to being a nutrient found in many foods (like coconuts) that our bodies use for energy. So why does PFOA hang around? It’s because our kidneys think that this is a valuable chemical so they pull most of the PFOA back out of our urine. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot use PFOA directly although it has been used for cancer treatment in at least one study.

As a result, many of us can be found to have fluorinated chemicals in our bodies that are otherwise not medicine. Is this a concern? Well, this could be a problem if we have too much of them in our system. And how might one determine this? Stay tuned. This is the topic of safety assessment, which is the next essay in this series scheduled for publican in February.

Michael Dourson is a local board-certified toxicologist and director of science for the nonprofit organization Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (tera.org), which studies chemical hazards for both government and industry. He also is executive director of the nonprofit Toxicology Education Foundation (toxedfoundation.org), which helps the public understand concepts in toxicology and specific information about chemicals, and serves as a scientific adviser for the American Council on Science and Health website (acsh.org). Questions from readers are welcome. Send them to yournews@mansfieldnewsjournal.com.