A veryveryvery special industrial chemical
. But does anyone know why? Yes, you in the back?
"Because it loves us very much?"
(laughs) No, Timmy. It's because there's a little bit of it in every... one... of... us. Even me!
The story of its invention is almost an atomic-age cliché: the year is 1952, and a worker in the lab of Patsy Sherman accidentally splashes a sample of jet-fuel-line synthetic latex they're developing down on his shoes. Trying to clean it off, he found the substance to repel water and oils (making cleaning it OFF a bit of a tricky proposition) but lightbulbs popped over people's heads and in the best spirit of foisting off industrial byproducts to the consumer market, it was marketed to the world as a waterproofing agent, a market which it has dominated for the past half-century.
3M, the company that owns, makes and sells Scotchgard, is known for their invaluable and ubiquitous office products such as Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes. However, even they couldn't anticipate how ubiquitous this particular product would end up. Fast-forward about 45 years to a health test 3M made of its employees in a lab in Antwerp, Belgium. It seems that various compounds the human body is exposed to end up concentrating in the blood, so they were comparing the presence of chemical agents in the blood of their workers to the blood of the population of the town around the factory. It wasn't much of a surprise to find that the 3M workers had some chemicals in their blood - they found that perfluorooctanyl sulfonate (PFOS), a fluorocarbon (believed to be carcinogenic) and an active ingredient in Scotchgard, was present at a level of about 2 PPM.
What made their eyes open a bit wider was to find that the same chemical was present in the blood of the surrounding population as well, albeit at a level only 1% of that in the workers'. Had there been a spill? A leak? They reached out further for a control group: blood in the USA - had PFOS in it. Blood in China? Had PFOS in it. Blood in animals in the Amazon jungle? ... had PFOS in it. In fact, the only blood samples they could find anywhere in the world without the presence of this chemical were those on ice taken from Korean War soldiers in the early 1950s, before Scotchgard hit the market.
It's all right, though; Scotchgard doesn't have any serious side-effects, right?
Special Hazard Precautions: ACUTE:LIQUID OR VAPOR CONTACT WITH EYES MAY CAUSE IRRITATION. SKIN CONTACT MAY CAUSE IRRITATION. INHALATION OF VAPORS MAY CAUSE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM IRRITATION, TEMPORARY NERVOUS SYSTEM IMPAIRMENT, DIZZINESS, NAUSEA, HEADACHE, GIDDINESS, AND LOSS OF CONSCIOUSNESS. INGESTION OF LARGE AMOUNTS MAY CAUSE BURNS, VOMITING, LOWERED BLOOD PRESS & DIGESTIVE SYSTEM IRRITATION. ASPIR INTO LUNG MAY CAUSE LUNG DAMAGE OR DEATH. DELIBERATE MISUSE BY CONC & INHALING VAPORS MAY CAUSE SUDDEN DEATH. CHRONIC:OVEREXP MAY CAUSE MILD LIVER/KIDNEY INJURY & HEART RHYTHM DISTURBANCES.
It's present in all of our bodies in small amounts; amounts presumably too low for the above symptoms to manifest regularly. But like DDT
, this chemical endures and has for decades thus far; once it gets out of the laboratory and into the environment it doesn't decompose or go anywhere - it stays there, only leaving the ambient environment when it accumulates in fatty animal tissues, including ours. And it doesn't leave them; PFOS passes effortlessly through the food chain, increasing in concentration in animals' bodies as more and more of it ends up out there
and ultimately, in us.
What happens then? No group of humans have begun exhibiting signs of what is clearly Scotchgard overdose, so 3M ran some tests giving high doses to groups of monkeys and rats to see what happened. The monkeys suffered from terrible convulsions and the rats' offspring died. So now we know what to expect when the concentrations in our own blood begin to reach dangerous levels.
... or rather, what to expect if the concentrations ever rose that high. Understandably freaked out by its boo-boo (er... Sorry for tainting all the blood in the world?), 3M did the right thing and ran blubbing to the EPA where they agreed to apply a moratorium on Scotchgard and that 3M would seek (presumably less-insidious) alternatives for the PFOS they'd been using.
A good thing they stumbled upon the results of their actions (after only 50 years!) and that they caught it before it began provably causing health problems worldwide, but it's a bit of a pity that it happened at all. Given the choice, wouldn't you rather not have it in your blood? More to the point, aren't you a bit curious as to similarly still-unknown ramifications of other everyday household products?
It's almost enough to make you cry, but the tears would just run off and slide on down straight to the ground.
Don't feel bad, folks, but look on the bright side - if Scotchgard was made by Monsanto instead of 3M, we'd probably be sued for unlawful possession of it.