Manufacturers use fluorinated organic chemicals in a variety of coatings on fabrics and paper plates and in fire-fighting foams. Now, these extremely stable compounds are showing up all over the globe. In 2004, Scott Mabury's group from the University of Toronto published a paper demonstrating perfluorinated contaminants in Canadian wildlife, from fish to fowl to fur, with highest concentrations at the top of the food chain, in animals such as polar bears.1 Finding contamination in such a remote environment was a surprise.
"This paper focused on the Arctic, which is a particularly sensitive environment," says Ian Cousins, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University. Scientists are questioning how the contaminants got there, far away from any industrial source. The study also revealed novel forms of contamination. Mabury says they stumbled upon this in earlier work designed to study carbon chain length. Compounds with an eight-carbon backbone, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, gets "all of the regulatory attention," says Mabury, "but the fact is that longer-chain acids out in the environment are at higher concentrations and are potentially more toxic."
As a chemist, Mabury says he supports developing useful materials for society. "Stain repellants and water repellants are good things. But I think we should be able to build these materials without having environmental contamination."