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John Giesy and PFOs: the narrowly averted catastrophe

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Dr Giesy expalining his role in the PFO story to a Kwantlen audience as part of the RSC lecture.

Dr Giesy explaining his role in the PFO story to a Kwantlen audience as part of the RSC lecture.

Last week Kwantlen hosted the Romanowski lecture, which is a series of public lectures created by the Royal Society of Canada to highlight advances in environmental science of public interest. This year’s speaker is John Giesy, who was discussing the toxicology of perfluorooctane compounds.

Neither the man nor the chemical are household names, and that’s a shame: Dr Giesy had a fascinating story to tell (more on that later).

I was involved in organising the event, and I was a bit nervous. In particular, I had arranged for a one-hour session between Giesy and a group of students. How was that going to work? Would students find the right questions to ask? I need not have worried. I came back after an hour to find a spirited discussion about the toxicity of the tar sands. I should know to trust students: they always perform beyond expectations when challenged on something they care about. (I was right to be nervous about Kwantlen’s AV system, but that’s another story.)

Giesy started his talk by asking how many people had eaten microwaved popcorn? How many had used scotchguard? Even if we never did (a minority), all of us have in our blood traces of exotic chemicals called perfluorooctanes, or PFOs for short.  These were the key ingredient in Scotchguard and a host of other products.

PFO sulfonate, the most dangerous of the bunch

PFO sulfonate, the most dangerous of the bunch

PFOs, like Teflon, are a family of synthetic materials based on carbon and fluoride. The basic idea is that the carbon-fluoride chemical bond is so strong, nothing in the environment can break it, so the compounds are stable, will not react with anything, so can’t possibly cause any health or environmental damage.

In the 90s Giesy had an inkling that things weren’t so simple when he learned that carpets need to be treated with scotchguard every five year or so. If the material is so inert, why is that? Well, it seems to go away. Where does it go? Nobody knew.

Through a painstaking detection process that required the invention of new chemical detection equipment, Giesy showed that the material does spread in the environment, and does contribute to cancer (it doesn’t react with DNA, but prevents the healing mechanisms from happening).

Giesy explaining how he found PFOs everywhere, including in polar bears

Giesy explaining how he found PFOs everywhere, including in polar bears

But the next part of the plot was something that none of us expected. When told that his chemicals were found in polar bears, the chair of 3M, the sole manufacturer of the chemical, didn’t prevaricate or challenge the findings. He simply said: our chemicals don’t belong there. And ordered production stopped. That was after endowing Giesy’s lab with funds to carry out the research that led to these findings.

Giesy’s lab was able to determine what causes the chemicals to be toxic – and to find a replacement (for nerds out there, the answer is that it is the eight-carbon chain that caused the trouble, because it mimicks compounds that make up cell membranes; but changing the carbon chain length does not impair the ability of other PFO-like chemicals to play their essential role in, say, the computer industry).

Giesy further shocked us with an aside (lest we get too comfortable with the idea of industry as angels) that Dupont, the chemical giant, hired a few students to spy on him and discredit him if possible.

So, a happy-end story: good, well funded science was able to detect a very dangerous situation and prevent it before it was too late. PFOs could have become the twenty-first century’s DDT story, and cause irreparable damage, but was stopped in time. When asked, though, Giesy made no bones about the current support for Canadian science: “Shameful. Unless the situation changes talented Canadian scientists should and will leave.”

The unfortunate lesson: when science works well, catastrophes can be avoided and no-one notices. From there, there’s only a short step to “no-one cares” – a step that our governments, at all levels, are only too eager to make in their frenzy to cut expenses. But letting science whither away destroys the knowledge economy and hurts our future prospects – to say nothing of our future health and environment.

These weren’t Giesy’s words, they are mine. But they are the obvious lesson from his talk. When we find future science superstars, like Giesy, we need to nurture them if we are to have any chance of a prosperous future.

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