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Scientists worry about chemicals in pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags

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NBC News - Pizza —in all its cheesy perfection — is one of our favorite foods. Although most of us know we should limit consumption of those 10-topping extravaganzas to maintain good health, it's unlikely any pizza fan thought the chemicals in the takeout box might be a health risk, too.

But Friday a slew of international scientists authored the "Madrid Statement," their take on the potential health and environmental dangers of certain chemicals commonly used in everything from pizza boxes to microwave popcorn bags, outdoor clothing, carpets and furniture. They issued their concerns in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institutes of Health. And in a separate report also released Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group takes these chemicals to task, too.

The focus of this chemical contentiousness are substances generally known as PFCs — perfluorinated chemicals (also known as PFSAs) that make your jacket waterproof, a pizza box grease-proof, and a frying pan less sticky. The chief worry of the 200 scientists from 38 countries that have shown support for the journal's "Madrid Statement," is that exposure to these chemicals may be bad for our health and bad for the environment, too.

Indeed, some of these chemicals — especially the so-called long-chain type of PFCs — have already come under fire, particularly one called C8.

From 2005 through 2013, researchers carried out exposure and health studies in communities located in the Mid-Ohio Valley, which had been potentially affected by the release of C8 emitted from a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

What they found is a probable link to C8 exposure and diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. By the end of 2015, manufacturers in the United States will phase out C8 in all products.

Although the long-chain versions of these chemicals have been "vigorously studied," the newer alternatives developed by companies, generally short-chain types, haven't been around long enough to get the kind of necessary scientific scrutiny to ensure human and environmental health, says Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist with the environmental advocacy group EWG, and co-author of their report.

And since some of these newer alternatives may be less effective, manufacturers may need to use larger quantities to provide the kind of product performance consumers expect, which could potentially lead to bad health effects and environmental issues.

"The concern really is that we are replacing old chemicals, with new chemicals that have similar structures," says Bill Walker, an EWG consultant and co-author. "We don't want to repeat history again here."

But industry leaders aren't buying into the equation and don't believe the Madrid Statement, for example, reflects ". . . a true consideration of the available data," said DuPont spokeswoman Janet E. Smith, although the newer types of chemicals are "better than the ones they replaced."

"Regulators around the world have reviewed the data and approved these compounds as being safe for their intended uses," she said.

And it's important to know that all ". . . fluorinated chemicals are not the same," according to The FluoroCouncil, a global organization representing the world's leading FluoroTechnology companies.

If you have concerns, the EWG isn't suggesting you purchase a biohazard suit when handling your pizza box. Rather, if you want to avoid the new-generation of chemicals, they suggest, among other things:
  • To find products that haven't been pre-treated and skip optional stain treatment on new carpets and furniture.
  • Cut back on fast food and greasy carryout food. These foods often come in PFC-treated wrappers.
  • Do your research, especially when buying outdoor gear, and choose clothing that doesn't carry Gore-Tex or Teflon tags.
  • Be wary of all fabrics labeled stain- or water-repellent, even when they don't carry a recognizable brand tag.
  • Avoid non-stick pans and kitchen utensils. Opt for stainless steel or cast iron instead.
  • Pop popcorn the old-fashioned way, on the stovetop. Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated with PFCs on the inside.
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