The End of Teflon?
By Thomas Brown
While we tend to think of Teflon only in terms of frying pans,
it is actually one of the most ubiquitous materials used in almost every
implement of modern life. Teflon is the most widely recognized tradename for a
category of materials called flouropolymers and specifically PTFE (Polytetraflouroethelene).
Flouropolymers and their near cousin Flourotelemers are used in practically
limitless everyday applications. Nowhere is this more true than in the marine
industry where paints, lubricants, mechanical devices (e.g. winches) depend on
its long lasting and greaseless lubricious properties and chemical inertness.
Here's a few reminders:
• Tubes and connectors: fuel lines, water lines and tanks, O-rings, pressure
fittings, thread tape.
• Paints and coatings: high performance bottom paints, Teflon containing
polishes, non-asbestos fire retardant barriers
• Hardware: Blocks: Teflon coated bearings. Winches: Teflon shims and spacers,
Teflon coated gear surfaces Various: mainsail slugs, engine valve guides, pump
impellers, microelectronic encapsulations.
• Fabrics: stain resistant coatings, waterproof coatings, foul weather gear
vapor (breathable) barriers.
• Lubricants: engine oil additives, Teflon grease for winches, shives, blocks
and sail slots.
It would actually be easier to think of Teflon in terms of where it is not used
on a boat.
Teflon is chemically similar to Freon which has gotten a media black eye
recently due to its detrimental affect on the earth's ozone layer. A reduction
in the earth's ozone layer is considered a contributor to global warming as well
as to an increase in worldwide occurrences of skin cancer. While the effect of
Freon is different than Teflon, the problem with both of them is that some of
the substances in them, or used in their manufacture, are not broken down in the
environment over time. Their presence has been seen as a sort of low level
Chernobyl in that once used and disposed of, their toxic or environmentally
harmful effects essentially last forever and increasingly build over time as
more is used.
The culprit in Teflon is a compound called Perflouro Octanoic Acid and commonly
known by the acronyms PFOA or just C8. As of March 1, 2006, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) handed down a voluntary ruling that all
effluents of C8 must cease by 2015 with a 95% reduction by 2010. While Teflon
itself does not actually contain C8, it is irreplaceably required in the
formulation of it. Imagine if paint came in the form of a powder. C8 would be
the 'paint thinner'.
The EPA is worried about the release of C8 during the manufacture of Teflon
directly into the environment as well as through possible emission when Teflon
is heated beyond what it should be as if in an empty frying pan left on a red
hot stove. In one study recently done, it was found that C8 already exists at
low levels in virtually every human being on earth. Studies have shown that C8,
in certain situations, can contribute to cancer in rats and cause birth defects
in humans. The EPA's historically bad experience with DDT and PCBs, other
notorious chemicals that have permanent affect on ecosystems, has led to what is
viewed by many, to this preemptive action. The producers of Teflon appear to be
caught between pursuing their corporate livelihood or losing their shirts in the
The problem now is that even though there are newer Teflon manufacturing
processes that reduce the emissions of C8 by 95% to 99%, it can't be absolutely
eliminated as the EPA as mandated. The battleground over C8 will likely be
acceptable limit versus zero tolerance.
What's Going to Happen?
While Teflon is a plastic and it is possible to use another plastic in certain
situations, there is no real alternative that has all of the qualities of Teflon
in one material.
It is almost certain that labs all over the world are scrambling to be the first
to completely replace Teflon as we know it now, or the process to make it. There
is at least one already, but it still does not reduce C8 by 100%. Of course,
much of this effort is going to be under tight wraps until patents are applied
What Should a Boat Owner Do?
At this point it is very hard to tell if there is anything that could be done by
the average boat owner. Unlike other chemicals that the EPA has banned over the
years, this one does not have a viable alternative at present. Teflon is so
ubiquitous to vital areas such as national defense, its hard to imagine that
despite the EPA's hard stance, that something would give somewhere eventually.
The question is how will it give.
While the availability of Teflon will not likely be affected in the near term,
it wouldn't be too outlandish however to think that there might be changes in
the long term. Availability of some types of replacement parts, changes in
product design, or the price of those parts may change. A long term boat project
which begins with only part of the materials available for completion, may find
itself with decisions to be made part way through.
One thing that is of little doubt however, over the coming years there is bound
to be a lot of information and misinformation on this subject. Perhaps the best
course of action for the boat owner is to keep informed from accurate sources
and be aware that things may change without a lot of notice.
Mr. Brown comes from an active yachting family and grew up sailing on the waters
of Long Island Sound, Tokyo Bay and the Great Lakes. He has been a USCG captain