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.

Why Teflon?

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 courtroom.

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 for.

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 since 1980.