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A fluoropolymer is a large, linked molecule that has a series of repeating carbon-fluorine bonds. There are many different types of polymers, some that occur naturally and others that are manipulated in labs. Carbon-fluorine examples are almost always manipulated, but they also tend to be some of the strongest when it comes to resisting breakdown and retaining cohesion in extreme environments. These sorts of compounds are often used extensively in manufacturing, particularly when it comes to industrial coatings, and also have a number of uses in everyday life, from cleaning products to rain jackets and certain cookware. There have been some concerns about the safety of these compounds, particularly if they’re ingested or inhaled. Most studies have determined that they’re safe in small quantities, and the biggest risks are usually faced by those who work in plants where these chemicals are created in large volumes.
Polymers generally have been used in human manufacturing endeavors for a long time. There are many different types, but most are characterized by strands of certain repeating chemicals. In a fluroropolymer, the most common repeating bonds are typically those joining carbon molecules to fluorine molecules. A number of other elements can and usually are included, but the prevalence of fluorine specifically is where this particular family of chains gets its name.
Most polymers are pretty tough and can be used to help strengthen and support a number of products, and fluoropolymers are no exception. They are strong yet lightweight, and usually repel sticking which means that they won’t corrode nearly as quickly; they’re flexible, though, and depending on what else they’re combined with they can often be bent or contoured to fit a variety of specific shapes. General resistance to heat, water, salt and chemicals in some of the most extreme environments are also on the list of assets.
One of the most popular uses for these compounds is in industrial manufacturing. Fluoropolymer resins are commonly used in many places in major construction, too, in part because of their ability to seal out water and create a more or less impenetrable barrier to the outside elements. They can be found in coatings made for bridges, water towers and coastal storage tanks, for instance. Resin coatings that incorporate these polymers have a wide variety of uses in marine environments, too, from boats and ships to offshore tanks, industrial marine equipment, and platforms. The coating provides a slick surface that repels airborne dirt, pollution, acid rain, and mineral and salt corrosion.
The resins are also used in a number of household items. They are the basis of a broad range of stain and fabric protectors in the textile industry, for instance, and they’re part of many different water-protective coatings for clothing and shoes. In many places these compounds are also used in coatings that help improve the flame retardant and chemically protective qualities of clothing worn by fire fighters, emergency workers, and military personnel.
The polymers can also be part of some paint compounds. Water-based fluoropolymer emulsion paint typically retains the same durability as solvent-based paints but may reduce interior air pollution by up to 30%.
One of the most common places most people encounter these compounds is in nonstick cookware. The trademarked Teflon™ is a proprietary blend, but is usually one of the most common names in nonstick skillets and pans in most places. According to most accounts, Teflon™ was actually discovered by accident in 1938, but has become almost standard now in the cookware industry. The polymers’ resistance to penetration and general ability to evenly distribute heat have made skillets and pans prepared this way very popular. Among other things, the coating allows people to cook with less oil or fat, and can also make cook times faster.
Fluoropolymer manufacturers typically assert that the compounds are safe for humans to come into contact with, and the consumer protection wings of most governments and regulatory bodies agree. The story changes when the contact is not as limited as it would be when, say, wearing a coated jacket or using a skillet occasionally. People who work in the manufacturing of these resins and coatings may be significantly more at risk. Many studies have concluded that it is the chemical substance perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) used in the production process of liquid coatings that is the biggest cause for concern, and those on the front lines of the manufacturing process are often frequently exposed and might inhale this chemical somewhat routinely.
Cookware that is older or beginning to flake may also pose special risks, as those flakes can find their way into food and actually be ingested. If coated pans are heated too highly they may also release certain fumes that are thought to be potentially harmful. Cookware manufacturers typically warn consumers not to abrade the coated surfaces and that pets and young children with sensitive respiratory systems not be in or near the kitchen when these sorts of products are in use, particularly over high heat.
Out of curiosity, since fluoropolymer resins are being used more and more on bridges, water towers, and coastal storage tanks to protect against pollutants, are there some places that do this more than others, or is this pretty standard now? In other words, not all places have the same amount of pollutants. One example that comes to mind is that it would seem California would have a lot more airborne pollutants than say a small town in New England. Therefore, do California and similar high-pollutant places use fluoropolymer resin more? Are there places that have such a low pollutant threat that they don’t actually use this resin for protection?