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Nature. 2001 Jul 19;412(6844):321-4.

Thermolysis of fluoropolymers as a potential source of halogenated organic acids in the environment.

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Department of Chemistry, 80 St George Street, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 3H6.


Following the introduction of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbon (HFCs) gases as replacements for the ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), it has been discovered that HCFCs/HFCs can degrade in the atmosphere to produce trifluoroacetic acid, a compound with no known loss mechanisms in the environment, and higher concentrations in natural waters have been shown to be mildly phytotoxic. Present environmental levels of trifluooracetic acid are not accounted by HCFC/HFC degradation alone. Here we report that thermolysis of fluorinated polymers, such as the commercial polymers Teflon and Kel-F, can also produce trifluoroacetate and the similar compound chlorodifluoroacetate. This can occur either directly, or indirectly via products that are known to degrade to these haloacetates in the atmosphere. The environmental significance of these findings is confirmed by modelling, which indicates that the thermolysis of fluoropolymers in industrial and consumer high-temperature applications (ovens, non-stick cooking utensils and combustion engines) is likely to be a significant source of trifluoroacetate in urban rain water ( approximately 25 ng l-1, as estimated for Toronto). Thermolysis also leads to longer chain polyfluoro- and/or polychlorofluoro- (C3-C14) carboxylic acids which may be equally persistent. Some of these products have recently been linked with possible adverse health and environmental impacts and are being phased out of the US market. Furthermore, we detected CFCs and fluorocarbons-groups that can destroy ozone and act as greenhouse gases, respectively-among the other thermal degradation products, suggesting that continued use of fluoropolymers may also exacerbate stratospheric ozone-depletion and global warming.

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