Commentary: Despite industry spin, bad news keeps sticking to Teflon chemical.
By Bill Walker
If you’re a chemical industry spin doctor trying to discredit the scientific evidence on the dangers of a cancer-causing compound that’s in virtually everyone’s blood and contaminates the drinking water of millions, Thursday was a bad day.
That morning, VICE News and other outlets reported on new research by two leading environmental health scientists who concluded that PFOA, which DuPont used for 50 years to make Teflon, is much more dangerous than previously thought. Dozens of peer-reviewed studies have found that PFOA and other chemicals in its class, known as PFCs or PFAS, can cause cancer, birth defects and heart disease and weaken the immune system.
PFOA is no longer produced or used in the U.S., but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found it in the blood of more than 99 percent of Americans – even those who weren’t yet born when it was used to make hundreds of nonstick, stain-resistant and waterproof products. PFOA and other PFCs can be passed from mother to unborn child in the womb.
From a meta-analysis of previous studies, Philippe Grandjean of Harvard and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, concluded that the federal government’s recommended “safe” level for PFOA in drinking water – a non-enforceable Provisional Health Advisory set in 2009 – is hundreds to more than 1,000 times too high to fully protect people’s health. Their findings suggest that PFOA may be akin to asbestos or lead – hazardous at any level of exposure.
That’s alarming news for people living near DuPont’s plant in Parkersburg, W. Va. Some water supplies in the area are contaminated with PFOA at 160 or more times the level the new research says is safe. It’s also alarming for the 6.5 million Americans in 27 states whose water is contaminated with PFOA at 5-to-174 times that level.
Asked about the new science, a spokesperson for Chemours, the recent DuPont spinoff company that inherited responsibility for cleaning up PFOA contamination in the Ohio River Valley, told VICE: “We don’t believe the (Grandjean) paper includes data to support a conclusion that the interim health advisory level set by EPA in 2009 is not low enough.”
Grandjean responded: “They should read my paper.”
Later in the day, Grandjean and colleagues published another paper, which looked at the blood of 81 children in the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic, whose mothers eat a seafood diet heavily contaminated with PFOA and other PFCs. Researchers checked the children’s blood at ages 11 months, 18 months and 5 years old, and checked their mother’s blood at week 32 of pregnancy. They found that children who were exclusively breastfed had levels of the chemicals increase about 20 to 30 percent each month.
That’s not just alarming but shocking. As Grandjean told The Huffington Post, “It’s really an absurd situation that women who are breast-feeding have to think about what chemical exposures they might contribute to their child. Breast milk is supposed to be the best possible nutrition for the infant.”
Grandjean and other health experts emphasized that the benefits of breast-feeding far outweigh the dangers of passing toxic chemicals from mother to baby. “There is no reason to discourage breast-feeding, but we are concerned that these pollutants are transferred to the next generation at a very vulnerable age,” he told The Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Unfortunately, the current U.S. legislation does not require any testing of chemical substances . . . for their transfer to babies and any related adverse effects.”
DuPont or Chemours didn’t comment on the second study. Instead, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s lobby, told Huffington Post that the problems with PFOA and similar chemicals are in the past: “Voluntary industry efforts have resulted in reduction of these substances in the environment. To help support that phase-out, our member companies developed alternatives . . . (that) are some of the most robustly-studied new chemicals introduced into the market.”
Voluntary? Sure, if that’s what you’d call the phase-out deal DuPont made in 2006 after the EPA was alerted to evidence of PFOA’s hazards the company covered up for decades. Faced with the possibility of more than $300 million in fines – eventually reduced by the agency to a piddling $16.5 million – and a Justice Department criminal investigation, DuPont (and other manufacturers and users of PFOA) agreed to end production by this year.
Robustly studied? EPA records show that the broken and outdated Toxic Substances Control Act has let DuPont and other companies market alternative non-stick chemicals without ever proving that they’re safe. The limited animal studies that have been done show that the new generation of PFCs may be little safer than the chemicals they’re replacing.
This is untenable. It flies in the face of common sense – better safe than sorry – and is out of step with the way things are done in the European Union, where new chemicals must be proven safe before they’re allowed to be used.
Even when EPA has overwhelming evidence that a chemical is dangerous, it lacks the authority to ban the chemical outright and can only negotiate protracted phase-outs, largely on the manufacturer’s terms. It takes years, even decades, for EPA to set a legal allowable limit on hazardous chemicals: The truth about PFOA started to come out in 2001, but it could be 2021 before the agency even decides whether it will try to set a legal maximum for drinking water.
The result is a continual stream of alarming revelations about the dangers of chemicals in household products, food and drinking water. But for every new piece of bad news, the chemical industry’s PR flacks have an answer: Trust us.
Why should we?
Bill Walker is investigations editor at the Environmental Working Group. A version of this commentary was first published in EWG’s Enviroblog.
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