Toxic Teflon: Compounds from Household Products Found in Human Blood
"Better things for better living -- through chemistry." From the 1940s to the 1980s, E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. wooed customers with that slogan, one of the most memorable in American advertising. But today, two groups of DuPont products developed during that era -- fluorotelomers and fluoropolymers -- are showing how chemical-dependent "better living" can come at a high price.
DuPont and other companies use those synthetic compounds to make an extraordinarily wide range of products, including nonstick cookware (e.g, Teflon), grease-resistant food packaging (e.g., microwave popcorn and pizza boxes), stain-resistant fabrics and carpets (e.g., Stainmaster), shampoos, conditioners, cleaning products, electronic components, paints, firefighting foams, and a host of other artifacts of modern life.
But like many "better things" produced by industrial chemistry, these products can have disastrous side effects. The chemicals used to make them or that are released when they decompose are especially troublesome. They can easily escape to roam freely around the planet, persist in the environment, contaminate the blood of people and wildlife, change body chemistry, and are accused of causing health problems, including cancer.
After decades of harnessing the almost miraculous properties of fluorotelomers and fluoropolymers, scientists are now showing that compounds that are used in their manufacture or thrown off when they break down -- fellow members of the perfluorochemical (PFC) family -- are turning up in people and animals all over the planet.
Although DuPont has never conceded that PFCs might cause health or environmental problems, the company has bowed to relentless and rising public pressure in recent years and moved to rein in its emissions. But whatever action is taken at this point, a class of molecules that did not exist on the planet before the 20th century is now here to stay.
Chemical properties that make PFCs so useful in industry also make them virtually indestructible in nature. For sheer persistence, two members of the family, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), stand out. They are not broken down by heat, light, or microbes. Other PFCs do break down, but in doing so, most of them end up giving off PFOA or PFOS.
Of these two compounds' many disturbing properties, the one setting off the most alarm bells is their potential for causing cancer. Studies reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (some of them conducted in the labs of Du Pont and a former producer, the 3M Company) have shown that rats fed PFOA were more likely to develop tumors in the pancreas, liver, testicles, and mammary glands. PFOS has been linked to liver and thyroid cancer in rats. A 1993 study found that 3M workers involved in manufacturing PFOA were three times as likely to die of prostate cancer as those who weren't (the difference was statistically significant, but because of the small number of deaths overall, the researchers warn that "results must be interpreted catiously.") Two of 3M's own studies also showed increased, but statistically nonsignificant, increases in prostate-cancer causing problems among PFOA workers. An EPA-appointed science advisory board has recommended labeling PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic" in humans. DuPont has responded by maintaining that the "weight of evidence suggests that PFOA exposure does not cause cancer in humans," not exactly the kind of seal of approval you'd want to bet your family's health on.
In addition to developing cancers, rats and other laboratory animals fed varying amounts of PFOA have shown significantly increased rates of miscarriage, weight loss, and thyroid problems. Offspring of females fed the chemical had delayed growth but extra-fast sexual maturation. PFOS has caused a range of diseases in lab animals and shown a strong tendency to concentrate in humans and the wildlife food chain, prompting 3M to phase that chemical out of its big-selling Scotchgard fabric protector and other products in 2000-2002.
PFCs have turned up in wildlife on at least three continents and above the Arctic Circle, in the blood of dolphins, seals, sea lions, minks, polar bears, gulls, albatrosses, bald eagles, sea turtles, and dozens more species. They are widespread in seafood. Fifteen PFCs have been identified in human blood samples, with highest concentrations in Americans. PFOA has been found in the blood of 90 percent to 95 percent of U.S. residents who have been screened. Once in the body, it doesn't leave quickly; almost four years after being taken in, half of the original amount remains.
DuPont officials point out that no statistically significant relationships between PFOA exposure and disease or mortality have been seen in humans. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG) argues that all employee-health studies carried out by 3M and DuPont had flaws in their experimental designs that tended to make it harder to show that effects of PFCs were statistically significant.
Cases of pet birds dropping dead and humans developing flu-like symptoms in the presence of overheated nonstick cookware have raised concerns that Teflon might be releasing toxic PFCs. Industry officials dispute that.
Arguing on somewhat unconventional grounds, a vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association told a Columbia News Service reporter, "There's no evidence of safety concern whatsoever with using nonstick pans, and sales figures prove that."
PFOA is used as a processing aid in the manufacture of Teflon, but is not part of the final product. Most evidence indicates that emissions of PFCs during manufacturing and their release from food packaging, fabric treatment, and other products are indeed more important sources of local and global contamination than are the Teflon-coated pots and pans in your kitchen.
Scientists have observed a general buildup of PFCs in the biosphere, but very little is known about what that will mean for ecosystems. PFCs apparently do not have the extreme toxicity of, say, dioxins; nevertheless, there's little reason for complacency when compounds that can be found so readily in such a broad range of animals -- mammals, birds, and reptiles -- have also been shown to damage the health of the few species on which they have been tested.
Turning up the heat on DuPont
Since 2000, the federal government, environmental groups, and private citizens have been steadily turning up the heat on DuPont with a series of lawsuits and proposed regulatory actions in states across the nation:
- The 2004 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by Ohio and West Virginia residents living in the vicinity of DuPont's Washington Works plant required the company to spend more than $100 million to ensure that homes in the area are supplied with water uncontaminated with PFOA.
- That settlement also led to initiation of a court-ordered C-8 Health Project, a five-year study correlating PFOA blood-serum levels in more than 60,000 area residents with the incidence of nine types of medical conditions, starting with cancer, heart disease and birth defects.
- A court-appointed Science Panel of three prominent epidemiologists assigned to analyze and interpret the C-8 Health Project data requested permission this fall to study the effects of PFOA on nearly 5,000 Washington Works employees, many of whom have extremely high blood PFOA levels. DuPont is fighting to keep its employees out of the study, claiming that its own surveys of its workers have demonstrated that there are no health risks.
- The EPA sued DuPont in 2004, charging that the company had for years been concealing information on PFOA pollution at Washington Works. A year ago, without admitting any wrongdoing, DuPont agreed to pay $16.5 million in fines and support of research and education -- the largest civil judgment EPA had ever obtained.
- Since 2003, mostly small amounts of PFOA have been detected in groundwater and going into the Cape Fear River near DuPont's Fayetteville Works plant in North Carolina. Then, in 2005, water in a well close to the plant showed an extremely high level of 765 parts per billion (ppb). DuPont began producing a salt of PFOA at Fayetteville in 2002, when 3M, its former supplier, halted manufacture of the chemical at a plant in Minnesota in response to public pressure.
- Last January, a Scientific Advisory Board appointed by the EPA to review the agency's risk assessment of PFOA voted, by a 12-4 majority, to recommend labeling PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic" in humans, based on animal studies. DuPont disputes the designation, and EPA has not included it in its as-yet unfinished assessment.
- In April, residents of the area around DuPont's Chamber Works plant in Salem Co., New Jersey, filed a lawsuit claiming that the plant had contaminated their water supply with PFCs and that the company had known for years that it was doing so.
- Around the same time, class-action cases against DuPont in 12 states were consolidated as one big case in federal court in Iowa, alleging that the company did not inform consumers that it knew Teflon can emit harmful fumes when overheated.
- In a Nov. 20 consent order, EPA forced DuPont to agree that if the water supply of any household near Washington Works showed a PFOA concentration above 0.5 ppb, the company would pay to provide water treatment or an alternative water supply. The agreement was prompted by findings that people living near the plant had very high blood concentrations of PFOA, 60 times the national average.
- Also in November, a committee of California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment met to consider making PFOA a top-priority chemical for review as a possible carcinogen under state's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. The committee is currently divided on the issue, but if the agency decides to designate PFOA as cancer-causing, any product containing the chemical will have to be so labeled. To have their products carry that stigma in a state the size of California would no doubt mean heavy financial losses to DuPont and other companies.
Stewardship, not elimination
In early 2006, DuPont and seven other companies signed on to a voluntary "PFOA Stewardship Program" under which they pledged to reduce emissions of PFOA from their factories by 95 percent by the year 2010. They will also achieve a 95 percent reduction in PFOA contamination of their products by 2010 and eliminate the chemical from products and emissions by 2015.
Reacting to the agreement, Ken Cook, president of EWG, told the Washington Post, "As harshly as we have singled out DuPont for criticism for its past handling of PFOA pollution, today we want to single out and commend the company and acknowledge its leadership going forward."
In an Oct. 31 letter to the EPA, DuPont administrators claimed already to have slashed both their U.S. factory emissions and the PFOA content of their products by 97 percent since 2000. Fluoropolymer products going into automotive, military and medical products will take somewhat longer to convert to low PFOA content, wrote DuPont, "due to their criticality."
Nevertheless, some environmental organizations and scientists are saying that the Stewardship program is no more than a good first step. For one thing, it doesn't commit companies to finding substitutes for PFOA in their processes. DuPont will continue to manufacture PFOA and use it as a processing aid or reactant in making Teflon and other products.
In April, 27 percent of DuPont's shareholders voted for a resolution calling on the company to completely phase out the use of PFOA. Sanford Lewis of DuPont Shareholders for Fair Value announced that despite the measure's defeat, the vote was significant: "Whenever resolutions on environmental or toxic chemical issues are filed, if they get more than 10 percent of the vote, we believe it sends a message to management that shareholders are growing very concerned." He felt that a 27 percent vote "is so big that it can't be ignored." So far, it has been.
Meanwhile, DuPont will continue producing PFOA and other PFCs, and globally, several million more pounds of PFCs will be added to the global pool every year. A portion of that PFC pool will eventually break down to indestructible PFOA.
So even if PFOA is eliminated from factory emissions and products, it will continue to spread through the environment unless production of it ceases and other PFCs are phased out as well. And at least one of DuPont's efforts to stop PFOA contamination is whipping up controversy.
PFOA heading south
Starting earlier this year, once a day on average, a tanker truck loaded with a PFC called fluorotelomer alcohol has departed DuPont's Chamber Works plant in New Jersey en route to its First Chemical plant near Pascagoula, Miss. There, PFOA contaminant is removed from the fluorotelomer alcohol and the purified product is hauled back to New Jersey. A small amount of escaped PFOA, two pounds per year, is expected to go into the area's sewer system, which ultimately flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
PFOA is not a regulated substance (all restrictions put on it to date have resulted from civil settlements, not regulatory actions), so emissions from the First Chemical plant require no EPA or state Dept. of Environmental Quality permits. DuPont has said that it will do its own monitoring and report the results.
Brenda Songy, an area resident and member of the Mississippi Sierra Club, is not reassured. She's been battling from the beginning to stop the importation of PFOA from New Jersey. Songy was part of a group that attended the Pascagoula City Council's October meeting, to urge a ban on emissions of the chemical into city sewers. They were politely rebuffed.
Songy told me that Pascagoula won't turn away the tanker trucks because the city and region are "too entrenched in industrialization," despite the results of past industry-friendliness: a huge load of environmental toxins and high cancer rates. She said, "At the meeting, our arguments were just considered a 'girly-wussy' thing, as opposed to the 'manly-market' view that we should welcome DuPont's investment." (The company is spending $20 million to fit the plant to handle PFOA removal.)
"They aren't bad people," said Songy, referring to the city's leaders. "They're kind-hearted, and they really believe these companies are also kind-hearted, that they would never put our lives at risk."
First Chemical plant manager James Freeman told the South Mississippi Sun-Herald that his plant already had much of the equipment needed to scrub PFOA from the alcohol. The company is hauling daily loads of fluorotelomer alcohol more than a thousand miles, he told the paper, because it would be "impractical and too expensive" to haul the necessary equipment to New Jersey.
Freeman did not cite the pollution lawsuit currently pending against DuPont's New Jersey plant as a possible reason that the company is now hauling PFOA-contaminated product to Mississippi.
A chemical amnesty program
Unlike pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals, industrial chemicals receive only minimal federal scrutiny before being OK'd for use. Upon passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in the 1970s, more than 63,000 such chemicals -- including PFOA -- were "grandfathered" in, receiving unrestricted approval for use in industrial processes. Today, between 80,000 and 100,000 industrial chemicals may be used freely in this country; since passage of TSCA, only a handful of such chemical compounds have been placed under restrictions.
A recent series of articles in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram showed just how loose federal regulation of industrial chemicals is. Under TSCA, according to the paper, the EPA fields an average of 142 new-chemical applications each month, and its too-small staff has only 90 days to review any scientific data bearing on a new chemical's toxicity or persistence in the environment. There is little or no such information in most cases anyway, and neither the agency nor the applicant is required to do any testing before a chemical is approved.
Companies are required to inform the government if they know of any adverse data, but before any chemical can be rejected, the burden is placed squarely on EPA to prove that it poses an "unreasonable risk to health or the environment." How high must a risk be to be considered "unreasonable"? That question is left open.
To subject industrial chemicals to the kind of extensive and expensive testing that drugs and pesticides are required to undergo would surely cripple industry's ability to turn out new products as fast as they do. But a system much stricter than the current nonsystem, one that required environmental studies both before and after a compound is approved, would force companies to be much more deliberate, and maybe even to ask, "Is this new product really worth it?" before unleashing yet another new synthetic molecule on the biosphere.
In July, the federal Government Accountability Office complained about the innocent-until-proven-guilty attitude that the law takes toward new industrial chemicals, but no changes appear imminent. Meanwhile, environmental and health testing will be conducted as it's been done throughout the age of "better living through chemistry": by exposing humans, other animals, plants, and microbes to molecules that have never before existed on Earth, and investigating the consequences only when they're too dramatic to ignore.
In a product-testing regime like that, the most successful compounds, the ones that are produced and consumed in the biggest volumes and varieties of products, get the most thorough testing. But before the results are even in, some of them -- like PFCs -- can become widespread and near-permanent residents of the planet. So when DuPont officials make their regular announcements that PFCs are completely harmless, we can only hope that they're right.