Public Health & Recreation

Teflon Chemical Emerges as Public-Health Problem


More than a decade after it was discovered that consuming unsafe amounts of an industrial chemical once used to keep food from sticking to pans and since linked to cancer, birth defects and heart disease, government regulators have failed to set enforceable standards to ensure drinking water is safe from this chemical. And now, new science says the danger may be greater than originally thought, according to a recent Environmental Working Group (EWG) report.

In 2005, DuPont settled a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of 70,000 Ohio and West Virginia residents for decades of fouling their drinking water with a highly toxic, manmade chemical — perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA or C-8 — once used to make Teflon. As part of the settlement, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, with sales totaling nearly $20 billion so far this year, is paying for technology to filter, but not eliminate, C-8 from six mid-Ohio River Valley water systems.

Earlier this month, following a three-week trial, an Ohio jury awarded a cancer patient $1.6 million after finding DuPont was liable for leaking C-8 into drinking water near one of its plants.

The woman was the first plaintiff of about 3,500 to go to trial, all claiming they contracted one of six diseases linked to perfluorooctanoic acid.

A 2012 study concluded there are probable links between the industrial chemical and high cholesterol, testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and ulcerative colitis.

Since 2013, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing program has found C-8 in 94 public water systems in 27 states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The four public water supplies in southern New England that have tested positive for the toxic chemical provide drinking water to about 126,000 people.

Rainer Lohmann, associate professor of chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, has spent much of his career studying hazardous chemical compounds that are common in industrial processes and personal-care products.

Lohmann, who has a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry, has tracked these chemical compounds — pesticides, mercury, PCBs and flame retardants — from Narragansett Bay to the Arctic Ocean. He also has developed a process to detect them in the water using a simple sheet of clear plastic.

He called perfluorooctanoic acid a unique compound with known health impacts. The problem, Lohmann said, is that no one is really sure at what level it becomes problematic.

“EPA took action shows you the facts are too obvious to ignore,” he said, noting the federal agency hasn’t finalized at what level C-8 is actually safe. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this chemical.”

The EPA’s current health advisory level for drinking water is 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) — a ppb is less than a teaspoon in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In much of Europe, the advisory level for drinking water is 0.1 ppm. In June, the scientific journal New Solutions published a paper by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell found 0.001 ppb to be the “approximate” safe level for C-8 in drinking water.

C-8 and closely related chemicals have spread to the remote corners of Earth, contaminating the blood of virtually all Americans and even passing through the umbilical cord to unborn babies in the womb, according to EWG report.

Many of the chemicals in the environment today, such C-8, were banned decades ago but are still found at harmful levels, according to Lohmann. He has noted that thousands of untested new chemicals — what he calls “emerging contaminants of concern” — are being introduced into the environment every year through industrial processes, with little regulation or government oversight.

Perfluorooctanoic acid belongs to a class of non-stick, waterproof, grease-proof, stain-proof chemicals used on cookware, in some types of food packaging such as microwavable popcorn bags, in carpet treatments, in industrial floor wax and removers, and in ski wax.

DuPont and other chemical companies are marketing a new generation of PFCs with similar chemical structures to C-8. The few studies conducted on these new chemicals show that they may also have serious health risks, but the weak and outdated federal Toxic Substances Control Act has allowed them onto the market without adequate safety testing, according to the EWG.

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