August 16, 2004
THERE IS no reason to throw out your Teflon pans, but the US Environmental Protection Agency last month opened a new chapter in society's love-hate relationship with miracle chemicals when it accused the Du Pont Co. of withholding evidence of the company's own concerns about a chemical used to make Teflon. In a response last week, Du Pont said it had met its reporting obligations and should not have to pay fines, which could reach $300 million.
The EPA has charged Du Pont with suppressing evidence that the chemical can move from a pregnant woman to her fetus and that it was found in the drinking water supply of a community near a Teflon manufacturing site in West Virginia. While the agency is right to pursue these charges against the company, it should give urgency to more investigations into the chemical's health risk to humans and into the mystery of how it has become so omnipresent in the environment.
At issue is an extremely persistent fluorine-based chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Not only does it resist breakdown, but the usefulness of Teflon in making a wide range of products -- from pans to clothing to eyeglasses and electric wires -- means that there is a lot of PFOA around. It or other compounds from the family of perfluorated chemicals, or PFCs, have been detected in the blood of more than 90 percent of Americans and in Arctic Circle polar bears. Recently PFCs were detected in the Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for 33 million Americans and Canadians.
PFOA has been shown to cause cancer in animals, but even though it has been around for 50 years, neither the EPA nor industry has done sufficient research into its effect on humans. In the 1980s Du Pont found that a female worker exposed to the chemical gave birth to a baby with a facial defect. It concluded that this was an isolated incident and said that all its toxicological studies indicated that PFOA causes neither cancer nor birth defects in humans. It is currently doing a major epidemiological study of workers using PFOA.
PFOA does not occur naturally, so researchers suspect that it is being spread either in the manufacturing process or in the gradual release of the chemical from products as they age and wear out. In 2003, EPA cited health concerns about it in a preliminary risk assessment but did not advise the public to stop using Teflon products.
Whatever is decided about PFOA has implications for a wide range of non-Teflon products also made with PFCs, such as Gore-Tex and Stainmaster.
Regulators have banned other persistent chemicals that were only suspected, not proven, causes of human cancer. The EPA should speed up its investigation to determine whether PFOA deserves the same fate.