Panel calls chemical a 'likely carcinogen'
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
A chemical used to make Teflon, Gore-Tex and stain-resistant coatings is more likely to cause cancer than the government has previously acknowledged, according to a scientific panel.
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a "likely carcinogen" according to an advisory board to the Environmental Protection Agency. The science panel's pronouncement is the first step in a process that could result in the agency regulating or even banning some uses of the popular manufacturing agent.
The independent science board disagrees with a risk assessment of PFOA that the EPA drafted and released earlier this year in which the chemical was described as a "suggested" carcinogen.
Board members reviewing that report found PFOA to be of greater concern and advised the agency to conduct cancer-risk assessments on liver, breast, testicular and pancreas tumors in exposed animals.
Health and environmental experts have raised red flags about PFOA because of its pervasiveness. Tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found PFOA in the blood of 95% of Americans, though researchers don't yet know how it's getting there.
PFOA is used in the manufacture of Teflon coatings on pans. It is also found in widely used coatings that make upholstery and clothing stain-resistant and in a grease-resistant coating on microwave popcorn and fast-food packaging among others.
The science panel posted its report on the EPA Web site this week and will hold a public meeting Tuesday to discuss its findings. The agency has declined official comment on the advisory report.
Delaware-based DuPont is already potentially liable for millions of dollars in fines to the EPA for failing to report significant information about the health risks posed by PFOA at its plant in Parkersburg, W.Va. The corporation was cited for failing to pass along the results of health tests it had done on workers at the plant.
That Washington Works plant on the Ohio River uses PFOA to manufacture fluoropolymers, temperature-resistant plastics that include some Teflon products. Last year, the company settled a class-action lawsuit brought by 60,000 residents of West Virginia and Ohio for as much as $343 million. The lawsuit accused the corporation of contaminating drinking water with PFOA from the Parkersburg plant.
Robert Rickard, DuPont's chief toxicologist, says the company does not believe there is an association between PFOA and cancer. "The real issue is risk. Clearly, these are low levels of potential exposure. It's our interpretation that (PFOA) does not pose a cancer risk to the general population," he says.
But Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research organization that has taken on PFOA, says DuPont is just fighting to protect one of its revenue sources.
"What DuPont is worried about is that this whole line of chemistry is on the block. PFOS, a similar compound, was taken off the market in 1999 and PFOA is next. They're way invested in this chemistry."
Finding different ways to create these sturdy coatings has become a mission for "green" chemists. These scientists have been searching for ways to manufacture products that fuel the U.S. economy and lifestyle without the environmental damage that has surfaced in recent years.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have found a way to develop non-stick coatings using carbon dioxide, which does not produce PFOA. But DuPont spokesman Clifton Webb said the process doesn't produce a product that is high-enough quality for many uses.