The unfolding debacle with toxic Teflon products is a great example of what happens when you wait too long to regulate a chemical.
Teflon, a perflourinated compound (PFC) made by the DuPont company, and related PFCs are some of the most problematic substances ever allowed into widespread commercial use.
But for almost 50 years, PFCs escaped regulatory attention. We’re just now learning about the hazards of these chemicals.
Meanwhile, they’ve been added to a vast variety of consumer products. They show up in non-stick cookware under DuPont’s Teflon trademark, of course, and under less well-known brand names. They’re used to treat clothing, carpets and other textiles for stain and water resistance, in cosmetics and in food packaging.
Much of what we know about the health risks of PFCs comes not from EPA asserting its authority under the federal Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) but from a lawsuit filed by citizens in and around Parkersburg, West Virginia, where a DuPont manufacturing plant contaminated drinking water sources with PFOA, a PFC chemical used for Teflon manufacturing.
One outcome of that litigation is a DuPont-funded health study of 63,000 people who drank PFOA-contaminated water. This path- breaking study has found that PFOA alters hormone levels, affects the immune system and causes dangerously high cholesterol. A 2009 study by scientists at the University of California-Los Angeles found a strong link between levels of PFOA in blood and infertility in women of child-bearing age.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s outside Science Advisory Board characterized PFOA as a “likely human carcinogen” in 2006, based on compelling data from animal research and occupational studies of workers exposed to PFOA in DuPont and 3M manufacturing facilities.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigations have detected PFOA in the bodies of nearly all Americans over 12. The chemical has contaminated drinking water, food, and surface and ground water in at least 11 states. PFOA and other PFCs accumulate in the human body and are virtually indestructible in the environment.
In 2006, EPA entered into a consent agreement with 8 major makers of PFOA to eliminate virtually all sources of the chemical in the environment by 2015. Good progress, but in many ways this decision simply highlighted the failings of federal law.
Under TSCA, the cumbersome process for generating data means that we still don’t know for sure how most people come to have PFOA in their bodies. DuPont and other companies have stalled for six years, pretending that the study is too hard to do – all the while protecting their income streams.
And because TSCA imposes no requirement that chemicals be proven safe before they are marketed, manufacturers are simply replacing PFOA with other PFCs that are poorly studied but are likely to have many of the same negative qualities of PFOA.
That’s what you get when you have no functioning system of chemical regulation.
Until Congress scraps TSCA and replaces it with a system that truly protects the public health, we’ll be stuck with PFCs for years to come.