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UCLA study: U.S. Women at Greater Risk from Teflon Chemical

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, January 29, 2009

WASHINGTON – A major new study published yesterday in Human Reproduction, a European reproductive medicine journal, has found that pregnant women and women of child-bearing age in the United States are at greater risk than previously thought for infertility and reproductive problems as result of exposure to the toxic Teflon chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).

Analyzing data from about 1,240 women from a well-known Danish longitudinal study initiated in 1996, a team of scientists based at the University of California-Los Angeles has found that women with elevated blood levels of PFOA experienced more difficulties in conceiving and were twice as likely to be diagnosed with infertility as women with lower PFOA body burdens. For women with more than 3.9 parts per billion (ppb) of PFOA in their bodies, the chances of conceiving were dramatically reduced.

“These findings are quite alarming, but not completely unexpected given the complete lack of health protections from chemicals like PFOA,” said Environmental Working Group (EWG) Senior Scientist Olga Naidenko, Ph.D. “Until we reform the nation’s chemical laws, we should expect to discover more and more links between chemical exposures and serious health conditions like infertility, childhood cancer, learning disabilities and asthma.”

“The UCLA team’s findings provide important new evidence that drastic declines in fertility rates in both the U.S. and Europe in recent decades may be linked to exposure to toxic chemicals, including PFOA, ” Naidenko said. “These alarming findings reinforce the need for strict regulation of PFOA and related chemicals, as well as other industrial chemicals whose impact on humans and the environment may be subtle but ultimately devastating.”

The chemical PFOA is a member of a class of industrial chemicals known as perfluorochemicals (PFCs). Chemicals in the PFC class are found in a wide range of consumer products, including water, stain and grease repellants, cookware, food wrap, carpeting, furniture and clothing. Products containing PFCs are marketed under such trade names as Teflon, Scotchguard, Stainmaster and Goretex.

A June 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group entitled Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging and DuPont's Greenwashing: EWG’s Guide to PFCs contains a downloadable consumer guide to consumer products that contain PFCs and other advice on how to avoid products containing the chemical.

Studies by EWG and other scientists have demonstrated that PFOA exposure begins in the womb. EWG’s benchmark study, Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns, an analysis of umbilical cord blood, found 287 industrial chemicals and pollutants in 10 newborns, among them PFOA and other PFCs.

EWG’s studies dovetail with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigations that detected PFOA in the bodies of nearly all Americans over 12, with average levels of 3.9 ppb. The chemical has contaminated drinking water, food, and surface and ground water in at least 11 states.

In the human body, PFOA is extraordinarily persistent, accumulating 100-fold and detectable for years, with the potential to act through a broad range of toxic mechanisms to pose potential harm to numerous organs. Research has shown that PFOA can disrupt fetal development, hormonal function and the immune system and increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. Contamination of the food and water supply has the potential to damage the reproductive systems of a large number of women of child-bearing age nationwide.

EWG's work has resulted in an international effort to phase out use of PFOA and legal victories against major manufacturers of the chemical.

Yet more comprehensive protections are critical to protect the public from industrial pollutants. Harmful human exposures to industrial toxins such as PFOA and PFCs are a consequence of weak legal safeguards, particularly the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which grandfathered 62,000 chemicals and allowed industry to bring 20,000 more chemicals into the marketplace with little nor no data to support their safety. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lacked the legal power and funding to test the vast majority of man-made chemicals that, like PFOA, may turn out to be reproductive toxicants or trigger other serious diseases and conditions.

EWG is urging Congress to overhaul and modernize U.S. policy on man-made toxins by adopting policy principles similar to those included in the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act championed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Rep. Henry Waxman. The Kid-Safe bill would place the burden on chemical companies to prove that their products are safe before they enter the marketplace.

Earlier this month, in the waning days of the Bush administration, EPA made plans to issue an emergency health advisory for tap water polluted with PFOA. The advisory, if adopted without change by EPA, would set a non-binding standard of .4 micrograms per liter for PFOA. According to an EWG analysis, such a standard would effectively allow a significant level of pollution and discourage cleanup of PFOA contamination in tap water in at least 9 states.

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.