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Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging

Monday, June 9, 2008

Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging

How Green is DuPont's Alternative?

Study authors: Olga Naidenko, PhD, Senior Scientist; Renee Sharp, MS, Senior Scientist; Jane Houlihan, MSCE, Vice President for Research; Bill Walker, Vice President West Coast

In 2006, under pressure from the U.S. EPA, DuPont and 7 other companies promised to phase out by 2015 a cancer-causing chemical called PFOA, used to make Teflon and also found in grease-resistant coatings for food packaging. In its place, the chemical industry is pushing new, supposedly “green” food package coatings.

But an investigation by Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds no evidence that the industry-touted replacement chemicals being rushed to market are safer -- and plenty of evidence that DuPont and other manufacturers are continuing a decades-long pattern of deception about the health risks of PFOA and related chemicals.

View EWG's guide to PFCs

Like PFOA-based coatings, the new compounds are also made from, contaminated with, or break down into perfluorochemicals (PFCs), including new coatings for household products like stain-resistant fabrics and carpet, waterproof clothing, and food packaging. Like PFOA, they persist in the environment and can cross the placenta to contaminate babies before birth. But unlike PFOA – for which there are dozens of peer-reviewed studies showing links to cancer, reproductive problems and immune disorders – for the replacement chemicals there are almost no publicly available data on their health risks, leaving in question whether food packaging and other PFC-containing products are any safer.

EWG’s investigation is the first review of health data and industry greenwashing since the phaseout agreement was announced. We examined federal reports on food packaging toxicity; industry-funded health studies in Environmental Protection Agency files; and company e-mails unearthed in a lawsuit over PFOA pollution of drinking water near a DuPont facility in West Virginia, and found:

  • Despite agreeing to phase out PFOA, DuPont and other makers of perfluorinated chemicals continue to maintain that it is safe. A DuPont press release from March 2008 said “. . . PFOA exposure does not pose a health risk to the general public. To date, there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA.” This is not only contradicted by the EPA Science Advisory Board’s 2005 finding that PFOA is a likely human carcinogen, but by DuPont’s own scientific advisors. In 2005, in response to a similar statement by the company, an ethics advisor on DuPont's Epidemiology Review Board wrote: “The claim of no health effects is not supported by available facts (factual inappropriateness) … Such a statement is misleading, whether intentionally or not, and it is unacceptable to mislead in this way (moral inappropriateness).” In fact, to date at least 10 studies of people show significant health risks of PFOA, including elevated risk for obesity, heart disease, endocrine disorders, and infectious diseases in a study of 4538 children younger than 10 years of age living near a DuPont plant in West Virginia.

  • From January 2007 to April 2008, chemical manufacturers reported to the EPA 19 studies on PFC chemicals that showed “substantial risk” to human health or the environment under section 8(e) of the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). The health effects reported in these studies of anonymous PFCs include the deaths of laboratory animals as well as damage to the liver, thyroid and prostate. Yet under EPA regulations shielding confidential business information, in 17 of 19 cases the exact name of the chemical is not identified and in 13 of 19 cases the manufacturer is not identified. This information is secret not only from the public, but from health officials in states, like California, that are considering laws to ban PFCs in food packaging. These reports are doubly troubling: Not only is information being hidden that is important to public health, but by their own admission companies are finding substantial health risks for chemicals they may well be using as PFOA replacements.

  • From 2005 through November 2007 FDA approved 8 new food packaging fluorochemicals that may replace older, PFOA-contaminated or C8-based PFCs. These approvals were granted with no public record of any health risk assessment from exposures to the contaminant residues and breakdown products of greatest concern, according to documents EWG obtained from the Food and Drug Administration. Since that time FDA has approved 2 additional substitute chemicals, and DuPont has announced that its new PFOA replacement, the CapstoneTM grease-proofing chemicals, will be available for packaging products beginning in 2009. This dramatic shift in the market and in human exposures has occurred with no public assessment of the safety of the replacements.

  • A similar pattern of unproven claims and secrecy is found in reports filed by chemical makers on the progress of the PFOA phaseout. Since the phaseout is voluntary, EPA has no authority to verify claims of reduced PFOA use or releases. Some companies report little or no progress. Others claim significant reductions, but again hide the details as confidential business information. Worse, the industry’s claims that the phaseout will eliminate PFOA by 2015 are shattered by the fact that no company from China, the third-largest producer of packaging in the world, is a party to the agreement.

The industry’s contention that its PFOA replacements are safer rests on two atoms of carbon. PFOA is sometimes called C8 because it has 8 carbon atoms. A key replacement chemical, perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA), contains 6 carbon atoms and is often called C6. The chemical industry would have us believe that the removal of two carbon atoms removes human health risks.

On April 23, 2008, a scientist representing the Telomer Research Program, a chemical industry group that includes DuPont and other PFC makers, testified before the Health Committee of the California State Senate against a bill to ban both PFOA/C8 and PFHxA/C6 in food packaging. He repeated the claim that PFOA is not harmful to humans, and that a ban is not needed because of the voluntary phaseout program. He also repeatedly described C6 as an example of the “green chemistry” approach the state is developing to encourage the production of safer alternative chemicals:

[The bill] would derail a promising example of green chemistry at work . . . [B]y targeting perflourinated compounds with chain links of 6 or higher in this legislation, the bill would frustrate the conversion from the C8 based products, that are the source of the PFOA, to a set of effective C6 based compounds whose breakdown products are much, much less toxic and don’t have the same persistence issues that PFOA and some of the C8s have. . . . [O]ur companies are addressing the concerns about PFOA; we’re aggressively doing so. And we believe the proposed legislation would actually do harm to an effective green chemistry strategy for reducing the concerns about this chemical. (Lawyer 2008)

This is greenwashing – claiming environmental benefits for a product that's little better than its replacement – at its worst. PFOA is so remarkably persistent in the environment and broadly toxic to living organisms that using it as a bar against which to judge "green chemistry" is like calling anything under 200 miles per hour a safe speed limit. For C6 replacements, the full extent of the public record on their safety consists of a PowerPoint presentation delivered by Asahi Glass Company to the Environmental Protection Agency. Public records show that DuPont, Asahi, and Clariant are all shifting from PFOA to C6 chemistries despite an absolute dearth of public safety data, and despite the fact that on 3 critical counts, C6 may be as great a concern as PFOA:

  • C6, like all the other PFCs, is extraordinarily persistent in the environment (NAS 1972).
  • C6 is potentially 3 to 5 times more toxic than C8 to aquatic organisms (Asahi 2006).
  • C6 crosses the placenta to contaminate children before birth, according to an EWG study of umbilical cord blood from 10 newborn babies (EWG 2005). While many studies of thousands of people by CDC, industry, and academic university researchers show that PFOA contaminates nearly the entire U.S. population, industry has failed to publish even a single study of C6 in people. EWG's tests of cord blood show it to be potentially as great a concern as PFOA.

Truly green chemistry is sustainable chemistry with products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. Much remains unknown about C6, but what is known – that it is bioaccumulative, persistent and crosses the placenta to pollute human blood – is enough to disqualify it as green chemistry. Promoting a PFOA replacement that raises such serious safety concerns while simultaneously withholding critical toxicity data violates the spirit of the PFOA phaseout agreement and undermines the credibility of the entire industry.