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PFCs: Global Contaminants

PFCs: Global Contaminants

Consumers instantly recognize them as household miracles of modern chemistry — Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex.
Thursday, April 3, 2003

Consumers instantly recognize them as household miracles of modern chemistry, a family of substances that keeps food from sticking to pots and pans, repels stains on furniture and rugs, and makes the rain roll off raincoats. Industry makes use of the slippery, heat-stable properties of these same chemicals to manufacture everything from airplanes and computers to cosmetics and household cleaners.

But in the past five years, the multi-billion dollar “perfluorochemical” (PFC) industry, which underpins such world-famous brands as Teflon, Stainmaster, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex, has emerged as a regulatory priority for scientists and officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The PFC family is characterized by chains of carbon atoms of varying lengths, to which fluorine atoms are strongly bonded, yielding essentially indestructible chemicals that until recently were thought to be biologically inert. No one thinks so now.

A flood of disturbing scientific findings since the late 1990s has abruptly elevated PFCs to the rogues gallery of highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent chemicals that pervasively contaminate human blood and wildlife the world over. As more studies pour in, PFCs seem destined to supplant DDT, PCBs, dioxin and other chemicals as the most notorious, global chemical contaminants ever produced. Government scientists are especially concerned because unlike any other toxic chemicals, the most pervasive and toxic members of the PFC family never degrade in the environment.

The U.S. EPA peremptorily forced one member of this family off the market in 2000: PFOS, the active ingredient used for decades in the original formulation of 3M’s popular Scotchgard stain and water repellent. Shortly thereafter, 3M also stopped manufacture of a related perfluorochemical, called PFOA, that is now under intense regulatory pressure at EPA. 3M formerly sold PFOA to DuPont, which has used PFOA for half a century in the manufacture of Teflon. (DuPont now now makes the chemical itself at a new facility in North Carolina.) Alarmed by findings from toxicity studies and by the presence of PFOA in the blood of more than 90 percent of the U.S. population, EPA is expected to announce initial steps to regulate the chemical in early April (2003).

This report provides the first, comprehensive review ever published of the pollution and health risks posed by PFCs, with special reference to PFOA. It is based on a review of 50,000 pages of regulatory studies and government documents obtained from EPA; internal documents from DuPont and 3M disclosed in ongoing litigation; and an examination of a growing body of independent studies on the toxicity and environmental occurrence of PFCs.

This report also explains how major companies like 3M and DuPont, who endlessly boast about their scientific prowess, could get away with permanently contaminating the entire planet for decades amid assurance from the chemical industry that it practices “responsible care” with respect to public health and the environment.