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New EPA Guidelines on PFCs Welcome – but Still Fall Short

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Today the Environmental Protection Agency issued a long-awaited drinking water health advisory for the perfluorinated chemicals PFOA and PFOS. But EPA’s advisory falls far short of what’s needed to fully protect public health, and it is not a legally enforceable limit.

PFOA was formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon, and PFOS was formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchguard. Both chemicals were also used for firefighting at military airfields and commercial airports. They were phased out after revelations that the manufacturers had withheld decades of studies showing that the chemicals were extraordinarily persistent in the environment and build up in people’s blood.

Since then, EPA-mandated tests have found these and related chemicals in the drinking water of more than 6.5 million people in 27 states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says both substances contaminate the blood of almost all Americans, and they can be passed from mothers to unborn children. A robust body of independent research has linked the chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, endocrine disruption and other health problems.

The EPA’s new health advisory for the combined level of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion­ – less than one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. EPA says that at this level, the chemicals are “not expected to result in adverse health effects over a lifetime of exposure.”

Disturbingly, however, new evidence suggests that there may be no safe level of exposure. Research published in August of last year by Phillipe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, concluded that an “approximate” safe level for these chemicals would be no more than 1 part per trillion – 70 times lower than EPA’s new advisory level. And EWG’s own analysis of Grandjean and Clapp’s data showed that the true safe level is even lower – 0.3 parts per trillion. EPA did not base today’s drinking water advisory level on this research but noted that it “could reflect a window of susceptibility in early childhood.”

The EPA based its advisory on studies showing that exposure during critical windows of development in the womb or through breast milk after birth led to developmental changes. Studies in lab animals have found that exposure to PFOA led to accelerated puberty in males and reduced formation and solidification of bone, while exposure to PFOS led to decreased weight.

For the first time EPA is now advising that authorities responsible for the drinking water quality should take into account cumulative exposures to both developmental toxicants. This also raises important questions about other PFC contaminants in water and whether cumulative exposures to the entire class of similar chemicals should be considered.

Importantly, the new advisory level is not a legally enforceable limit. EPA has said it could be 2019 or beyond before the agency even decides whether to start the process of setting a legal limit.

EPA’s limited action today comes 15 years after the agency was first alerted to the severe PFOA contamination of drinking water near DuPont’s Teflon plant in West Virginia, and two years before that to 3M’s studies showing deaths among monkeys exposed to low level of PFOS. The weak and outdated federal chemical safety law limits the agency’s ability to move promptly and decisively, but the ever-widening evidence of contamination shows that this is a nationwide public health crisis.

EPA must move more quickly to protect Americans’ health.

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