You Call This ‘Leadership’? EPA Summit on Teflon-Like Chemicals Is 20 Years Too Late
WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt will hold a summit in May on the pervasive contamination of the nation’s drinking water with highly fluorinated chemicals. The summit will supposedly provide “critical national leadership” to states grappling with the issue – but in reality, it is the states who have taken the lead on mitigating the contamination crisis, while the EPA has dragged its feet for almost 20 years.
The EPA was first alerted to the dangers of this class of chemicals, known as PFASs or PFCs, in 2001. They are the nonstick, waterproof, stain-resistant compounds used for decades to make Teflon, Scotchgard, Gore-Tex and hundreds of other consumer products, as companies like DuPont and 3M covered up internal studies of their health hazards.
The chemicals have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity, endocrine disruption, obesity and other health problems. They build up in people’s bodies, can be passed from mother to child in the womb or through breast milk, and some of them never break down in the environment. But the EPA has failed to set national drinking water standards for PFASs, leading a growing number of states to set their own legal limits.
The motives behind the summit, how it will be conducted and who will be allowed to attend, are questions to which Americans deserve answers in light of Pruitt’s track record as EPA administrator. Last month, he held a summit on the “war on lead poisoning” with other Trump administration officials, but it was closed to the public and the press, and very little information on what was discussed was made available to reporters.
“We urge Scott Pruitt to give a strong voice to the states that have been pushing for much tougher standards to protect their citizens from the health hazards of PFAS chemicals in drinking water,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “In order for this summit to have any credibility with the American people, it must be open and independent scientists, public interest groups and the press must be allowed to participate and attend.”
Numerous states, including New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut and North Carolina have reviewed the science and have set or are considering setting legal limits much more stringent than the EPA’s non-binding health advisory level. The EPA advisory covers only two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, but there are thousands of PFASs in use.
In 2017, EWG and researchers with Northeastern University in Boston released a report detailing PFAS pollution in tap water supplies for 15 million Americans in 27 states, and from more than four dozen industrial and military sources from Maine to California. In another 2017 study, researchers from EWG and other public health groups found that many fast food chains were still using food wrappers, bags and boxes coated with PFAS chemicals.
PFAS chemicals’ dangers came to light in a 2001 class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 50,000 residents of the region surrounding a DuPont Teflon plant in West Virginia. In 2005, acting on a petition from EWG, the EPA fined DuPont a record $16.5 million, and the company and other manufacturers agreed to phase out PFOA, PFOS and closely related chemicals.
But chemical companies have introduced replacements that have not been adequately tested for safety, and the limited research available raises concerns that the alternatives are no safer.
In February 2017, DuPont and its spinoff company Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle about 3,500 lawsuits from West Virginia and Ohio residents whose drinking water was poisoned by the cancer-causing Teflon chemical. Last month, 3M settled with the state of Minnesota, agreeing to pay $850 million that will go toward cleaning up the state’s drinking water polluted with the company’s Scotchgard chemicals.