Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging

How Green is DuPont's Alternative?

June 9, 2008

Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging: Recommendations

For more than 50 years DuPont, 3M and other companies produced PFOA for a stunning range of consumer products and dumped it into the environment in amounts that have left a long-term legacy of pollution. PFOA contaminates 98% of the American population, taints drinking water supplies in at least 11 states around the country, and pollutes people and wildlife the world over, including polar bears in the Arctic. It crosses the placenta to contaminate nearly every baby before the moment of birth, and is now linked to a broad range of health problems in ten studies of the general public and workers at fluorochemical plants.

Since this tragedy was uncovered beginning in 2000, public pressure forced 8 companies, including DuPont and 3M, to sign a voluntary agreement with EPA to phase out the use of PFOA by 2015. Outcomes in the government and courts have not been voluntary, and include DuPont's obligation to fund health studies of people with contaminated drinking water, and to pay to EPA the largest administrative fine of its type in the Agency's history for failing to divulge, as required by federal law, that PFOA crosses the placenta to pose significant risks to the health of the child developing in the womb.

Yet despite the embarrassment that DuPont's public thrashing must have brought, all indications are that the company and their competitors are launching a repeat performance, replacing PFOA with a chemical called C6 that, like PFOA, is extraordinarily persistent in the environment and crosses the placenta to pose risks to babies during development. DuPont is calling this "green chemistry." And the fluorochemical industry is engineering this wholesale shift in the market without publishing a single study on the safety of this alternative.

Companies place human health and the environment at risk when they expose the population to chemicals that haven't been proven safe, that get into people's bodies, and that pollute the environment indefinitely. To remedy this situation, we recommend the following:

  • The California legislature should pass SB1313, a bill that would prohibit the use of food packaging chemicals that are contaminated with or break down into C6, PFOA, PFOS, and/or related chemicals. This bill would have national and potentially global benefits as market changes filter out from California. And when passed, it will be the only enforceable ban of PFOA and related chemicals in the country. Eight companies are phasing out their use of PFOA by 2015, but chemical companies in China and many other parts of the world have expressed no such intention. As a result, the United States could still import PFOA-containing food packaging for years to come. SB1313 would keep these toxic food packaging products out of the state. C6, a key PFOA replacement chemical, has not been proven safe. Instead, it has already been shown to cross the placenta to contaminate babies in utero. Its inclusion in the final SB1313 bill is critical.

  • The U.S. Congress should close the loophole that allows EPA and other federal public health agencies to deny states access to critical public health data on industrial chemicals, and that allows chemical companies near carte blanche to claim as confidential business information any health and safety data submitted to the government, including even the identity of the chemical. This lack of transparency severely hampers the ability of states to set policies that protect public health when the federal government fails to do so. This gap must be closed.

As well established by science and acknowledged by the FDA, food packaging chemicals can migrate into food. People ingest them, and can be exposed to significant amounts that pose risks. Persistent chemicals that pollute human blood have no place in food packaging.

The health risks from food packaging chemicals add to the risks from hundreds of other industrial chemicals that contaminate the human body. EWG studies show an average of 200 industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in newborn babies. Federal law fails to require that companies test industrial chemicals for safety before they are sold and does not mandate that FDA, EPA or any other public health agency consider the totality of human exposures to toxic chemicals when assessing potential health risks, including risks from food packaging chemicals like PFOA and C6-based chemicals. Ultimately, it will take broad reform of public health protections at the federal level to fix this badly broken system; such reform must require that companies test chemicals for safety before they are sold in order to protect the health of children and others who are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of chemical exposures.