Ten Years Later, Chemical Safety and Justice for DuPont’s Teflon Victims Remain Elusive
Poisoned Legacy: Where Consumers Encounter PFCs today
PFC coatings are added to clothing, tablecloths, car seats, upholstery, jackets, shoes, tents and more for both their water repellency as well as their resistance to oil/dirt stains. (Berger 2006, OECD-UNEP 2013, Herzke et al. 2012) These textile coatings may be both an important source of both human exposure as well as a environmental contamination. (Bringewatt 2013) Textiles account for half of U.S. consumption of polyflurorinated chemicals and of similar compounds with slightly different structures known as fluorotelomers. (EPA 2015) The textile industry originally used PFOA- and PFOS-related chemicals but has shifted to next-generation PFCs.
In 2013, Greenpeace International tested 15 samples of waterproof clothing, shoes and swimsuits and found PFCs in all but one (Brigden 2013), with six-carbon and four-carbon PFCs the most common. (Brigden 2013) Testing by a consortium of industrial, retail, academic, government and NGO partners in Europe found that water repellent coatings on apparel predominantly rely on PFCs, with C8-based chemistry still a significant portion. (SUPFES 2015) In a study of PFC levels in outdoor clothing, Greenpeace found PFCs in all products tested from the following manufacturers (listed with the brands of treated fabric they use):
- Adidas (Gore-Tex, Formation)
- Columbia (Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective, Omni-Tech Waterproof Breathable)
- Jack Wolfskin (Texapore, Nanuk 300)
- Mammut (Exotherm Pro STR)
- Patagonia (Gore-Tex)
- The North Face (Gore-Tex, Primaloft One)
Greenpeace’s campaign pressured clothing companies in Europe to form the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Compounds group. Numerous companies have gone PFC-free or have pledged to do so, including H&M, Levi’s and Puma, while Adidas has pledged to eliminate PFCs from most of its products by 2017. (Adidas 2014, H&M 2015, Levi’s 2014, Puma 2014) Noticeably absent from the Zero Discharge group are outdoor gear and sportswear companies, most of which still used PFCs, including PFOA, as of a few years ago. Patagonia, whose brand is built on environmental responsibility, says of the challenge of finding safer alternatives:
The majority of our current products that are treated with DWR (durable water repellent) now use C6 fluorocarbon-based water repellents. These are PFOS-free, but PFOA is still detectable on the treated fabric at around 100 ppb (parts per billion)… Instead of removing individual fluorinated chemicals as potential health and safety concerns are identified, it may be preferable to search for a fluorocarbon-free water repellent as a long term solution. (Patagonia 2013)
In November 2005, a former DuPont engineer named Glenn Evers, who for 22 years had worked to find new uses for PFCs in food packaging, revealed that Teflon wasn’t the only DuPont product whose hazards had been kept secret. Since at least 1981, Evers said, the company had known that PFOA chemicals similar to those in its Zonyl RP paper coating for greaseproof food wrappers and pizza boxes were bioacccumulative. DuPont appears not to have told the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates chemicals in food and food packaging and relies on information submitted to EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
DuPont had known since 1987 that Zonyl RP wrappers could contaminate food with PFCs at more than three times the federal safety standard, and that two alternative chemicals leached into food at only half the federal standard. The company ignored Evers’ concerns that continuing to sell Zonyl RP was unethical. It shelved the safer alternatives and never told the FDA, its customers or the public. Evers dramatically demonstrated for news cameras how eating a hot French fry from a Zonyl RP fast food wrapper meant that consumers were putting PFCs directly into their bodies. (EWG 2005)
In the wake of the EPA fine and DuPont’s planned phase-out of PFOA, announced not long after Evers’ bombshell, fast food chains were pressured to drop PFC-coated food wrappers. Burger King stopped using fluorochemical-coated paper, and McDonald’s moved to PFOA-free coatings. (Munoz 2006) In 2008, California legislators passed a bill, sponsored by EWG, that would have banned PFOA from fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, beverage containers and other food packaging, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. (EWG 2008)
As with clothing, the replacement chemicals for food wrappers and food contact materials have not been adequately tested, and detailed information about them is hidden from the public as trade secrets. Currently, DuPont advertises that it makes four shorter-chain fluorochemical coatings in New Jersey and France that are approved for use in both “oven-heated and microwaveable packaging, such as popcorn bags and fast food wrappers.” (DuPont 2015B)
FDA guidance outlines basic toxicity tests that chemical manufacturers should undertake before seeking FDA approval. (FDA 2002) Very little to no testing would be expected based on exposure estimates that FDA has completed for 46 fluorinated chemicals published in their Cumulative Estimated Daily Intake database. More than half of the 46 fluorinated chemicals in its database, including PFOA, have exposure estimates below 0.5 parts per billion in food, which would lead to an FDA recommendation that “no safety studies are recommended.” (FDA 2002) To verify the safety of the remainder of the fluorinated chemicals with higher exposure estimates, FDA would still only recommend basic genotoxicity testing to determine whether the substance causes DNA damage in bacteria or cells. (FDA 2002, FDA 2015)
While the FDA does not make public its exposure estimates, toxicity data or other testing data it evaluated in approving the use of recent PFC chemicals, the agency is required to provide non-confidential information when requested through a Freedom of Information Act request. However, confidentiality claims hide nearly all useful information, including the chemical’s identity as well as data on rates of chemical leaching into food.
EWG and the Green Science Policy Institute, a California non-profit headed by one of the authors of the Madrid Statement, identified 93 PFCs that FDA has approved for use in non-stick and grease-resistant coatings. The vast majority of these materials are intended for use on paper and paperboard containers. Fifty of FDA’s food contact approvals have come since 2000. Many of the more recent approvals are replacements for PFOS- and PFOA-based coatings. (FDA 2015) These new coatings have been submitted to FDA by a number of companies, including DuPont, Solvay, Asahi, Dailin, Greene and 3M.
In 2008 EWG reviewed the FDA safety assessments and approvals made between 2002 and 2009 for food contact substances that replaced PFOA and C-8 based PFCs. We concluded that in approving four C6-based alternatives, the agency failed to:
- adequately assess how these coatings break down
- require safety studies of the underlying C6 chemical
- back up its assessment that the replacement would not be PFOS or PFOA
- adequately consider the long-term health consequences from exposure.
Since our 2008 analysis, FDA has approved 20 additional PFC chemicals and added them to the Inventory of Effective Food Contact Substances, a database of materials approved to come into contact with food. (Wang 2013, FDA 2015) Public information on the safety of these substances is largely non-existent.
Cosmetics also contain PFCs. EWG’s Skin Deep database identifies 251 products that contain PTFE, the Teflon chemical, in a wide range of products, from eye shadow to shaving cream to lip balm. Eye shadow, foundation, facial powder, bronzer and blush account for nearly 80 percent of the products with PFCs. Skin Deep® also identifies 15 other fluorinated chemicals in cosmetics.
Shamrock, a PTFE manufacturer, advertises PFC cosmetics ingredients for use in products to enhance skin feel and provide even application, water resistance and gloss. (Shamrock 2015) The Food and Drug Administration does not review the safety of cosmetics ingredients and no public studies of exposure to PFCs through cosmetic products have been completed.
Teflon is synonymous with non-stick pans. The first Teflon-coated pan was produced in 1961. (Robbins 1986) Many non-stick pans are produced in China, where in 2004 annual production reached 100 million pans, most for export. (JingJing 2004)
The non-stick coating in Teflon pans starts to break down when the pan is heated to near 500 degrees and significantly decomposes when the temperature goes over 660. DuPont recommends that consumers make that pet birds are not kept in or near the kitchen: “Cooking fumes, smoke and odors that have little or no effect on people can seriously sicken and even kill birds, often quite quickly.” (DuPont 2015C)
In 2003, testing commissioned by EWG showed that within minutes of turning on the stove, the temperature of an empty non-stick pan would exceed 500 degrees. After five minutes the tested pans reached temperatures that would induce significant material loss and generate a range of noxious breakdown products, including four particular toxic chemicals: perfluoroisobutane, hydrofluoric acid, carbonyl fluoride and monofluoroacetic acid. (EWG 2003)
Non-stick pans with the Teflon label are currently produced using short-chain PFOA replacements. DuPont advertises GenX, a processing aid that uses an oxygen atom to reduce the length of fluorinated carbon, to generate fluorinated plastics for use in non-stick coatings for cookware. (DuPont 2010) It is possible that imported non-stick pans are covered with a non-stick coating produced using PFOA.