Teflon Chemical Harmful at Smallest Doses

EPA's "Safe" Level is Hundreds or Thousands of Times Too Weak

August 20, 2015

Teflon Chemical Harmful at Smallest Doses: Phased out, but still a threat

Both PFOA and PFOS belong to a class of non-stick, waterproof, grease-proof chemicals historically called PFCs.13 Under pressure from EPA, 3M stopped making PFOS in 2002, and in 2005 DuPont agreed to phase out PFOA by this year. Those two chemicals are no longer produced in the U.S.

But DuPont and other chemical companies are marketing a new generation of PFCs with similar chemical structures. The few studies conducted on these new chemicals show that they may also have serious health risks. But the weak and outdated federal Toxic Substances Control Act has allowed them onto the market without adequate safety testing. Grandjean and Clapp wrote that “the greatly underestimated health risks from [PFOA] and [PFOS] illustrate the public health implications of assuming the safety of incompletely tested industrial chemicals.”

The new science demands urgent action to set stricter and legally enforceable limits on PFOA in drinking water. The threat to public health is most severe in the mid-Ohio Valley and the state-level test results reveal a problem nationwide. But federal regulators are moving at a glacial pace.

EPA was first alerted to PFOA pollution in the mid-Ohio Valley in 2001. Not until 2009 did it produce the current advisory level, which it called a “reasonable, health-based hazard concentration above which action should be taken to reduce exposure.”14 Last year, EPA released a draft15 of its proposed “reference dose” – an estimate of how much a person can safely consume daily over a lifetime. That proposed reference dose would translate to a legal limit for PFOA of 0.1 ppb.

That’s a quarter of the current advisory level but still more than 300 times the safe level put forth by Grandjean and Clapp. What’s more, the EPA draft study says that PFOA exposure is only “suggestive of carcinogenicity,” again disregarding the findings in 2006 of EPA’s own Science Advisory Panel that PFOA is a “likely” human carcinogen.

EPA’s draft study and the findings of the nationwide water sampling will drive the decision of whether to set a legal limit for PFOA in drinking water, and it is far from certain that the agency will act. In February of last year, Nancy Stoner, EPA’s acting water chief, told Inside EPA: “The agency expects that we will have sufficient information to determine whether it is appropriate to develop a drinking water regulation for PFOA within the next 5 to 7 years.”16

In other words, EPA officials think they need as much as seven years to decide whether to even propose a legal limit for PFOA. If they do make a proposal, the rule-making process is so protracted that many more years could elapse without a legal maximum for a compound whose threat to health at low doses has been confirmed by scores of peer-reviewed studies.

13 Polyfluorinated chemicals. Most researchers now use the broader term poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

14 U.S. EPA, Provisional Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS. January 8, 2009. Available:  water.epa.gov/action/advisories/drinking/upload/2009_01_15_criteria_drinking_pha-PFOA_PFOS.pdf

15 U.S. EPA, Health Effects Document for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), draft, February 2014. Available: peerreview.versar.com/epa/pfoa/pdf/Health-Effects-Document-for-Perfluorooctanoic-Acid-(PFOA).pdf

16 Yohannan, InsideEPA.com, op. cit. Available: insideepa.com/daily-news/epa-proposes-first-time-risk-values-chronic-pfc-exposures.