Chemical industry leaders have agreed to an EPA plan to phase out a chemical used to make Teflon, microwave popcorn bags, waterproof clothing, and many other products.
The chemical, PFOA (also known as C8), is a man-made chemical that persists in the environment. When it gets into the body, it stays there for a very long time. And it has somehow gotten into the bodies of nearly everyone on earth.
Most experts don’t think it’s hurting us—yet. Factory workers exposed to relatively high levels of PFOA don’t seem to have particularly severe health problems. But animal studies strongly suggest that when enough PFOA builds up in the body, it can cause cancer, liver damage, growth defects, immune-system damage, and death.
This week, the EPA announced a voluntary “PFOA stewardship” program asking the eight companies that make PFOA to stop. The program would reduce the use of PFOA by 95% by 2010. It would eliminate production of the chemical by 2015 at the latest.
That’s good, because it takes the body 10 years to eliminate PFOA from the body—if there’s no new exposure. And since the chemical is all over the earth, we’re always getting new exposures. Stopping production means that we won’t be exposed to increasing amounts of PFOA.
“Our risk assessment work is still under way and additional studies are in progress—but we’re not waiting for final answers,” EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones tells WebMD. “This stewardship program takes immediate steps to ensure that people are not exposed to increasing amounts of PFOA as time goes on.”
Teflon maker DuPont already has signed on to the plan. A chemical very similar to PFOA, called PFOS, was used by 3M Corp. to make Scotchgard and other products. In May 2000, after negotiations with EPA, 3M phased out PFOS use.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has been trying for years to get PFOA banned. The watchdog group praises the DuPont and 3M actions. Toxicologist Tim Kropp, PhD, is a senior scientist with Environmental Working Group.
“The EPA stewardship program is a really good framework for phasing out chemicals that have caused a very large public health problem in the U.S.,” Kropp tells WebMD. “It is going to phase out PFOA and any compound that breaks down into PFOA, whether as an emission from a factory or the breakdown of things in consumer products.”
Phasing out PFOAs doesn’t mean that we’ll have to give up having nonstick pans or waterproof clothing. Smaller molecules that don’t stick in the body can work just as well as PFOAs. Kropp says 3M switched to these safer chemicals five years ago.
What About My Nonstick Pans?
Kropp says nonstick pans, when overheated, give off fumes that kill birds. He’s quick to add that birds—such as the canaries once used in coal mines—are extremely sensitive to toxic substances. And he’s just as quick to add that Teflon and other nonstick pans aren’t major sources of PFOA.
PFOA is used to make nonstick pans. But nearly all of it burns off during manufacture.
“When making gravy, a cook might use vodka to deglaze a pan,” Kropp says. “But there’s no alcohol in the gravy—all the alcohol burns off. That is almost how nonstick pans are made. The little molecules evaporate off and aren’t in the pan anymore.”
That’s true, says Mary Dominiak, the coordinator for the EPA’s PFOA investigation.
“We do not expect to see significant PFOA in something like a frying pan,” Dominiak told WebMD last year.
Robert Rickard, PhD, DuPont’s chief toxicologist, stresses this point.
“With pots and pans, there is no exposure to PFOA,” he told WebMD last year. “That is based on studies we have conducted, and also on studies in Denmark and in China. There is absolutely not a consumer issue with this.”
Microwave Popcorn a Different Story?
What about all those other products that use PFOA? Kropp says that french fry boxes and microwave popcorn bags are coated with a film rich in PFOA. And he says PFOA “precursors”—chemicals that turn into PFOA—get eaten along with microwave popcorn.
But Susan Hazen, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, says there’s no evidence that consumer products are poisoning people with PFOAs.
“The information that we have available does not indicate that the routine use of household products poses a concern,” Hazen tells WebMD in an email interview. “At the present time, EPA does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using products because of concerns about PFOA.”
Kropp wishes the EPA could be even more help to consumers.
What it all comes down to is what is the consumer exposed to, and what can they do,” he says. “And while consumers can do some things—like microwave regular popcorn in a plain brown bag—they can’t do others. You shouldn’t have to have a PhD in toxicology to buy a pair of pants.”