The Great Experiment

posted on:
April 14, 2005

author:
Staff

category:
Environmental

 Better living through chemistry carries hidden risks. 

Sometime in late 1997,3M Corp. Medical Director Dr. Larry Zobel learned of a troubling stain on his company’s signature product.

Everyone’s blood in the United States apparently was contaminated with a tiny amount of a chemical used to make Scotchgard, his company’s famously successful stain resistant spray.

Zobel discovered this as his lab was checking workers’ blood for perfluorooctanes ulfonate, or PFOS – a key chemical used to manufacture the product.

That the compound contaminated workers’ blood came as no surprise. But the chemical was showing up in the supposedly clean blood samples used to verify the results.

So 3M contacted two biological supply companies, bought pooled samples representing about 765 random United States blood donors and ran the same test.

If found PFOS in every sample.

Zobel then went to the Red Cross and asked for samples from about 600 different donors. Same result. He turned to Europe, pooling samples from blood banks in Belguim, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Same result.

Zobel’s lab would go on to test the blood from 238 elderly people around Seattle, 645 more Red Croos donors, and 598 U.S. children.

It would find the compound in every sample but two, with some children scoring at or above the level 3M found in its workers.

“I would’ve never predicted it,” Zobel said. “I am amazed.”

PFOS and a related chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, are critical for many consumer and industrial products -from GoreTex and Teflon to firefighting foam, power plant pipe linings and jet engine gaskets.

But in 2000, after 50 years of providing the world with the chemical, 3M announced it would cease production of both compounds.

Advances in synthetic chemistry have made our lives more comfortable and secure than possible even a generation ago. GoreTex, nylon and polystyrene are the fabric of our lives. Perfumes come from petroleum. You can shop all day and touch nothing but plastic.

In short, synthetic chemicals are the material foundation of our society. The downside of that transition is increasingly apparent: In the course of a generation, we have contaminated virtually all of Earth’s biological systems.

“Every day we expose millions of people to chemicals and chemical mixtures for which the toxicity is unknown,” said Michael Wilson, a research scientist with the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

“A disturbing pattern of human health damage has emerged that appears to be linked to synthetic chemical substances.”

Regulators did not realize how widespread PFOA and PFOS exposure were until 3M alerted them. They had no way to test for the compounds until 3M provided the method. They had no idea how long they stayed in our bodies until 3M scientists offered an estimate – four years for PFOA and eight for PFOS until the body rids itself of just half the load.

Society’s blindness to PFOA and PFOS is far from unique.

The EPA receives 108 applications on average per month from companies seeking to introduce new chemicals on the market – 32,559 since 1979. With the application comes “all available data” on production volume, use and environmental release but not a word on toxicity unless the manufacturer happens to have some data.

Other information the EPA might want – be it the chemical’s effects, physical properties, health impact – comes from agency files or public databases. And the burden rests with the EPA to prove a problematic chemical should be restricted.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that, since 1979, the agency has forced restrictions on just nine applications.

3M and one of its largest customers, DuPont, had every reason to suspect fluorinated compounds like PFOA and PFOS would show up far from the garments and carpets their products protected.

As early as the 1970s, company documents obtained by the Environmental Working Group show industry researchers knew the compounds were virtually indestructible.

That is one of their greatest selling points.

“They’re just essential,” said Robert Buck, a chief scientist for DuPont’s surface protection solutions division. “They’re very, very stable at very high temperatures. We’re still selling these materials, even though they’re expensive, because they’re extraordinarily useful.”

The stability also explains why they show up in the blood of virtually everyone tested. Half the people in the United States, based on 3M’s and other scientists’ estimates, have 30 or more parts-per-billion PFOS in their system. For PFOA, the median exposure is 5 ppb.

Mashed potatoes seasoned at that concentration would have five grains of salt among 11 0 pounds of spuds.

The question now is straightforward: Does exposure pose a problem for our health? Because we can’t go back.

“We don’t understand how much a rat, let alone a human, can withstand before long-term effects begin to catch up,” said Jonathan Martin, an associate professor with the University of Alberta, who is studying fluorinated compounds.

“We don’t know what the long-term consequences are.”

Problem is, industry has no replacement for PFOA.

So when 3M announced it was out of the PFOA business, industry sat up.

Someone needed to make it.

Today at DuPont’s sprawling Fayetteville Works production facility in North Carolina, a modest plant produces the United States’ only domestic supply of PFOA.

DuPont started building the plant in 2000, after 3M’s announcement.

PFOA serves only one purpose: to mix oil and water. Technically a “processing aid,” not an ingredient, PFOA acts much the way a few drops of soap do when added to a jar of water and cooking oil.

“It helps bring things together that normally wouldn’t get together,” Buck said.

Without it, we would have no Teflon, no Stainmaster, no GoreTex. Car engines would be larger and less efficient without PFOA-made polymers to withstand higher oil and engine temperatures.

DuPont maintains the chemical is largely obliterated during the manufacture of consumer goods. Trace amounts might exist in some products, but nothing approaching levels found in humans, the company says.

So how does it get everywhere around the globe? Scientists have lots of theories but are largely certain of one thing: Somehow this compound is, contrary to industry’s claim, ending up in everyday consumer items – our pots, coats, carpets and clothing.

“If you’re thinking global spread, it’s the products,” said Kurunthachalam Kannan, an associate professor at the State University of New York in Albany, School of Public Health.

But that’s where the knowledge largely ends.

In that way, PFOA is part-way down a well-trod path blazed first by PCBs, DDT, hexane and asbestos. All went on the market with, at best, an incomplete understanding of their health effects. All were largely unstudied until problems began showing up. All have been banned or sharply limited.

But chemical policy is driven by our demand for products. The benefit of the doubt goes to the chemical. Regulators and activists must prove harm before restrictions kick in.

Federal law, in place since 1979, directs regulators to assess the hazards of chemicals in commerce and control those of the greatest concern. But in the past 20 years, four agencies – the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the U.S. EPA – have said little progress has been made on either front. The Toxic Substances Control Act, they all conclude, has fallen short of
its objective.

“Do we know there’s a hazard?” asked Wilson, the UC Berkeley researcher.

“We don’t even have the data to begin thinking about it.”

But don’t blame industry alone. Our appetite for these chemicals drives the market – and to some extent, regulators.

In the past 25 years, the country’s consumption of synthetic chemicals increased 8,200 percent, Wilson said. Looking just at the 100 highest-volume compounds, the United States put 975 billion pounds into our products and environment in 2002, 16 percent more than in 1992.

When the law went into effect in 1979, PFOA, PFOS and 58,000 other chemicals already in use got grandfathered in, no questions asked. Of the 32,550 applications for new chemicals received since, 1,662 were with drawn after the EPA suggested changes or restrictions, 300-plus underwent more testing and a handful were flat-out rejected.

Thousands of chemicals are found in everyday consumer products. The EPA has full toxicity data for about 25 percent.

Industry officials repeatedly note that a few parts-per-billion of a contaminant in one’s blood represents an unknown threat.

“It gets to be a little exasperating,” said Peter O’Toole, U.S. program director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, which represents the world’s bromine manufacturers. “Why don’t we talk about the levels of risk when you take a fire retardant out of a product?

“You’re replacing a real precaution with a theoretical one.”

And that perhaps is the point. The information to make a decision isn’t there. Which makes it awfully tough to make a case for banning a compound as important – or as invisible – as PFOA or PBDE.

If the EPA said industry couldn’t make any more PFOA, for instance, would our health be any better?

“We don’t know,” said Martin, the University of Alberta researcher. “Until that’s straightened out, it’s difficult to take any action. It’s not fair to the manufacturer and it may not do anything.”

Back at DuPont, Robert Rickard, the company’s chief toxicologist, has spent a lot of time thinking about that very issue.

He looks at PFOA’s persistence and global reach and, without downplaying them, pulls out another set of statistics.

The chemical has been in commerce for the better part of 50 years. Products made from it permeate every facet of our lives. Tests on archived blood samples show exposures are increasing almost imperceptibly: about 1 ppb a decade.

So in a society in which tobacco use kills 440,000 every year and obesity is an epidemic, how important is it to get worked up over PFOA, a contaminant that might be present in microscopic amounts in a fast-food hamburger’s wrapper or your Stain master-treated carpet?

“It is appropriate, when we identify a bio-persistent material found in the entire population, that we understand that chemical,” Rickard said.

“But let’s not overreact because that chemical is there.”

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