A mysterious chemical linked to the coatings on take-out food cartons and raincoats is “likely” to cause cancer in humans, according to a draft report by a panel of an independent advisory board to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Scientists are not sure how the chemical – perfluorooctanoic acid – is getting into humans, but it is found widely in human blood throughout the United States. Some researchers believe the source is the deterioration of water- and grease-repellant coatings used on carpets, raincoats and takeout food boxes.

The “likely” finding represents a significant step up from the agency’s own preliminary determination, in January, that the chemical was a “potential” cause of cancer. If the agency accepts the new label, it is expected to conduct a full-scale risk assessment to determine whether the chemical is dangerous at current levels in humans.

The chemical also is used to make the form of Teflon that is used on non-stick pots and pans. But this kitchenware is not believed to be a source of exposure for most people. PFOA has, however, been found in drinking water near Parkersburg, W.Va., where DuPont Co. uses the chemical to make Teflon.

PFOA is classified as a “persistent” chemical, meaning it takes decades to break down in the environment.

Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the panel’s draft report is cause for concern.

“Our view is that this compound should be banned, because it’s a carcinogen, and it persists in the environment forever,” said Richard Wiles, the group’s senior vice president.

Officials at DuPont, which makes PFOA as well as the grease-repellant coatings that are believed to break down into the chemical, declined to comment on the report’s specifics, citing its preliminary nature.

The draft report “is one step in an ongoing process,” company officials said in a statement. “DuPont believes that the weight of evidence suggests that PFOA exposure does not cause cancer in humans, and does not pose a health risk to the general public.”

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said the agency also would not comment, citing the same reason. EPA has accused DuPont of concealing information about the health risks of the chemical, a charge the company denies. The company faces a potential multi-million dollar fine related to the case.

Based on animal studies, the panel called for studying how much the chemical raises the human risk of getting breast, pancreatic and testicular cancers.

Tim Kropp, a toxicologist at Environmental Working Group, said his analysis showed the biggest risk is breast cancer. Using EPA software to analyze data from a study by 3M scientists, Kropp said, he determined that more than half the population of U.S. women face an added 1 in 1,000,000 risk of breast cancer because of PFOA. For some women, the added risk is as much as 1 in 1,000, Kropp said.

While the panel members said the chemical was “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” they said there was not enough data to estimate the likelihood. The draft report is to be discussed at a public teleconference held by the EPA’s scientific advisory board July 6.

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