(This article is 5 years old... not many changes since then.)
Man-made molecules in products, people
Kansas City Star, Scott Canon
Published March 21, 2006
Nonstick technology is, demonstrably, everywhere.
It's in the process that makes frying pans slippery. It's in the way carpeting and clothing shed stains. It produces rain gear that keeps us dry even as it lets out the moisture our bodies generate. It lines your carryout box so the grease from your moo goo gai pan won't seep onto your car's upholstery, which might be protected by the same stuff.
It's even - quite commonly and quite unnaturally - in your blood.
Indeed, while the toxic byproducts of Teflon and its industrial cousins may be more common inside our homes than outside, they also are found in Midwestern rain, in arctic snow, in waters of the South Pacific.
Scientists consulted by the government suggest these man-made molecules have the potential to cause cancer or birth defects.
And regulators are leaning on chemical makers to ease them out of the factory and, soon after, the marketplace.
"We're not arguing so much anymore if this is a harmful chemical," said Tim Kropp, a toxicologist for the Environmental Working Group. "Now the questions are, what are we going to do about this?"
Some in the chemical industry argue that point.
They contend the case for danger is yet unproven.
Still, the Environmental Protection Agency just proposed stricter rules for the category of chemicals known as perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOA and PFOS, respectively.
The regulators called for tighter control of manufacturers because the substances, they say, "may be hazardous to human health and the environment."
The EPA cited an international group's bolder finding that the chemicals are, in fact, "toxic to human health."
Last month, a panel of scientists gathered by the EPA concluded that the chemicals - particularly troublesome because they build up in the body and never break down in the environment - could cause cancer.
Science advisers recruited by the agency to look at studies concluded the chemicals have "shown liver, developmental, and reproductive toxicity at very low dose levels in exposed laboratory animals." Even the industry doesn't challenge the damage to lab rats, only whether those findings translate to humans.
PFOA is a processing aid used in making fluoropolymers. It can also be a byproduct in the manufacturing of fluorotelomers that coat surfaces in stain-fighting fabrics and in food wrapping that resists water, oil and grease. DuPont Co. is the largest maker of PFOA.
PFOS was made by 3M Co. and used in similar applications. But 3M announced in 2000 that because the chemical was turning up so widely in people and the environment, the Minnesota company was abandoning the technology for alternative chemistry. It continues to churn out Scotchgard and similar products, but made with new methods. The company still disputes that scientific studies prove the chemicals pose a health hazard to humans.
Meantime, DuPont and seven other companies - Arkema; Asahi; Ciba; Clariant; Daikin; 3M subsidiary Dyneon; and Solvay Solexis - have signed a voluntary agreement to cut their plant emissions and product content of the substance by 95 percent by 2010 and to eliminate them by 2015.
DuPont was the first to sign on to the voluntary agreement. Yet the company described it as a goal and said the company's ability to eventually abandon PFOA hinges on its success in coming up with something to replace it.
"We've looked for over 30 years and we've not been able to find an adequate replacement," said David Boothe, global business manager for Dupont Fluoroproducts.
Similarly, Asahi Glass Co. wrote EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson this month that "achieving this goal is dependent on the development, demonstration and availability to AGC of new technology as well as market acceptance of products utilizing this new technology."
The chemicals don't just play a part in easy-clean pans or pants. They are also critical to the manufacture of some computer chips and cables, to engine gaskets and aircraft hydraulics.
Businesses and consumers are reluctant to give them up. Partly because products and processes made with shorter molecule chains generally don't repel water and oils as well, and partly because change costs money.
When 3M phased out its use of PFOS, for instance, it reported that profits were down $168 million in 2000. Even now, the company relies on PFOA to make fluoropolymers at a German manufacturing plant.
For companies such as DuPont and 3M, the abandoning of chemicals they have played such a prominent role in producing creates an awkward situation. (Last year, DuPont agreed to pay $16.5 million to settle EPA claims that it withheld records on potential health risks associated with the chemical after its discovery in groundwater near a West Virginia plant.)
Both companies concede that their man-made chemicals are now spread wide in the environment and regularly found in Americans' bloodstreams - in 96 percent of people in some studies. They acknowledge, as well, that it is bioaccumulative - meaning that a person's level of contamination only increases over time.
Still, the firms insist the molecules are not proven to hurt people. Specifically, they cite studies of their own workers that have shown elevated levels of the long carbon-fluorine chains that make up the PFOS and PFOA - without any corresponding levels of health effects.
"We have decades of monitoring 3M employees and seen it in their blood and not seen any health effects," said Bill Nelson, 3M spokesman.
Experts are torn by the conflicting evidence. What damages cells in a petri dish may not hurt animals. What causes cancers and other illnesses in laboratory animals may not translate to a danger in humans. Joseph DeSimone, director of the National Science Foundation's Science & Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes, called it "compelling that the people who work for DuPont and 3M appear unharmed."
He also said that may only be a part of the relevant picture. Studies on workers don't look directly on the effects of pregnant women, fetuses in the womb, children or the elderly. Besides, he said, the direction set by the EPA means "the writing is on the wall" - companies will have to move away from the technology.
Pressure is rising. The United Steelworkers, with membership in many of the chemical plants, recently joined environmental groups in calling for PFOA products to carry hazard warnings under a California law.
Union spokeswoman April Dreeke said that mounting studies of both humans and laboratory animals suggest the danger is real. "We can no longer conclude (the chemicals) will not present unreasonable risk to human health or the environment."
Lawsuits could be on the horizon. New York environmental law firm Weitz & Luxenberg posted a Web site article stating it "is preparing to help thousands of individuals who may have been harmed."
Retooling factories and redesigning manufacturing operations takes time and cash. But Paul Anastas, the director of the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute, said it can be done.
"We know how to design these molecules," he said. "You have to be determined to innovate."
Where are PFOS and PFOA, the man-made chemicals, found?
In small levels on nonstick cookware such as Teflon
In some microwavable popcorn bags
On papers used to line pizza delivery boxes
On many kinds of food packaging, especially on paper containers designed to resist oil, water and grease, such as fast-food french fry boxes or sheets used to handle pastries
In some denture cleaners
In firefighting foams
In floor polishes
In metal plating and electronic etching baths
On carbonless paper forms
On photographic film
In various cosmetics
Industry and environmentalists disagree over the danger to humans, but those worried about the effects of the chemicals suggest:
Eating fast food off a plate rather than out of coated papers and boxes. This reduces the time the food is in contact with treated surfaces.
Not worrying much about Teflon or other nonstick cookware. Only at temperatures above 500 degrees, typically above those used for boiling or frying, is the coating expected to release the chemicals at low levels.
Avoiding stain-resistant products that rely on the technology, especially after-market treatments. Scotchgard, however, now uses an alternative technology.