Are PFCs, the compounds associated with pans, computers and clothes, truly benign?
Are PFCs, the compounds associated with pans, computers and clothes, truly benign?
ALL TYLER BRADLEY WANTED was to make ski and snowboard wax that was environmentally friendly. So, about four years ago, the 25-year-old entrepreneur started looking for alternatives to the petroleum by-products many manufacturers use. Bradley, owner of a modest start-up called Hillbilly Wax-Works in New Westminster, B.C., briefly considered perfluorochemicals—man-made chains of carbon tightly bound to fluorine, a gaseous element that is highly reactive. Several PFCs on the market are virtually indestructible and underpin a multi-billion-dollar inventory of consumer products with
bankable brand names such as Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex. Ski wax manufacturers use PFCs for their lowfriction properties. To Bradley, they seemed like a good idea at the time.
As he did his homework, though, Bradley was astounded by the extent to which these chemicals pollute the air and water. Studies now show PFCs are one of the most
closely by government regulators. (While these consumer products do not contain PFOA, the chemical is released into the environment during the manufacturing process.) Animal studies have linked PFOA to cancers of the liver, testes and pancreas, as well as thyroid and reproductive problems. Research on humans has been much more limited and largely inconclusive.
“Because once it’s out there, it’s out there— you can’t get rid of it.”
In North America, PFCs come mostly from Delaware-based E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., better known as DuPont. It has the exclusive U.S. manufacturing rights for PFOA. But these chemicals have also become, in their own way, a peculiarly Canadian problem. For one thing, “the Arctic is the most contaminated place in the world that we’ve observed,” says Scott Mabury, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto. What’s more, he adds, “The vast majority of research has all been done at Canadian universities.”
What this research, and that of others, is showing is that in addition to humans, PFOA
ubiquitous of man-made chemicals: they are found on four continents and reside in the blood of 90 per cent of North Americans; once absorbed, some take 20 years to be expunged—assuming no further exposure.
Some scientists now say PFCs, once thought to be biologically inert, may contribute to serious health problems. Wanting no part, Bradley chose to make his waxes out of hydrogenated vegetable glycerides— non-toxic, renewable, sustainable. “Our stuff has a best-before date,” he says. “But that’s a good thing—it breaks down—whereas this stuff that everyone else is hawking, I mean, it’s around for the long run.”
Several PFCs, including perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, a soap-like substance used to make such everyday items as Teflon cookware and the plastic insulation that covers computer wires, are now being looked at
To deal with the broad health concerns, however, Health Canada, Environment Canada, the European-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are all investigating PFOA and some of its related compounds. In January, the EPA released a draft report on PFOA, saying there was “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity, but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential.” Critics accused the EPA of flinching from its own guidelines. “If you need to be proactive about any chemical, this is it,” says Timothy Kropp, senior scientist at the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog.
is found in the blood of Arctic polar bears, Mediterranean dolphins, and cormorants on Lake Winnipeg. In fact, says a 2003 report by the Environmental Working Group, “as more studies pour in, PFCs seem destined to supplant DDT, PCBs, dioxin and other chemicals as the most notorious, global chemical contaminants ever produced.”
In a company report, DuPont acknowledges that the widespread prevalence of PFOA in human blood “raises questions that should be addressed.” But the company has repeatedly emphasized that there are no known human risks. Robert Rickard, science director of DuPont’s Haskell Laboratory for Health and Environmental Sciences, points out that the most consistent health issue in animal studies has been liver problems, which can lead to cancer. But he went on to note that the company’s own studies of its employees failed to show any disruption of liver enzyme activity—a telltale sign of damage. “Certainly, if you’re not seeing any health effects in workers who are at 100 to 3,000 higher exposure levels than the general population,” says Rickard, “then the levels in the general population would not pose a risk.”
Environmentalists are not so easily convinced. They note that the DuPont studies also pointed to higher levels of leukemia and cholesterol, a precursor to heart disease, among its workers, but that these rates could not be directly linked to PFC exposure. They
and pans are then heated to high temperatures to seal the coating, and that process, says DuPont, destroys the PFOA. The slurries are also sprayed on glassware, small appliances like curling irons, even stadium roofs.
The sister product fluorotelomers can be found in firefighting foams, paints and sealers, carpet and textile protectors, surgical garments and some grease-resistant food packaging. A new concern here, the Canadian research is finding, is that some of the volatile alcohols in this concoction evaporate and migrate all over the world, then break down over time into PFOA or related compounds.
One of the strongest allegations against these chemicals comes from Glenn Evers, a
variety of ways consumers could be exposed to PFOA through common household products such as cookware and clothing.” It considered absorption through the skin, through breathing, even orally. “The study left no doubt,” says DuPont’s Rickard. “The use of these products would not result in any quantifiable level in your blood.”
For this story, Maclean’s asked DuPont Canada to confirm a few facts about the PFOA saga. Four business days later, DuPont’s public and government affairs manager Roger Goodman arrived at Maclean’s offices in Toronto with Jennifer Hooper, DuPont Canada’s director of safety, health, environment and sustainability. With them were three executives who flew up from Delaware:
also point out that DuPont recently settled a massive lawsuit with residents living near one of its facilities, precisely to deal with community concerns. The science, however, does get complicated.
Perfluorochemicals can be divided into two subgroups: the fluoropolymers, and the fluorotelomers. PFOA is used to make fluoropolymers, which are shipped as powders, rice-like pellets, or mixed in water. These fluoropolymers are used to make telecommunication cables, electrical wiring in buildings, fuel injection lines in cars, and specialized processing trays for the semiconductor industry, among other things.
DuPont points out that these consumer and industrial products do not contain PFOA. The paint-like fluoropolymer slurries, for example, are sprayed on cookware to make non-stick Teflon. But the Teflon pots
former DuPont employee whom the company dismisses as “disgruntled.” He has said PFOA can be absorbed from french fry boxes, microwave popcorn bags and hamburger wrappers coated to prevent grease stains from seeping through. DuPont rejects that claim. To help allay public concern, it commissioned an independent study that was published in Environmental Science & Technology in April. That study used a computer model to simulate “a wide
PFCS can be found in the blood of polar bears, Mediterranean dolphins and 90 per cent of humans in North America
Rickard, Henry Bryndza, director of technology at DuPont Chemical Solutions Enterprise, and George Senkler, director of technology at DuPont fluoroproducts. The three U.S. executives did most of the talking. The meeting lasted 3lk hours.
They said PFCs are the stuff of our modern age. “These are truly essential materials for life as we know it today,” was how Senkler put it. They talked about the importance of firefighting foams. “Nothing else works like them,” said Bryndza. They argued that PFC in human blood has hovered at about five-parts-per-billion over the past 20 years, even though the use of PFC-related products has grown dramatically over the same time. They also argued that the rat studies that show health problems typically rely on unusually high doses of PFOA— in the range of 50 parts per million—which are unlikely to be duplicated in humans.
At the U of T, Mabury’s research team has just completed its own study, now under peer review. It found traces of fluorotelomer alcohols in seven materials, including popular consumer products such as Scotchgard carpet, Teflon Advanced Carpet Protector, and Motomaster Washer Fluid with Teflon. Based on his team’s observations of how these chemicals break down and the known amount of fluorotelomer production worldwide, Mabury estimates 250,000 kg of these volatile alcohols are released annually into the atmosphere. They would then be rained down into waterways, where they decompose into PFOA and other PFCs. “Finding ways to remove the telomer alcohols,” says Mabury, “seems to be a very clear-headed way of making a major contribution toward solving the problem.”
DuPont agrees. It is also trying to cut back on the more standard PFOA emissions at its plants. Between 1999 and 2004, DuPont reduced emissions at its facilities in West Virginia and New Jersey by 96 per cent, from 56 tons a year to just 2.25 tons. (Over that period, mind you, these factories released 170 tons into the atmosphere.) The company now has a plan in place to reduce the amount of PFOA in its spray-on fluoropolymer slurries by more than 90 per cent by the end of2006. It has the same deadline for reducing “trace PFOA content” in consumer products over the same period. The chemical giant, of course, is being pushed to take action.
Sanford Lewis, an environmental attorney in Amherst, Mass., represents DuPont Shareholders for Fair Value, a coalition organized by the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union. At DuPont’s annual meeting in Wilmington, Del., in April, Lewis tried to have a resolution adopted that would have forced the company’s board to disclose all costs associated with PFOA between 1981 and 2004. The resolution failed, but it garnered enough votes to allow Lewis to reintroduce it at next year’s gathering. As part of his argument, Lewis noted that last September DuPont settled a class action lawsuit with residents who live near its facility in Parkersburg, W. Va., where the company makes Teflon. The 60,000 residents were angry that PFOA had tainted their groundwater and DuPont settled the case for US$108 million. The deal included creation of an independent
panel to determine whether PFOA makes residents sick. If that turns out to be the case, DuPont will have to pay up to an additional US$235 million to monitor people’s health. That doesn’t include the cost of any personal injury suits that may arise.
DuPont could also face heavy fines tied to the outcome of an ongoing EPA investigation. The EPA alleges that, dating back to 1981, DuPont failed to inform the agency about at least one pregnant employee who passed PFOA along to her fetus. As well, the EPA alleges that DuPont never told the agency about PFOA contamination in drinking water near one of its plants in the early 1990s. The company vehemently disputes both of those claims. Because of PFOA, says Lewis, and the almost inevitable prospect
IN LARGE doses, PFCs can provoke cancers in rats. The human studies have been mostly inconclusive.
of more litigation, DuPont could end up taking a serious financial hit. “Will it turn out to have been worth it to the company?” asks Lewis. “I don’t know, but I know that these things tend to expand and often they tend to cost the company more than their initial calculus.”
According to financial analyst JP Morgan, DuPont’s PFOA-related product lines, coupled with the rest of its inventory of perfluorochemicals, accounted for US$1.23 billion in sales and US$100 million in profit in 2003— roughly 10 per cent of DuPont’s bottom line that year. In 2000, DuPont started making PFOA after 3M Company of Minnesota, its long-time supplier, quit the business. In the original formulation of Scotchgard Stain Protector, 3M had used a related compound, PFOS. But 3M was coming under increasing pressure from the EPA and other regulators because the active ingredient in the initial Scotchgard formula, since changed, was not biodegrading. When 3M announced it wanted out of the PFOA business, DuPont took up the slack. In the process, it inherited many of the headaches and, at the very least, an obligation to get to the bottom of a worldwide concern.
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