Teflon, Other Chemicals Receive Greater EPA Scrutiny

Published July 11, 2016

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has instituted new health advisories for chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon cookware, plastics, and fabrics.

EPA’s action came in response to the discovery of traces of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) being found in groundwater sources in New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont.

EPA’s May 19 guidelines reduce the acceptable level of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and PFOA in water supplies from 600 parts per trillion to 70 parts per trillion. According to EPA, this change will improve safety against the possible health effects caused by long-term exposure to the chemicals. The two compounds were commonly used in popular consumer products—including Teflon, fire-fighting foams, stain-resistant products, and for weather proofing—until they were voluntarily phased out of production in the United States between 2000 and 2002.

Some companies outside the United States still manufacture the substances and leftover traces of the chemicals remain at some former production facilities, in landfills, and in water supplies. 

PFOA-Infected Water

Investigators in New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont found relatively high concentrations of the chemicals near former and currently active chemical manufacturing facilities. In response to this discovery, the environmental advocacy group Environmental Working Group (EWG), wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking for the agency to limit exposure to the chemicals.

In its letter, EWG requested EPA “set an enforceable drinking-water standard for the chemical and to force former manufacturers to disclose all sites in the U.S. where they used, made or dumped PFOA.”

Rather than set an enforceable standard, EPA decided to issue non-enforceable, non-regulatory health advisories concerning the chemicals. Although such advisories do not amount to enforceable regulations, water systems usually try and meet EPA health advisory standards for drinking water quality. Environment & Energy News calculated the new limit is the “equivalent of a drop of water in 3 ½ Olympic-sized swimming pools.” 

‘Guidelines,’ Not Regulations

In its statement announcing the guidelines, EPA said, “EPA is committed to supporting states and public water systems as they determine the appropriate steps to reduce exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.”

Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who manages its Safechemicalpolicy.org program, says despite EPA’s action, people have little to fear from the miniscule amounts of these chemicals they might be exposed to.

“EPA’s advisory concerning these chemicals has set an extremely cautious standard, creating the impression many communities have ‘dangerous’ levels of these chemicals in their water supplies, but there is no reason to panic,” Logomasini said. 

No Hard Science

Logomasini says a 2014 study in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology found PFOA and PFOS are not linked to human cancer development or other associated health risks.

“Activists and EPA raise fears about traces of these chemicals in our water based on very limited data, mostly studies finding associations between people supposedly exposed to higher-than-average levels and health problems,” said Logomasini. “Such associations do not prove cause and effect and often occur by mere chance, with other studies finding no association or producing inconsistent findings.”

Logomasini says money, not sound science, is at the heart of the fears raised by EPA’s PFOA and PFOS health advisories.

“Even though EPA’s advisory is non-binding it is generating unwarranted fear and bolstering efforts by trial lawyers seeking to cash in by continuing to extort money from companies that once manufactured products containing these chemicals,” Logomasini said.

Michael McGrady ([email protected]writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.