January 31, 2006

EPA probes safety of key chemical in Teflon
Majority of advisory panel calls it a 'likely' carcinogen; changing french-fry cartons

The Wall Street Journal
by Sara Schaefer Munoz

The push by federal regulators last week to cut back on certain chemicals used to make nonstick, water-repellent and grease-resistant products could affect an array of consumer goods.

The Environmental Protection Agency is pressuring eight companies to reduce the presence of a group of chemicals that are used in the manufacture of such things as nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food containers, carpeting, nail polish and stain-resistant clothing.

Yesterday, an EPA advisory group issued a statement, saying the majority of its members agree that the main chemical under review -- perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA -- is a "likely" cancer-causing agent. However the group, made up of outside experts, failed to agree unanimously on this likelihood and recommended further study. The findings come after a lengthy review of EPA data on the chemical, including studies linking it to cancer in rats, and indicating that PFOA is found in many people's blood.

The EPA says it will review the findings of the panel, issue a final report assessing the risks, and take any necessary regulatory steps. Already some companies, including DuPont Co., 3M Co. and McDonald's Corp., say they are reducing their use of PFOA-related products or emissions of PFOA.

So far, the EPA has said that use of products that involve PFOA is safe. "The information that we have available doesn't indicate that the routine use of household products poses a concern," said Susan Hazen, EPA's acting assistant administrator for the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins.

A large part of the EPA's concerns center on the release of PFOA into the environment during the manufacturing process. PFOA is a vital processing aid in the manufacture of nonstick coatings, such as the Teflon found in cookware. But the agency is also trying to determine whether trace amounts of the chemical left over in final products can get into people's bodies and pose risk

In addition, the agency is looking at so-called precursor chemicals, called telomers, that can break down into PFOA. Telomers are used to make grease-, stain- and water-resistant coatings such as those used on french-fry containers or outerwear. Telomers released during manufacturing are known to break down into PFOA. But the EPA is also looking into whether telomers in the products themselves can break down, possibly through wear and tear, and cause adverse health effects in humans.

Regulators stepped up their focus on PFOA in humans in 2003 after the EPA took samples from three random population groups and found low-levels residues of the chemical in many people's blood. Given the widespread presence of PFOA in humans, in contrast with the limited number of factories making or using the chemical, EPA concluded that human exposure couldn't come only from direct industrial pollution. So officials set out to determine how people are exposed and to determine their risk.

DuPont, of Wilmington, Del., is the only U.S. manufacturer of PFOA, and is also the maker of Teflon, the popular nonstick coating. Teflon and other so-called fluoropolymers are manufactured using PFOA and constitute a $1.5 billion industry in the U.S. In addition to cookware, DuPont says the Teflon brand is used in products with water and stain-resistant coatings, like windshield wipers, carpeting and nail polish.

DuPont says that any remnants of PFOA found in final products are tiny. And in response to the EPA panel's statement, the company reiterated that the chemical hasn't been linked to cancer in humans. Last week, DuPont said it had committed to "virtually eliminate" sources of exposure by 2015, and has already reduced manufacturing emissions by 94%.

Scientists at the Environmental Working Group, an activist group in Washington that has been sharply critical of DuPont in the past, note that the government hasn't identified threshold safety levels of PFOA in the human body. "There is no context for high or low levels," said Lauren Sucher, the group's director of public affairs.

To minimize risk of exposure to the chemical, the group suggests avoiding fabrics treated with stain repellents and keeping the stove on low to medium heat when using nonstick cookware. They point to a 2001 study in the journal Nature that showed PFOA was released from nonstick cookware when it was heated to 680 Fahrenheit -- a temperature that can be reached after about five minutes on medium to high heat.

Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association, says that most stove-top cooking wouldn't require temperatures above 500.

A study conducted by researchers from the Food and Drug Administration published in October, found residual levels of PFOA in some cookware, but said "extreme heating did not appear to increase the residual amount of PFOA." It did find, however, PFOA in microwave popcorn bags made with grease-repellent coatings, and said the agency continues to study people's possible exposure to fluorochemicals through packaging.

One reason telomers and fluoropolymer coatings are so widespread is because alternatives have been hard to develop. A spokesman for Akzo Nobel, a Netherlands-based maker of nonstick coating used in major cookware brands, said the company has been exploring alternatives to fluoropolymer coatings made with PFOA without success. The substitutes the company has looked at couldn't withstand the same temperatures and don't have the same nonstick properties. "The food would stick a little bit more" with these alternate products, said general manager Harold Dodd.

ConAgra Foods Inc., which owns the popcorn brands Act II and Orville Redenbacher, said last week that they use packaging made with a material that has PFOA as "a trace impurity" but that no PFOAs migrate into the final product.

Even before EPA's request, some of the eight manufacturers and users of PFOA cited had already begun to stop using it. 3M/Dyneon Co., a unit of 3M Co., says it began a PFOA phase-out in 2000 and stopped manufacturing it in 2004 because the company wanted to focus on substances "that have a better health and environmental profile," says spokesman Bill Nelson.

A number of other consumer companies say they have cut back use of products made with PFOA or its chemical precursors. McDonald's said it is switching to PFOA-free coating on its food packaging. Burger King stopped using paper products made with fluorochemicals in 2002. Swedish home-decor company IKEA Group phased out use of fluorochemical stain repellents on furniture several years ago due to health and environmental issues, a spokesman said.

The other companies that received the EPA request last week are expected to comply, and some have already begun reduction efforts. They are Paris-based Arkema Inc.; Japan's AGC Chemicals/Asahi Glass; Switzerland's Ciba Specialty Chemicals Holding Inc.; Switzerland-based Clariant Corp.; Japan's Daikin Industries Ltd.; and Italy's Solvay Solexis.