July 30, 2008
The next time you make some microwave popcorn or cook a frozen pizza, consider this: The packaging of many of these products contains a chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency considers potentially carcinogenic and wants businesses to voluntarily stop using by 2015.
Studies show that this chemical -- perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA -- is present in 98% of Americans' blood and 100% of newborns. It doesn't break down and thus accumulates in the system over time.
The chemical industry says there's no reason to worry about PFOA, which is used to make Teflon pans, Gore-Tex clothing and to prevent food from sticking to paper packaging. The industry says that while the EPA's carcinogen concerns are based on animal tests, there's no evidence that PFOA is harmful to humans.
"I still serve frozen pizza in my house," said Dan Turner, a spokesman for DuPont Co., the sole U.S. manufacturer of PFOA. "I serve microwave popcorn to my 3-year-old."
Public-health advocates counter that the industry is being disingenuous.
"There's never been a chemical found that affects animals but has no effect on humans," said Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group.
"I don't know about you," he added, "but I don't like chemicals building up in my blood, even when the chemical industry says there's no risk."
Neither does state Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), who has drafted legislation -- SB 1313 -- that would ban PFOA and a similar compound in any food packaging sold in California by 2010.
The bill has been approved by the state Senate and passed the Assembly Health Committee last month. It's expected to come before the full Assembly in the next few weeks.
"I was shocked to learn that people are being exposed to toxic chemicals in foods they serve to their family and may ingest every day," Corbett said.
She said she was also troubled that it's virtually impossible to know which manufacturers have PFOA in their packaging. There are no labeling requirements.
PFOA is part of a broader constellation of substances known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. When PFCs are heated, they break down into compounds that can be absorbed into food and make it into the bloodstream.
Federal investigators determined in 2005 that PFOA is a "likely carcinogen" and called for expanded testing to study its potential to cause liver, breast, testicular and pancreatic cancer.
In 2006, the EPA invited all companies involved with PFOA to join a voluntary "stewardship program" to reduce use and emissions of the chemical by 2010 and eliminate the substance by 2015.
For its part, DuPont said in a letter to the agency that it would eliminate "where possible" use and emissions of PFOA "so that any residuals are reduced to the maximum extent feasible." The company is working on alternative chemicals.
Corbett's bill also would ban perfluorooctane sulfate, or PFOS, which is used in stain-resistant materials and has been linked to bladder cancer and liver problems. Like PFOA, PFOS is present in most people's blood and accumulates over time.
Turner, the DuPont spokesman, said nobody knew for sure how PFOA and PFOS had gotten into so many people's bodies. He said DuPont's studies found no connection between the high levels of human exposure and widely used products such as microwave popcorn and packaging for French fries at many fast-food restaurants.
"Our conclusion is that these products are safe," Turner said.
For nearly 60 years, the leading developer of PFOA applications was 3M Co. of Minnesota. The company exited the business in 2000 after learning that the chemical was accumulating in people's bodies -- not least those of its workers.
"We agree with DuPont that these products do not cause adverse health effects," said Bill Nelson, a 3M spokesman. "But we did not want to be a continuous source of these chemicals into the environment."
I asked if he meant into people's bodies.
"Into the environment," Nelson repeated, reflecting the chemical industry's wariness of being linked to a substance that's now ubiquitous in the general population.
Since 3M stepped aside, DuPont has had the U.S. market to itself. In 2005, the company agreed to pay $16.5 million to settle charges brought by the EPA that DuPont failed to report possible health risks associated with PFOA.
DuPont admitted no wrongdoing. "Our interpretation of the reporting requirements differed from the agency's," the company said at the time.
Turner told me the company had agreed to phase out PFOA by 2015 because of "questions that have been raised."
"We do not believe there is a human health risk," he said. "Yet there are questions that people have, and we are taking aggressive action."
Got that? No human health risk, which is why DuPont opposes Corbett's bill. But questions have been raised, which is why the company is getting out of the PFOA business.
Basically, Delaware-based DuPont doesn't want California pushing it around. Corbett's bill also would limit what chemicals DuPont could use to replace PFOA and would advance the time frame for getting rid of PFOA by five years.
Walker at the Environmental Working Group said the voluntary phaseout supported by the EPA was insufficient. He pointed out that it wouldn't apply to Chinese companies, which are among the leading manufacturers of food packaging.
Corbett's legislation, however, contains no enforcement mechanism. State authorities would be powerless to do anything if a company was found to be violating the ban.
Walker said the bill would at least provide consumers with ammunition to hold companies accountable in court. It also could allow complaints to be filed under California's statute governing unfair business practices.
"The important thing is that it would send a message," Walker said. "We believe very strongly that evidence of a chemical building up in people's blood is reason for concern."
Until scientists can come up with a safe alternative to PFOA, what's wrong with getting a little grease on your fingers when you eat popcorn or pizza?
Better still, you can't go wrong with a nice piece of fruit.
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