By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Eight U.S. companies, including giant DuPont Co., agreed yesterday to virtually eliminate a harmful chemical used to make Teflon from all consumer products coated with the ubiquitous nonstick material.
Although the chemical would still be used to manufacture Teflon and similar products, processes will be developed to ensure that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) would not be released into the environment from finished products or manufacturing plants.
PFOA -- a key processing agent in making nonstick and stain-resistant materials -- has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals and is in the blood of 95 percent of Americans, including pregnant women. It has also been found in the blood of marine organisms and Arctic polar bears.
The voluntary pact, which was crafted by the Environmental Protection Agency, will force companies to reduce manufacturing emissions of PFOA by 95 percent by no later than 2010. They will also have to reduce trace amounts of the compound in consumer products by 95 percent during the same period and virtually eliminate them by 2015.
The agreement will dramatically reduce the extent to which PFOA shows up in a wide variety of everyday products, including pizza boxes, nonstick pans and microwave-popcorn bags.
While not as sweeping as the federal ban on DDT in 1972, yesterday's agreement is expected to have profound implications for public health and the environment. An independent federal scientific advisory board is expected to recommend soon whether the government should classify the chemical as a "likely" or "probable" carcinogen in humans, which could trigger a new set of federal regulations.
"The science is still coming in on PFOA, but the concern is there," said Susan B. Hazen, acting assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. "This is the right thing to do for our health and our environment."
The move, which came just a month after DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with EPA over the company's failure to report possible health risks associated with PFOA, drew applause from environmental groups that have frequently criticized both the administration and DuPont.
"This is one of those days when the Environmental Protection Agency is at its best. With its announcement today, the EPA is challenging an entire industry to err on the side of precaution and public safety, and invent new ways of doing business," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. "As harshly as we have singled out DuPont for criticism for its past handling of PFOA pollution, today we want to single out and commend the company and acknowledge its leadership going forward."
DuPont officials said they were confident they could alter manufacturing methods over the coming decade to contain PFOA exposure from products that generated $1 billion in sales for the company in 2004.
"It's important to do this because this is a persistent material in the environment, and it's at low levels in people's blood," said David Boothe, DuPont's global business director. To remove PFOA, he said, the company will subject some of its products to extra heat and will sometimes add a step in the manufacturing process. "We're going to push it really hard and take it as far as we can."
Scientific studies have not established a link between using products containing trace amounts of PFOA, such as microwave-popcorn bags or nonstick pans, and elevated cancer levels. Hazen said yesterday's announcement should "not indicate any concern . . . for consumers using household products" with such coatings.
Several other companies agreed yesterday to reduce public exposure to the chemical, including 3M Co., Ciba and Clariant Corp. But DuPont, which settled a class-action suit last year accusing it of contaminating drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia communities near its plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., has attracted the most public scrutiny over its PFOA use.
William Bailey III, who was born in 1981 with multiple birth defects while his mother, Sue, was working with the chemical at the Parkersburg plant, said he will "be watching" to see if the chemical giant complies with the new agreement.
"They're trying to save face," said Bailey, who is suing DuPont over his birth defects.