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EPA curb on nonstick chemical may have reduced number of babies with low birth weight

A drinking water well structure at Versluis Park in Plainfield Township, Mich. Utilities serving the area reported perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, in raw and treated water. (Garret Ellison/Grand Rapids Press/AP)
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Efforts to phase out a chemical used in nonstick coatings have resulted in fewer U.S. babies being born underweight in recent years, according to findings published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health.

Researchers at New York University based their findings on an analysis of blood samples of new mothers that were gathered between 2003 and 2014 as part of a national health study to examine levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Exposure to the synthetic chemical, long used in a variety of consumer products, from stain-resistant carpets to nonstick pans, pizza boxes and outdoor apparel, has been associated with a range of potential health problems, including cancer.

Researchers suggest developing fetuses are particularly at risk for birth defects and lower-than-normal birth weights. Such concerns were a driving force behind a 2006 agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. manufacturers to decrease and eventually halt the production of PFOA by 2015.

For years, PFOA had been nearly ubiquitous in the United States, with much of it traveling unregulated through water supplies. According to the EPA, blood serum tests in the U.S. general population between 1999 and 2012 detected PFOA 99 percent of the time. However, those figures have begun to fall as companies have phased out the chemical.

The NYU researchers found that PFOA levels in women ages 18 to 49 continued to rise from 2003 to 2008, when median levels peaked at 3.5 nanograms per milliliter. But by 2009, not long after the government compelled companies to begin phasing out the chemical, the trend began to reverse. Blood levels of PFOA began dropping from a median 2.8 nanograms per milliliter to 1.6 nanograms per milliliter by 2014.

Researchers used computer modeling to estimate the number of low-weight births that may have been caused by specific levels of PFOA chemical exposure. They compared the estimated impact of PFOA when blood levels were highest with the impact after blood levels dropped. That allowed them to estimate that the voluntary phaseout of PFOA and similar chemicals has prevented between 10,000 and 17,000 low-weight births in the United States annually in recent years.

“All too often we talk about the failure of EPA or other agencies to regulate chemicals,” the study’s lead investigator, NYU School of Medicine associate professor Leonardo Trasande, said in an interview. “But we don’t give enough credit when an agency does the right thing, and works with industry proactively to phase a chemical of concern.”

A number of factors contribute to low-weight babies, who weigh 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) or less. But Trasande said he and his colleagues at NYU isolated the number that could be attributed to exposure to PFOA.

“What we found was this very striking pattern,” said Trasande, a pediatrician and health epidemiologist. He added that preventing so many low-weight births translated into billions of avoided societal costs on everything from infant hospital stays to lower earning potential for those children who faced significant health and developmental problems. “We know that more low-weight babies means extra medical care.”

The EPA’s scientific advisory panel identified PFOA as a “likely carcinogen” in June 2005. Six months later it reached a $16.5 million settlement with the DuPont Co., which used to produce the chemical compound in Parkersburg, W.Va., over the company’s failure to report possible health and environmental risks associated with its product for more than two decades. That evidence, which dated as far back as 1981, included the fact that the chemical could be transferred from a pregnant woman to her baby via the placenta.

In January 2006 eight companies — including DuPont, 3M, Ciba and Clariant — agreed to stop making PFOA.

Even as companies have eliminated the chemical from use, that doesn’t mean Americans are no longer exposed. Millions of products that contain PFOA and a similar compound known as PFOS remain in people’s homes and in commercial settings.

Last year, researchers at Harvard University found that drinking water supplies serving more than 6 million Americans contain unsafe levels of the chemicals. That data came from more than 36,000 samples collected by the EPA between 2013 and 2015.

The EPA last year issued a health advisory about PFOS and PFOA, warning about potential long-term exposures to the compounds and urging state and local officials to take action or at least notify residents about contaminants when they are detected in drinking water. Ultimately, though, the advisories are unenforceable.

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