PFOA, a chemical found in products ranging from clothes to stain repellents to food packaging and cosmetics, and a component of Teflon production, poses developmental and reproductive risks to humans, according to a risk assessment form the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (Read the latest news about Teflon. DuPont face massive fines being imposed.)
Current PFOA exposures in children may be well above safe levels, and some children have high enough blood levels of PFOA to cause serious toxicity in laboratory studies.
The EPA reviewed PFOA after “unexpected toxicological and bioaccumulation discoveries” in the entire class of perfluorinated chemicals, particularly PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonates), the active ingredient in Scotchgard, which was removed from the market by the EPA in 2000.
PFOS has similar chemical properties to PFOA. Neither product breaks down in the environment and both cause various cancers and adverse effects.
In animal studies PFOA has been associated with:
“Significant increases in treatment related deaths” in rat offspring at doses that did not affect the mothers
Serious changes in the weight of various organs, including the brain, prostate, liver, thymus, and kidneys
The deaths of a significant number of rat pups of mothers that had been exposed to PFOA
Damage to the pituitary at all doses in female rat offspring (The pituitary secretes hormones that regulate growth, reproduction, and many metabolic processes. Change in pituitary size is associated with toxicity)
Other unrelated studies have also found evidence of birth defects in babies from PFOA-exposed workers. In 1981, two out of seven women who worked at a DuPont Teflon plant gave birth to babies with birth defects. DuPont then moved 50 women workers at the plant to reduce their exposure to PFOA.
Additionally, PFOA has been associated with tumours in at least four different organs in animal tests, and has been associated with increases in prostate cancer in PFOA plant workers.
The potentially harmful effects of PFOA are heightened because exposure is so widespread. Some 90 percent of the U.S. population has PFOA in their blood, some at levels as high as those found in PFOA factory workers.
According to the EPA, it is not known how humans are generally exposed to the substance. However, it has been suggested that PFOA’s longevity could be a contributing factor.
Unlike PCBs and DDT, PFOA does not break down in the environment, so it is infinitely persistent. Additionally, other classes of chemicals break down into PFOA, which means that even if PFOA were banned, levels of the substance in the environment could still increase due to the other chemicals.
In short, all of the PFOA generated by industries will remain in the environment indefinitely.
Although PFOA and related chemicals have been widely used in consumer products for 50 years, risks posed by such chemicals have only recently been exposed. Industry is not required to conduct safety tests on chemicals like PFOA in order to sell or use them. Due to this lack of regulatory authority, the EPA’s influence over chemical manufacturers is largely limited to requests for data once contamination creates a problem.