The EPA Doesn't Want Americans to Know How Dangerous Teflon Chemicals Are

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CC BY 2.0. Petras Gagilas

The agency tried to suppress a major toxicology report on perfluoroalkyl chemicals, but now it's been quietly released online -- with alarming conclusions.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has said that dealing with water pollution is one of his top priorities. It is odd, then, that his agency is so unreceptive to a major report just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 852-page review has become a source of controversy, as it states that chemicals from the perfluoroalkyl family are far more dangerous than previously thought.

Perfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAs, are "manmade chemicals used in everything from carpets and frying pan coatings to military firefighting foams." They have long been used in products such as Scotchguard and Teflon, and are known to linger in the environment and contaminate water systems. They have been linked to birth defects, infertility, problems in pregnancy, low infant birth rates, thyroid disorders, certain cancers, and heightened cholesterol levels. Studies of lab animals have found PFAs to "cause damage to the liver and the immune system, [as well as] birth defects, delayed development, and newborn deaths in lab animals."

The new CDC review sets the safe limit for these chemicals far lower than what the EPA currently allows. For one of the PFA compounds, the updated recommended exposure limit is 10 times less than the EPA's safe threshold; for another, it's seven times lower. Politico, which was the first news agency to report on the study's suppression earlier this year, explains more about the differing safe threshold levels:

"In 2016, the [EPA] published a voluntary health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, warning that exposure to the chemicals at levels above 70 parts per trillion, total, could be dangerous. One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The updated HHS assessment was poised to find that exposure to the chemicals at less than one-sixth of that level could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers."

Pruitt, his staff, and White House representatives feared that releasing the report would cause a "public relations nightmare" and strove to block its publication. According to ProPublica, it has now been "quietly released online." The EPA is likely hesitant to make this information public because it makes its own job much harder, and much more expensive. Already the Department of Defence is struggling to clean up contaminated water sources at over 600 military bases across the U.S., due to PFAs in firefighting foam; and an estimated 6 million Americans get their drinking water from sources that exceed the EPA's safe limit.

"A government study concluding that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at sites like military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and force neighboring communities to pour money into treating their drinking water supplies." (via Politico)

Cost aside, this is a very serious public health concern that cannot be ignored, and it is troubling that politics is getting in the way of a science-based risk assessment. At least the information is now available to the public, which is the first step toward improving Americans' health. Let's hope Pruitt sticks with his promise to tackle water contamination and does as thorough a job as needs to be done -- which will likely end up being far bigger than he expected.