EPA allowed companies to make 40 new PFAS chemicals despite serious risks
By Sharon Lerner | The Intercept | September 19, 2019
Read the full article by Sharon Lerner (The Intercept)
"The chemical caused lab rats to lose weight. When pregnant rats were exposed to it, their pups lost weight, too, and their pups’ skulls, ribs, and pelvises tended to develop abnormally. The compound, referred to by the number “647-42-7” in Environmental Protection Agency records, also caused discoloration of the teeth, increased liver weights, decreased how much their infants nursed, and lowered the animals’ red blood cell counts. One report showed that the clear, colorless liquid caused “increased pup mortality” and, in adult rats, elevated death rates.
Female rats exposed to 647-42-7 “did not appear normal,” as another one of the reports explained, going on to detail their symptoms, which included “dental effects; mild dehydration; urine-stained abdominal fur; coldness to the touch; ungroomed coat; decreased motor activity; ataxia [uncoordinated movements]; periorbital [eye area] swelling; brown fur on the lower midline; hunched posture; and slight excess salivation.” At one dose, the chemical caused ridges to form on one of the inner layers of the rats’ incisor teeth, according to one of five reports DuPont sent to the EPA. Six other reports about the chemical submitted to the agency between 2007 and 2013 did not include the name of the manufacturer.
Despite the alarming findings of these animal experiments, between 4 and 40 million pounds of this PFAS compound were produced nationally in four locations in 2015, according to the most recent information available from the EPA. And 647-42-7, described in chemical companies’ filings with EPA as a “reactant,” is just one of 40 chemicals in the class of industrial compounds known as PFAS that are in active use despite the fact that their manufacturers alerted the EPA to substantial threats the chemicals pose to health and the environment. The chemicals were designated “active” on the EPA’s inventory, meaning that they were made or used in the U.S. by at least one company between 2006 and 2016.
DuPont was asked about the chemical and the risk reports it submitted to the EPA but declined to comment for this story.
PFOS and PFOA, the two best known chemicals in a class that contains thousands, have been used made to make firefighting foam, Teflon, and hundreds of other products. After being recognized as a source of water contamination and linked to a wide range of health problems, including cancers, PFOA and PFOS were phased out of use in the U.S. between 2006 and 2015 along with other PFAS compounds based on chains of eight carbon atoms or more. During that period, the chemical industry began moving to “shorter-chain” alternatives, such as 647-42-7, which is based on six linked carbon atoms. These replacement compounds were promoted as safer and more environmentally sustainable.
At a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about corporate responsibility for PFAS contamination on September 10, Daryl Roberts, chief operations and engineering officer of DuPont, acknowledged the dangers of PFOA and PFOS when he “reaffirmed our commitment to not make, buy, or use long-chain PFAS materials.” And Paul Kirsch, chief executive officer of Chemours, which spun off from DuPont in 2015 and inherited its PFAS business, said that the company “supports EPA’s process to determine whether legacy long-chain PFAS chemicals should be designated as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.” Yesterday, appearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Dave Ross, assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Water, promised that the agency “will propose a regulatory determination” for PFOS and PFOA.
Yet as these reports make clear, the short-chain PFAS compounds that remain in use present many of the same threats associated with longer-chain molecules. Manufacturers filed at least one report of substantial risk with the EPA for each of these 40 compounds, according to The Intercept’s analysis of documents accessed through the agency’s website. 3M submitted reports for 21 of these chemicals; DuPont submitted the reports for most of the rest. Some chemicals were the subject of more than a dozen reports. The specific risks associated with these 40 PFAS chemicals — and the fact the EPA has had hundreds of reports documenting them for years, and in some cases, decades — has not been previously reported.
All PFAS chemicals persist indefinitely in the environment and have the potential to contaminate water and remain in the bodies of people and animals. But these compounds presented additional risks that, once discovered, required their manufacturers to report them to the EPA. Among the health effects on lab animals noted in the reports were neurotoxicity; developmental toxicity; decreased pup weight; decreased conception; testicular, pancreatic, and kidney cancers; severe convulsions; bleeding in the lungs; tooth problems; post-natal loss; hair loss; and depression of sperm function.
Ideally, the findings in these animal studies would have led to more testing, according to Laura Vandenberg, a toxicologist and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences who reviewed several of the reports found by The Intercept. Vandenberg cited one study, in which rats began to show “sudden movements characterized by pronounced jumping” after being exposed to one of the compounds. “As a consequence of the pronounced jumping, the snout/limbs of Group 3 rats were observed to protrude through the bars of the confinement cage, resulting on occasions in a trapped snout,” according to the report, which 3M submitted to the EPA in 2000.
“That’s a very severe outcome,” said Vandenberg. “It should have been used as a trigger to study lower doses and more subtle outcomes.” Still, many of the harms associated with the chemicals in the reports did not surprise Vandenberg, who said they were very similar to the effects of PFOA and PFOS seen in animal experiments. “What is shocking is that the concern that came after learning the effects of PFOA and PFOS isn’t being transferred to these other perfluorinated chemicals,” she said. “These chemicals are being introduced as if they’re safe as replacements when in fact they’re not and someone else knew that they weren’t.”
Despite their dangers, at least 15 of these 40 PFAS compounds that were the subject of substantial risk reports are not only on the most recent list of compounds in active use but also, like 647-42-7, are produced in very large quantities. While most manufacturers withheld the exact amount of the chemicals they produced, on the grounds that the information is confidential and that its disclosure would harm their businesses, these 15 were included on a list compiled by the EPA of compounds produced or imported in excess of 25,000 pounds per year in a single location.
Such amounts have the potential to profoundly alter human biology, according to Philippe Grandjean, a toxicologist and adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard University. “A tiny speck could seriously impact the health of a person,” said Grandjean, whose research has shown that very low levels of the chemicals depress children’s immunity. Even if each of the manufacturers of 647-42-7 made the smallest amount in the range of production volumes they reported — which would total 4 million pounds in a single year — that quantity is more than the weight of all PFAS accumulated in the blood of everyone in the United States, according to Grandjean….”
This content provided by the PFAS Project.