DuPont Co. has been given a last-minute pass on a federal deadline to complete testing on products thought to be a source of a controversial chemical in the environment.
The Environmental Appeals Board has given the company another three years to finish the testing, the second federal action taken in the waning days of the Bush administration on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a DuPont-made chemical used in Teflon and other products.
In January, the Enviornmental Protection Agency also set provisional guidelines on drinking-water exposure to PFOA at a level that was more lax than state guidelines in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“There’s no science supporting either of these decisions. They’re purely political gifts from the Bush administration” said Richard Wiles, executive director of Environmental Working Group, one of the first groups to sound the alarm on PFOA.
Growing evidence of the chemical’s harmful health effects calls for a sharper response from the federal government, Wiles said.
“This is sort of becoming the signature chemical for how broken the current federal regulatory policy is,” Wiles said.
DuPont spokesman Bob Nelson issued a statement saying the company “continues to work in good faith to complete all activities” under the testing program.
DuPont makes PFOA at a facility in North Carolina and uses it as a processing aid in fluoropolymer products such as Teflon. DuPont and other companies have committed to phasing out PFOA no later than 2015, under a voluntary EPA program.
The chemical also is linked to a separate class of products known as fluorotelomers. DuPont manufactures fluorotelomer products at the sprawling Chambers Works plant in Deepwater, N.J., at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
PFOA is long-lived in the environment and has been found in the blood of people across the world at low levels. DuPont says the evidence indicates that PFOA exposure does not pose a health risk to the general public, but a growing body of science suggests the chemical has toxic effects.
Researchers from the UCLA School of Public Health recently found that women with higher blood levels of PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) took longer to become pregnant. It was the first known study linking perfluorinated chemicals to infertility.
Company sued over chemical
In 2005, DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA on charges it hid evidence of PFOA contamination of workers and drinking water near a plant in West Virginia.
As part of the settlement, DuPont agreed to spend $5 million to test its fluorotelomer products, chemicals used in fire-fighting foams, grease-resistant food packaging, leather protectants and stain-resistant carpeting and textiles.
The United Steelworkers union says its employees at Chambers Works have shown higher levels of PFOA in their blood than the general public. DuPont has been sued by residents who claim PFOA released from the plant has contaminated public water supplies and private residential wells in the area.
The company says PFOA is not used in the making of fluorotelomer products, but instead appears in trace amounts as an “unintended byproduct” of the manufacturing process. The EPA-mandated testing was designed to determine the potential of fluorotelomers to break down into PFOA and other perfluorinated chemicals.
In a motion submitted to the Environmental Appeals Board, DuPont and the EPA said more time was needed to develop a process to purify the nine fluorotelomer products under study. The board approved an extension to Dec. 27, 2011, three years later than the original deadline.
Nelson of DuPont said the company has made progress in its testing and has met “significant milestones.”
“Although there have been diligent efforts to resolve technical issues pertaining to the testing, both the Environmental Protection Agency and DuPont determined that more time was needed and together obtained, for good cause, approval for an extension of time to complete the [Supplemental Environmental Project],” Nelson said.
EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said DuPont encountered technical challenges in developing a method to purify the fluorotelomer products, and the agency has reached an agreement with DuPont to ensure the purification work begins.
PFOA found in water supplies
In 2007, DuPont committed to a voluntary EPA program to phase out the use of PFOA no later than 2015. The company said in December that it has reduced global manufacturing emissions of PFOA by approximately 97 percent compared with 2000 levels.
The EPA program calls for a 95 percent reduction by 2010 in PFOA emissions and product content levels of PFOA and other chemicals that can break down into PFOA. Environmental Working Group’s Wiles said the data from DuPont’s fluorotelomer tests is essential to understanding whether consumer products are a major source of PFOA in the environment.
“As long as they can delay development of this data, that basically means that they don’t have to comply with the phase-out agreement,” Wiles said.
Drinking water is one method by which people are exposed to PFOA, and an Environmental Working Group review found that the chemical pollutes water supplies in at least nine states and Washington, D.C.
The EPA’s provisional drinking-water advisory, issued Jan. 15, was the first such guideline from the federal government on PFOA, setting an acceptable level of 400 parts per trillion.
In 2007, New Jersey set a drinking-water guideline for PFOA that was 10 times stricter than the new federal standard. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection set the level under commissioner Lisa Jackson, who now heads the EPA.