Chemicals used in Scotchgard and Teflon are regulated, but metal plating companies got a pass by Bush’s EPA
Alarmed by research linking chemicals used to make Scotchgard and Teflon to cancer, liver disease and other health problems, the federal government spent the last decade pressuring manufacturers to phase out the stain-resistant compounds.
But scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently discovered that a different industry — metal plating — is dumping high levels of the chemicals into sewers in Chicago and Cleveland, and likely is doing the same thing in scores of other cities.
The finding is worrisome because the chemicals, known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, wash unfiltered through sewage treatment plants into lakes and streams. The chemicals don’t break down in the environment, and traces are showing up in the blood of people and wildlife around the globe.
At one Chicago-area metal plating shop, which the EPA does not name, the agency found PFCs being flushed into the sewers at concentrations of 12,214 parts per trillion, far higher than the 2.5 parts per trillion found in water piped into the factory.
Levels were even higher at one of the Cleveland shops: more than 54,000 parts per trillion.
Mindful that those amounts are some of the highest detected in wastewater to date, career staff at the EPA are urging the Obama administration to crack down on the metal plating industry’s use of PFCs, which are used to suppress fumes during the plating of chrome automotive bumpers, wheels and other parts.
In 2007, records show, the Bush administration created a special exemption that allowed metal plating shops to avoid any regulations on perfluorinated compounds because the industry said it had no alternatives. Agency leaders in Washington granted the waiver despite objections from the EPA’s top official in Chicago, who noted in an internal memo that safer alternatives are readily available.
“We had plenty of warning signs,” said Mary Gade, the former EPA regional administrator, recalling the debate at the time within the agency. “Our point was these chemicals pose serious concerns for health and the environment.”
Muddying the issue is that PFCs have been considered a relatively inexpensive way for metal plating shops to curb emissions of another highly toxic substance, hexavalent chromium.
Industry representatives contend they need time to test PFC-free chemicals, though one of the nation’s largest metal platers already has switched to a solution that is significantly less toxic.
“We want to make sure we don’t do more harm than good,” said Christian Richter, spokesman for the National Association of Surface Finishing, a trade group.
What the Obama administration decides to do next could affect hundreds of factories. There are nearly 200 metal plating shops in Illinois alone, most of which can be found in nondescript industrial buildings in Chicago and the suburbs. In California, a 2003 survey found that most of the state’s 222 metal platers used PFCs to reduce chromium emissions.
What these factories do is by definition a dirty business. To apply a shiny finish, parts are dipped into electrified vats of hexavalent chromium, the highly toxic, cancer-causing metal made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich.” PFCs are added to the tanks to prevent the formation of chromium-laden bubbles.
Using the chemical solution helps metal platers meet federal limits on chromium emissions, which pose serious health hazards in the workplace and surrounding neighborhoods. But doing so creates another hazard when PFCs are flushed into the sewers as metal parts are rinsed.
Platers are required to treat their wastewater on site to remove chromium residue. However, conventional treatment does not screen out PFCs.
For more than half a century, manufacturers used perfluorinated chemicals virtually unregulated to make nonstick cookware, rain-repellent clothing, grease-resistant packaging and hundreds of other products. They are most commonly known as ingredients in household items sold under the Scotchgard and Teflon brands. The lack of government oversight has slowly changed as scientists have found the chemicals in salmon from the Great Lakes, polar bears in the Arctic and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea, suggesting that PFCs travel easily through water and the atmosphere. They are so resilient that it takes years for the chemicals to be excreted from the human body.
Under pressure from the EPA, Minnesota-based 3M, once the world’s largest maker of PFCs, has phased out production of one chemical used to make Scotchgard. Other companies, including DuPont, the maker of Teflon, have pledged to stop making the chemicals by 2015, and the EPA has adopted several rules to prevent them from being used for various purposes.
Metal platers would have been included in one of those rules, but the 2007 exemption granted by the EPA allowed the industry to continue using PFCs without regulations.
PFC waste from metal platers first came to light two years ago in Minnesota. As part of a broad investigation of pollution from 3M, investigators tested wastewater from more than two dozen sewage treatment plants. They traced high levels of PFCs in the northern Minnesota community of Brainerd to Keystone Automotive, a large chrome bumper refinisher.
“The numbers really jumped out at us,” said James Kelly, a researcher with the Minnesota Department of Health. “But these findings are so new that we’re still trying to understand the extent of the problem.”
Keystone officials did not respond to several requests for comment. In a study Kelly wrote, he notes the plant responded to his findings by switching to a PFC-free solution that also prevents chromium from bubbling out of its plating vats.
The rest of the industry apparently has been slow to follow. Scientists from the EPA’s Chicago office found high levels of PFCs in the wastewater of seven Chicago factories and four more in Cleveland, according to a study published late last year. The agency declined to name the plants, citing an agreement that granted operators anonymity in return for access to draw samples of the unregulated pollutants.
The findings are so new that officials at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the agency that operates the area’s sewage treatment plants, said they were unaware that PFCs could be a problem locally.
Two years ago, tests conducted for the Tribune found tiny amounts of PFCs in treated Chicago drinking water. Though sewage from the Chicago area drains away from Lake Michigan, the source of the region’s drinking water, more than 300 other cities dump treated waste into the lake and its tributaries, according to the EPA.
More metal platers will be tested this year. The findings could lead to new rules restricting PFCs in metal plating shops, which would stop a steady stream of the chemicals into the environment.
“We’re trying to get the word out about this issue,” said Kim Harris, an EPA scientist. “This could be a major source of PFCs in water, but the good news is there are alternatives out there that can be adopted immediately.”
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