Federal officials said Friday that a new C8 health advisory is not intended to address long-term exposure, drawing criticism that the action does nothing for Americans who have for years been drinking water contaminated with the toxic chemical.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is advising people to reduce consumption of water that contains more than 0.4 parts per billion of C8, also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
But water companies are not required to test for the chemical, so most consumers have no idea if C8 is in their water.
And where C8 has been found, EPA has generally not made specific recommendations for reducing exposure. EPA has also not ordered alternative water supplies be provided based on what experts and advocates say is a more important measure: A limit to protect people who drink water with very small concentrations of C8 over a long period of time.
“We’d like to see evidence that the agency is going to develop a scientific-based limit for long-term exposure,” said Olga Naidenko, a scientist who studies chemical safety issues for the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.
In West Virginia, DuPont Co. has used C8 since the 1950s at its Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg. C8 is a processing agent used to make Teflon and other nonstick products, oil-resistant paper packaging and stain-resistant textiles.
Around the world, researchers are finding that people have C8 and other perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, in their blood at low levels. People can be exposed by drinking contaminated products, eating tainted food, or through food packaging and stain-proof agents on furniture or carpet. Evidence is mounting about the chemical’s dangerous effects, but regulators have yet to set a binding federal limit for emissions or human exposure.
Earlier this week, The Charleston Gazette first reported that the Bush administration planned to issue the C8 health advisory less than a week before President-elect Barack Obama is scheduled to take office.
Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, emphasized Friday that the agency’s health advisory was “provisional” and could be updated based on additional information.
“We are focused on PFOA and other PFCs, and are looking at them in the context of candidates for future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Grumbles said.
Grumbles said EPA’s action “was meant to be a rapid response to an urgent situation,” after agency officials learned that C8-contaminated sewage sludge had been dumped onto farmland in Decatur, Ala.
n May 2007, EPA learned a local C8-maker, Daikin America, had discharged process wastewater into the area’s municipal sewage treatment plan. Sludge from the plant — apparently contaminated with C8 — was applied to local farmland used for both crops and cattle grazing, officials said.
But while EPA officials took soil and sludge samples in the area in September 2007, they were unable to make a complete analysis of the samples until October 2008, said Gail Mitchell, deputy director of EPA’s regional water management division out of Atlanta.
“It took a while for the samples that were collected in 2007 to be analyzed, because we have very little experience with analyzing for these constituents in soils and sludges,” Mitchell said.
An EPA water advisory “is not a legally enforceable federal standard, but serves as technical guidance to assist federal, state and local officials,” according to an agency handbook.
EPA issues lifetime and short-term advisories.
Lifetime advisories are meant to set the concentration of a chemical that is not expected to be harmful over a lifetime of exposure.
EPA’s handbook lists two types of short-term advisories: One to protect people who drink contaminated water for just one day, and a second to protect people who drink contaminated water for up to 10 days.
Grumbles said the C8 advisory might be protective for “a couple of years” of exposure, but would not be more precise. “I’m not going to lock into a specific number of years,” Grumbles said.
If based on the same health studies as the new EPA advisory, a long-term exposure recommendation for C8 would likely be much lower than 0.4 parts per billion. Some experts said this week a reasonable estimate would be about 10 times lower, or about 0.04 parts per billion.
Some chemicals build up in the body over time. So drinking water contaminated with very small amounts over long periods of time allows the chemicals to accumulate to dangerous levels.
In Parkersburg, the city’s drinking water contains 0.049 parts per billion of C8, according to the most recent tests taken in December. That figure would be far below EPA’s new advisory, but could exceed a long-term guideline if one were issued. And water supplies in several other states could also be close to exceeding such a long-term guideline, according to a list published Thursday by the Environmental Working Group.
“People who drink PFOA-contaminated tap water are exposed to this chemical day after day, year after year, and studies of communities with contaminated tap water show the chemical concentrates in human blood to levels 100 times higher than found in the water they drink,” the Environmental Working Group said.
“The proposed standards ignore this fact,” the group said. “The practical effect of this first-ever federal safety level would be to sanction long-term exposures at unsafe levels under the guise of a short-term advisory.”