The company, which says it now plans to phase out the chemicals, has known of potential risks for at least 15 years, internal studies show
Little-known chemicals used by the manufacturer Solvay Specialty Polymers as replacements for now-regulated PFAS chemicals have been detected in the blood of company workers, according to documents obtained by Consumer Reports. The documents, which include multiple internal company studies, also show that the company has known of potentially severe health risks, including liver damage, with the chemicals for at least 15 years.
Solvay’s manufacturing processes have been in the spotlight for months, after researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) reported finding new, potentially dangerous chemicals, first in soil samples from multiple locations in New Jersey and then in drinking water.
The researchers tentatively identified the new compounds as a “substitute PFAS” known as chloroperfluoropolyether carboxylates, or ClPFPECAs, and concluded that Solvay’s plant in West Deptford, N.J., was the likely source of contamination. (Solvay has denied responsibility.)
The findings inflamed concerns among consumer advocates and researchers about PFAS, a group of more than 5,000 chemicals that persist in the environment essentially forever and have been linked to learning delays in children, cancer, and other health problems.
In 2018, New Jersey set strict limits for one PFAS, called PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), which had been used by Solvay until 2010. Solvay has since phased out PFNA, which preliminary research has linked to immune-system and liver problems.
The state sued Solvay earlier this month, alleging in part that in place of PFNA, the company has been using other related compounds at its manufacturing facility for more than two decades and polluting water supplies in the process. The state believes Solvay’s replacements may be even more toxic than well-studied PFAS compounds.
“The testing results that EPA provided indicate that the new perfluoro ether compounds detected in the water and soil in New Jersey are a serious concern from a public health perspective,” says David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, who reviewed the documents for CR.
In July, Consumer Reports filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the EPA for any toxicology reports filed by Solvay pertaining to ClPFPECAs. On Tuesday, the agency turned over nine studies covering two of those compounds, dating from early 1998 through late 2019.
“It is stunning that the replacement chemicals for PFOA and PFNA could be as bioaccumulative and toxic.”
David Andrews, senior scientist, Environmental Working Group
Solvay provided the toxicological reports to the state last year, NJDEP records obtained by CR show. The studies provide the clearest evidence to date about the potential health risk associated with the ClPFPECA family of compounds, and shows for the first time what information regulators have about the chemicals Solvay has used.
One of the reports, filed in February 2011, cited numerous health effects from one ClPFPECA in lab rats, including reproductive problems, liver damage, and lung toxicity. Companies are required to immediately notify the EPA, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, when substances “present a substantial risk or injury to health or the environment.”
Industry groups claim that newer PFAS are safer and less likely to accumulate in tissue. But estimates of the company’s replacements in another Solvay document, from 2019, suggest that they last as long as better-studied PFAS compounds.
“It is stunning that the replacement chemicals for PFOA and PFNA could be as bioaccumulative and toxic,” Andrews says. “Unless there is other significant data that EPA has not disclosed, it seems these new compounds made it to market on nothing more than a belief that they would be safer.”
In response to questions from CR, Solvay says it is phasing out the use of PFAS chemicals at its manufacturing facility in the town of West Deptford, N.J., at some point in 2021, but the company declined to answer any questions about the studies provided to the EPA.
“Solvay is fully committed to completing the investigation and remediation of any PFAS impacts scientifically attributable to its West Deptford facility, in compliance with applicable laws and regulations,” the company said in a statement. The company uses a “very limited quantity” of PFAS at the facility, the statement said.
Solvay had previously declined to release any information about the safety of the replacement PFAS. But because it will now phase the compounds out of production, the statement says, it’s no longer proprietary information.
Michael Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist at CR, says the studies demonstrated that adverse health impacts occurred from low levels of exposure to the compounds.
“Given that a study from 15 years ago, and further studies done six years later, all showed adverse effects at fairly low levels, Solvay should have made them public years ago and not have argued that the identity of this compound, as well as the toxicity studies themselves, were confidential business information,” he says.
‘Clear Indication of a Toxic Effect’
In an October 1998 acute toxicity experiment, rats were given varying amounts of one ClPFPECA and observed for 14 days. Two Solvay officials, whose names were redacted, wrote in the study’s conclusion that the ClPFPECA compound “induced delayed toxicity (liver and intestine were mainly involved) in animals given the higher doses.”
Liver issues were identified again in 2005, when Solvay launched a separate four-week study on a different ClPFPECA, choosing again to administer the compound orally “as it is a possible exposure of the test item to man.” Lab rats were given three different doses of the compound daily, and found signs of toxic effects at the two higher levels.
“The findings in the liver, observed at all the doses, were a clear indication of a toxic effect of the test item to this organ,” the study said. The highest doses were also linked to decreased size of the thymus gland.
In 2011, Solvay notified the EPA about the study, which found liver issues occurred at all three levels administered. The study “should have raised major red flags at EPA,” says the EWG’s Andrews, citing the bioaccumulation and “lack of an identified dose level that did not cause harm.”
“It stands out that even weeks after dosing the rats the levels of these new compounds were so high in the rats’ blood that the researchers could not accurately predict the half-life or how long it would take for the compounds to leave their bodies,” Andrews says.
Solvay affirmed the concerns about prolonged exposure in safety data sheets it submitted to regulators in 2019 about both compounds, saying they can “cause damage to organs” through prolonged exposure.
Detected in Blood of Workers
Beyond the health effects, records obtained by CR show that Solvay has detected two ClPFPECAs in the blood of workers at two manufacturing facilities.
In a December 2019 letter to the EPA, a Solvay representative—whose name is redacted—said that analysis of worker blood samples for both ClPFPECAs began in 2011.
The company representative downplayed the findings, saying “none of these results raise concerns from a clinico-toxicological point of view, and that the overall results are not indicative of any pathological effects.”
But the letter also noted the estimated half-life of the compounds—or how long it takes for the body to break down half the chemical—in the blood of monitored workers was approximately 2.5 to 3 years, in line with levels described in a 2019 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.
Linda Birnbaum, a former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a PFAS expert, says that while PFAS chemicals do not break down in the environment, they will decrease over time in humans. And, she says, a 2.5-year half-life is “pretty significant” because “if you’re exposed to this all the time, it’s going to build up in your body. Even if, all of the sudden, you’re no longer getting it from the outside, it’s still going to last in your body.”
The Great Unknown
An NJDEP spokesperson declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. The EPA, which regulates drinking water in the U.S., did not have an immediate comment Wednesday.
The EPA has yet to issue an enforceable limit for PFAS in drinking water, despite having been made aware of potential health effects of PFOA and PFOS, two well-studied chemicals in the group, years ago. The agency has said a process is underway to establish legal limits in drinking water for those two compounds, but they might not become enforceable for several years. To date, the EPA has provided only voluntary guidelines for PFOA and PFOS. Some states have stepped in to fill the void and have implemented legal standards for a handful of PFAS, like New Jersey did in the case with PFNA.
But the situation in New Jersey with Solvay underscores the challenges regulators will face with PFAS. When one chemical becomes regulated, companies have thousands of other, unknown chemicals at their disposal. Some advocates and researchers have called for the entire known family of PFAS to be managed as a “class,” instead of one by one.
Industry groups have dismissed the proposal as unnecessary, and the EPA has yet to weigh in on it.