H2O Radio
Known Unknowns
There was a time, back in the 1970s, when the United States was at the cutting edge of protecting human health and the environment. We passed the "Clean Water Act," the "Clean Air Act," and something called the "Toxic Substances Control Act," also known as "TSCA," which was intended to regulate chemicals for safety.

But TSCA failed to live up to its promise. Of the over 84,000 chemicals in commercial use today, only nine are banned or regulated. The rest? They're in household products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and toys—many without adequate study about their health effects.

What happened, and what can we do to protect ourselves from the toxins that surround us? H2O Radio investigates.


Frani Halperin, H2O Radio: When I go to buy household products like toys or carpets, I expect that someone, somewhere—probably in government—made sure they were safe and free of toxins.

But the truth is, it’s a little closer to how Donald Rumsfeld put it in a news briefing about weapons of mass destruction.

Sound clip: "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there's some things we know we do not know..."

Frani: When it comes to chemicals—it’s sorta the same thing. There’s a lot of "known unknowns." We know that there are over 84,000 industrial chemicals used commercially in the United States. Not known? The full extent of their health impacts. Only nine dangerous chemicals have been studied enough to be banned or restricted by the EPA.

PullQuote_SteelandThe rest of them? They’re in daily use—in personal care products, in pharmaceuticals, household items, and of course in industrial applications. And because there was no requirement to prove their safety before putting them on the market, potentially toxic chemicals are getting into our air and water.

Some of those chemicals are coming under increased scrutiny. One such group is perfluorinated chemicals or "PFCs." PFCs are often used to make water and stain-resistant clothes, or non-stick cookware. You might know these chemicals by their brand names like Teflon™, Scotchgard® and Stainmaster®.

One type of PFC, called "PFOA" has been in the news because it was found in private wells and municipal water systems in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. That contamination was linked to plastics manufacturing.

PFOA, is also called "C8." It’s an example of a chemical that was put into use before health impacts came to light. In 2006 major manufacturers agreed to phase it out but PFOA is extremely persistent—meaning it will take eons to break down, so generations to come are going to be dealing with the consequences. What kind of consequences? Ask the residents of the Ohio River Valley.

Kyle Steenland: DuPont used PFOA to help polymerize Teflon and released PFOA into the river and the air during a large number of years from the early 1950s through the early 2000s.

Frani: That’s Professor Kyle Steenland.

Kyle: I’m a professor in environmental health at Emory University.

Frani: The PFOA from the DuPont factory spilled into the Ohio River.

Kyle: And the water in the Ohio River it entered the groundwater, which was used for public drinking water in the surrounding area.

Frani: The DuPont Corporation is facing more than 3,000 lawsuits from residents who allege the contamination made them sick. In one large class action in 2005 they reached a settlement agreement that included creating a science panel of which Professor Steenland was a member to assess whether or not there was a probable link between C8 exposure and human disease.

Kyle: Our best judgment was that six diseases are associated with PFOA exposure.

Frani: Diseases like?

Kyle: Kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy induced hypertension...

Frani: SO are we less at risk from PFCs if we don’t live near a chemical or plastics plant?

Robin Vestergren: We really can’t avoid being exposed to these chemicals.

Frani: The bearer of that sad message is Robin Vestergren, of Stockholm University.

Robin: I’ve been doing research to understand how humans are exposed to PFOA and PFOS.

Frani: PFOS is another long chain PFC. It’s similar to PFOA in that it also persists indefinitely in the environment.

Robin: One thing we have to realize about these compounds is that they are indeed ubiquitous.

Frani: Wherever Robin and his team sample for PFOA and PFOS, they find them. As a matter of fact they're having a hard time not finding them—and getting a pure sample.

PullQuote_Vestergren Robin: We find them in seawater from the Arctic.

Frani: You can go in the middle of the ocean and actually get a reading for PFOA?

Robin: Certainly. We find them in very high concentrations in polar bears.

Frani: How did they get into polar bears?

Robin: PFOA or PFOS, they are fairly water soluble, so once they come into water they will basically just spread.

Frani: So these synthetic chemicals get into water—maybe a local creek or stream—and because they don’t degrade, they ultimately find their way to the ocean where currents sweep them up to the Arctic and they can easily enter the food chain through fish and eventually become a polar bear snack. And they’re on our dinner plates, too. PFCs are found in soil, air, and groundwater, so they are easily taken up by crops.

Robin: When it comes to food there’s really no recommendation for something that you should avoid. You will still find these chemicals in the food from your grocery store.

Frani: The upshot. Between exposure to PFCs in our food and household products, CDC data show that pretty much anyone who breathes air and drinks water has PFOA in their bloodstream albeit in minute quantities. So what’s being done about this? Industry’s answer is new chemistry.

PFOA and PFOS are called "long-chain" PFCs because they have eight strong carbon–fluorine bonds. It’s those strong links that make the compounds so slow to break down.

So when companies agreed to voluntarily phase out PFOA and PFOS, they replaced them with shorter chain versions—but not without controversy.

Robin: Their argument for the short-chain compounds is primarily that the short-chain compounds, unlike the long-chain compounds, are not bio-accumulative.

Frani: Bio-accumulation is when a substance, like a toxic chemical, builds up in the tissues of a living organism faster than it can dispose of it, similar to what’s happening with mercury in fish. But even if shorter-chain compounds are less bio-accumulative, they’re still persistent.

Robin: Yeah, they are persistent, equally persistent, but the levels in human body or in fish or other organisms will not increase to the same extent as the long-chain. But they will probably act similar in the human body.

Frani: And as Robin and other researchers say, products that contain short-chain compounds might have to use more of them just to get the same result as the phased-out versions.

We reached out to the fluorinated industry’s trade association, the FluoroCouncil, to get their perspective about shorter chain PFCs, but they declined an interview.

So what are we as consumers to think? The "C8 Science Panel" was able to establish a probable link for PFOA to six health conditions. Given that PFCs are building up every day in the environment, should we be worried? Is this urgent?

PullQuote_DRaphael1Debbie Raphael: I think it’s almost the wrong question...

Frani: That’s Debbie Raphael, the director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Debbie: Because I don’t think any of us can answer that question—even the proponents. Nobody can really tell the world whether or not this is urgent or if it will become urgent. Instead, the question I think is the right question for us to ask —because it’s a question that we can actually answer today is—is it necessary? Is it necessary to continue to be using these kinds of chemicals in commerce? Yes, they’re legal. Are they safe?

Frani: She says the only answer to that question is more study. Lots of study. Which invariably leads to paralysis by analysis.

Debbie: You then can argue the science about how much is safe and how big is the problem. Is it urgent or is it not urgent.

Frani: Instead she thinks we should be asking whether there’s a safer alternative, but..

Debbie: Sometimes what happens with industry is they point to an alternative that appears to be better, but part of the reason it appears to be better is there's less study on it...more unknowns. That’s what you’re seeing with these long-chain versus short-chain. The long-chain have been studied enough and so they're pointing to short-chain and saying it’s a better alternative. Even if it's not perfect, it's better.

Frani: That brings me to the larger question and that’s how we regulate chemicals in the first place. In the U.S. unlike Europe, we put them out there first and ask questions later.

Debbie: It didn’t used to be that way. United States was amazing in the 1970s—we passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, affectionately known as "TSCA." It was radical for its time. It came into being very close to the time that the EPA came into being, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act. There was a time in the '70s where the U.S. was very much at the cutting edge of protecting human health and the environment.

Frani: But we’ve stagnated since then. Since the mid-1970s TSCA hasn’t changed at all. Reform measures are being considered in Congress, but most environmental groups oppose them as weakening regulation. So Europe’s moved way ahead of us using something that's called the "Precautionary Principle."

Debbie: They have their chemicals regulation process called "REACH." Regulation, Evaluation, Authorization of Chemicals. REACH has become the gold standard for how chemicals are regulated in the world.

Frani: Europe is looking to regulate PFCs as a class, but the American way is one by one with each taking years of study. There are about 3,000 PFCs, so you can do the math...We could be waiting a very long time to learn the truth about these chemicals.

Debbie: It’s hard for consumers to know what’s in their products. I believe government has an obligation to make sure that even if you’re not aware, you’re not exposed.

Frani: But we as consumers don’t we need to be a part of the solution? I mean, we can make choices about what we buy—provided we get good information, of course.

Debbie: What’s great about the American system is that the marketplace responds a lot faster than the legislative process. If consumers say, no, it's not necessary; no, it’s not worth it, that will get companies to reformulate much faster than any amendments we could make to the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Frani: No doubt chemicals are part of modern life and we all benefit. No one is saying to get rid of PFCs altogether but only use the ones that are absolutely essential and come clean about their impacts.

That way we can agree with DuPont who famously sang their praises:

Sound clip: "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry" (1964 New York World´s Fair, ©DuPont)

Outro: To go in depth about PFCs and the research being conducted visit our website at H2O Radio dot org where you’ll find links and more information. For H2O Radio, I’m Frani Halperin.

Related: H2O Radio's report on PFCs in fire-fighting foam> "Unregulated Chemicals Found in Drinking Water Trigger Nationwide Testing"


Sound Files

This story is available
for download at PRX.org and Audioport.org. It cannot be broadcast or reproduced without the expressed permission of H2O Media, Ltd.


The C8 Science Panel and Dr. Kyle Steenland

A class action lawsuit brought against DuPont by the residents of six communities with C8 (PFOA) contaminated water resulted in a Settlement Agreement that established a Science Panel—a group of epidemiologists directed to assess whether or not there is a probable link between C8 exposure and human disease. The panel consisted of: Dr. Tony Fletcher of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr. David Savitz of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and Dr. Kyle Steenland of Emory University in Atlanta.

The C8 Science Panel confirmed that six human diseases are linked to C8 exposure: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy induced hypertension, and medically diagnosed high cholesterol. Based on the findings of the C8 Science Panel, DuPont is precluded from denying that C8 can cause the six linked disease in any trials that arise from claims made by Class Members. Visit the C8 Science Panel Website.

Robin Vestergren, Ph.D.

Robin Vestergren is a researcher in the Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry (ACES) at Stockholm University, Sweden. Dr. Vestergren’s research focuses on the development and application of analytical techniques and modelling approaches to gain understanding of the sources and human exposure of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances such as PFOA and PFOS. Read his complete bio.

Debbie Raphael

Debbie Raphael has 20 years of public service experience, running environmental programs in progressive cities like Santa Monica and San Francisco. Debbie also served under Governor Jerry Brown, leading the Department of Toxic Substances Control, where she implemented the landmark Green Chemistry Initiative. In 2014, Mayor Ed Lee appointed her as the Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, a city agency that creates visionary policies and programs to ensure a sustainable future for San Francisco. Through her service she has implemented groundbreaking policies, initiatives and campaigns around toxics reduction, green building, climate action, community engagement and environmentally preferable purchasing. Learn more about SF Environment.

Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 provides EPA with authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. Certain substances are generally excluded from TSCA, including, among others, food, drugs, cometics and pesticides. Visit EPA's website.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program are supporting research to better understand the potential health effects of exposure to PFCs. Learn more.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The most recent "National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals" dated February 2015 includes data on PFOA and PFOS. Read the report.


REACH is a regulation of the European Union, adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals, while enhancing the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry. "'No data, no market'—the REACH Regulation places responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances." Learn more.

TSCA Reform Measures in Congress

The Environmental Defense Fund has published a side-by-side comparison of Senate and House TSCA reform legislation. This PDF compares the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 to S. 697 as passed by the full Senate on December 17, 2015, and H.R. 2576 as passed by the House of Representatives on June 23, 2015. See the EDF chart.


Photo: "Chemical Collection," Steve Bernacki, Creative Commons

Published: April 21, 2016
Updated: April 27, 2016
Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

Journalism About Water and the Environment
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