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Teflon chemical a possible health risk for 6.5 million people with contaminated water supplies

You expect the water that you drink will be healthy and not harmful to your body, but for 6.5 million Americans in 27 states, that may not be the case. A recent study from two environmental scientists suggests the industrial chemical PFOA is a much more serious contaminant than previously thought. PFOA, a component used in the manufacturing of Teflon, is the subject of several class-action and personal injury lawsuits due to its link to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses in those exposed to the chemical.

PFOA has been used since the 1940s in various industrial processes, including the manufacturing of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), such as Teflon, and the waterproof fabric Gore-Tex, which discontinued its use of the chemical in 2013. Studies show that PFOA is persistent in the environment, often showing up in public and other water supplies. It also is present in low levels in the blood of 98 percent of the US population. The EPA has been studying the health hazards associated with PFOA but the agency has been conservative in its handling of the contaminant, issuing only a provisional health advisory that sets 0.4 parts per billion as the recommended safety level. This notice is non-enforceable, which means water companies are not required to test for PFOA. If they do test, they are not obligated to disclose their levels unless they exceed 0.4 parts per billion.

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This level suggested by the EPA may be dangerously high, claims a pair of environmental researchers from Harvard and UMASS-Lowell. Using a meta-analysis of previous studies, Harvard’s Philippe Grandjean and UMass-Lowell researcher Richard Clapp believe that the FDA’s recommended safe level for PFOA in drinking water is hundreds and possibly a thousand times too high to protect people from the toxic effects of the chemical. PFOA may be as dangerous as asbestos or lead, both of which are hazardous at any level.

This is a grave concern for the 94 public water systems in 27 states where PFOA was detected in a 2013 EPA water testing program. These water quality reports reveal that PFOAs are present in water supplies that reach more than 6.5 million people. The detectable levels in the water of these municipalities are low (below the EPA limit), but they are above the new hazardous level suggested by Grandjean’s and Clapp’s study. If you want to know whether your water has PFOA, then you should check out this interactive map from Environmental Working Group.