In a rare move to phase out a widely used industrial compound, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that it was asking all U.S. companies to virtually eliminate public exposure to a toxic chemical used to make Teflon cookware and thousands of other products.
Although the effort is voluntary, the federal government has rarely taken such a sweeping, accelerated action against an industrial compound. The eight major companies that use it to make an array of nonstick and stain-resistant products are expected to comply, cutting releases from their plants and products by 95% over the next four years and completely soon after that.
DuPont, which manufactures Teflon and has used the compound for more than 50 years, pledged to meet the deadlines. The voluntary phaseout will not end the sale of Teflon and other products, but it is expected to drastically curtail the release of the chemical into the atmosphere.
That chemical, a perfluorinated acid called PFOA, has contaminated the bloodstream of most Americans and is polluting the environment throughout much of the world.
In laboratory animals exposed to high doses, PFOA causes liver cancer, reduced birth weight, immune suppression and developmental problems. In humans, the effects of lower doses are unknown, but it is transferred to fetuses.
"The science on PFOA is still coming in, but the concern is there. Acting now to minimize it is really the right thing to do for our health and our environment," said EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Susan Hazen.
Under the EPA plan, the companies can still use the chemical in manufacturing as long as it doesn't turn up in its products and is not released into the environment.
Wednesday's announcement is considered the EPA's most aggressive effort to restrict an industrial compound in more than 15 years, when it enacted a regulation banning asbestos.
Environmentalists, who have criticized most EPA actions under the Bush administration, applauded the move.
"With its announcement today, the EPA is challenging an entire industry to err on the side of precaution and public safety and invent new ways of doing business," said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook.
The Environmental Working Group, which for several years has investigated and heavily criticized DuPont's handling of PFOA, applauded the company as well, saying its pledge shows it is "forward-looking, environmentally sensitive [and] setting the pace for a cleaner chemical industry."
Last month, the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for allegedly hiding data on the toxicity and health effects of PFOA for more than 20 years and contaminating the drinking water supply in the Ohio River Valley, next to a DuPont plant in West Virginia. It was the largest administrative fine in the history of the EPA.
The seven other companies asked to comply are 3M/Dyneon; Arkema Inc.; AGC Chemicals/Asahi Glass; Ciba Specialty Chemicals; Clariant Corp.; Daikin and Solvay Solexis. They were told to respond by March 1.
Under a 30-year-old federal law that governs toxic substances, the EPA cannot ban chemicals outright without a years-long rule-making process and protracted legal fights, so the agency is seeking voluntary compliance.
The companies are being called upon to reduce PFOA released into the environment and the PFOA content in their products by 95% by 2010, from amounts found in 2000. They also are being asked to eliminate all sources of public exposure no later than 2015 -- not just in the United States but at all their global operations.
The agreement "will, if properly implemented, dramatically reduce, and eventually eliminate" PFOA in the environment, Cook said.
Environmentalists said they would continue to urge a ban on PFOA as well as other chemicals that build up in the environment. "No one should confuse the agreement announced today with a ban. It is not a ban," Cook said.
It would, however, be the largest voluntary phaseout in EPA history, affecting a line of products worth billions of dollars a year.
Alastair Iles, a chemical policy expert working with UC Berkeley professors, called the effort "definitely unprecedented. It is the first time that I know of EPA actually calling for a reduction of a specific chemical used in products."
DuPont Vice President Susan Stalnecker said her company had already been "aggressively reducing" PFOA emissions into the environment. "Having achieved a 94% reduction in global manufacturing emissions by year-end 2005, we are well on our way to meet the goals and objectives established by the EPA stewardship program," she said.
The chemical for decades has been considered essential in making nonstick and stain-resistant products. In addition to Teflon cookware, it is used by the aerospace, transportation, textile and electronics industries for such products as wiring and fabrics.
David Boothe, global business director of DuPont Fluoro Products, said it would continue to use PFOA to make Teflon and other fluoropolymers because there is no known way to make the products without it. But he said DuPont had developed emissions-control technology that will cut 98% of the PFOA released into the environment at its manufacturing plants worldwide by 2007. DuPont will provide the technology for free to competitors.
No one knows how the chemical is getting into people's bloodstreams and in the bodies of polar bears and other animals. Although it is used in production of cookware, it is not found in the cookware, clothing and other fluoropolymers after manufacture.
DuPont representatives said their products were safe for use, and EPA officials have agreed, saying there was no need to stop using Teflon products.
The EPA is asking each company to file annual public records reporting on their progress and continue funding research about the health risks of the chemical and how it gets into people's bodies and the environment.
Industrial chemicals are regulated under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA can restrict industrial chemicals if they "present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment." The agency must use "the least burdensome" approach and compare the costs and benefits.
In 1989, the EPA invoked the law to ban asbestos, but it was thrown out by a federal appeals court. Asbestos was voluntarily phased out.
Many legal scholars and policy experts have called for reform of the law, calling it toothless and saying it has left the United States behind in regulating chemicals, particularly compared with the European Union.