Sticking up for health

WHEN IT COMES TO TEFLON, the Environmental Protection Agency is living up to its name. By calling this week for the reduction and eventual elimination of a potentially dangerous chemical used to make Teflon, the agency has shown it is willing to protect global wildlife and human health.

Unlike Teflon presidents or Teflon sports figures, Teflon itself has sticky health issues that refuse to slide away. A troubling compound used to make the slick stuff, called PFOA, is found in 95% of Americans and has been detected around the world, even finding its way into polar bears in Greenland, Alaska and Canada.

It’s not clear how this chemical finds its way into the environment; it’s removed from Teflon and other products during the manufacturing process. But PFOA is practically ubiquitous, used to make waterproof clothing, phone cables, building materials and more. In animal tests, it has been found to cause birth defects and has been linked to cancer and immune suppression, among other health problems. It stays in the human body for years and is passed on to a fetus during pregnancy.

Last year, the EPA went aggressively after DuPont Co., saying the chemical powerhouse that pioneered the use of PFOA had been hiding the substance’s health risks for close to 25 years and had failed to report that PFOA had seeped into residential water supplies in Ohio and West Virginia. DuPont agreed last month to pay the largest administrative fine in the EPA’s history: $16.5 million.


It would take years for the federal agency to ban PFOA; instead, in a rare move for the EPA under any administration, it called for preventing its release into the environment. Releases would be cut by 95% by 2010 and eliminated by 2015, it appears the eight major companies that use the chemical are agreeing to go along.

Before anyone slaps a halo on the EPA’s head, it’s worth noting that the agency is comfortably following a parade that was headed in this direction. DuPont has agreed to pay a settlement of up to $342 million in the water-contamination case -- incentive enough to control its release. The company reports that it already has cut emissions of PFOA over the last few years by 94%.

Still, EPA officials made the right move. It’s good to see the agency back in action; here’s hoping it lasts.