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Perfluorinated compounds got increased scrutiny

Federal agencies and courts had their say on the environmentally long-lived substances

by Jessica Morrison , Marc S. Reisch
December 14, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 49

Credit: Steve Johnson/Flickr
A faucet that has been turned on and has water running out of it.
Credit: Steve Johnson/Flickr

Two perfluorinated compounds—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—were the focus of U.S. federal regulation and a handful of lawsuits in 2016.

Though the major companies that make or use PFOA agreed in 2006 to phase out production, the chemicals persist in the environment because of the strength of their carbon-fluorine bonds. Once used in the manufacture of nonstick materials, such as 3M’s Scotchgard and DuPont’s Teflon, the perfluorinated substances have been linked to disease in humans.

After more than a decade of study, the Environmental Protection Agency in May issued a lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. According to the agency’s new guidelines, utilities should notify consumers when the chemicals exceed 70 parts per trillion—individually or combined—in drinking water.

Environmental advocates, including environmental attorney Robert A. Bilott questioned EPA’s delay in setting a chronic exposure limit for drinking water. “That is something that could have been and should have been done 15 or 16 years ago,” Bilott says.

In response to a 2014 petition by environmental and public health groups linking perfluorinated chemicals to cancer and birth defects, the Food & Drug Administration this year banned five perfluoroalkyl substances from use in U.S. food packaging.

The environmental fallout over perfluorinated chemicals generated a variety of legal activities this year. In February, residents of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., sued Honeywell International and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics for contaminating the village’s water supply. Both firms used PFOA to make stain-resistant fabrics.

In July, a jury ordered DuPont and its spin-off Chemours to pay $5.6 million to a testicular cancer victim who traced his illness to Chemours’s Parkersburg, W.Va., fluorochemical plant. The suit is one of 3,500 pending in federal court in Columbus, Ohio, by plaintiffs who live near the Parkersburg plant.

And in Alabama, one utility notified its customers that PFOA and PFOS levels exceeded guidelines for drinking water and then sued 3M and carpet makers in October for remediation costs. Years ago, the carpet makers used the perfluorinated substances in stain-resistant broadloom treatments.


Top Headlines of 2016

Top Research of 2016

Revisiting Research of 2006


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