Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will ban three grease-resistant chemicals from food packaging materials like pizza box liners, microwavable popcorn bags, and sandwich wrappers. The newly banned substances all come from a family of chemicals, known as perflourinated chemicals, known to be associated with cancer, digestive ailments, and reproductive harms.
The catch? The ban only applies to perflourinated chemicals that have already largely been taken off the market, while leaving dozens of other similar chemicals on the FDA’s approved list for use materials (like packaging) that come in contact with food, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental organization.
“Industrial chemicals that pollute people’s blood clearly have no place in food packaging,” EWG President Ken Cook said in a statement. “This is another egregious example of how, all too often, regulatory actions under the nation’s broken chemical laws are too little and too late to protect Americans’ health.”
The FDA’s move comes at a time when there is growing public awareness of the hazards of PFOA or C8, a perflourinated chemical that DuPont used for decades to manufacture Teflon-coated pots and pans and other goods. As I reported in Earth Island Journal’s latest issue, in October 2015 an Ohio jury awarded $1.6 million to cancer survivor Carla Bartlett, the first of over 3,000 plaintiffs who have sued DuPont over C8 contamination of drinking water supplies near DuPont’s Parkersburg, West Virginia plant. DuPont had been using the chemical in its products for more than 50 years even though it knew C8 was making people sick. Legal battles against DuPont over C8 have already spanned nearly two decades, and are still continuing.
Perflourinated chemicals are remarkable for several reasons. First off, they spread easily through the environment – so much so that they’ve already entered the bloodstream of an astonishing number of Americans. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, more than 98 percent of Americans have at least one of a dozen perflourinated chemicals, including C8, in their blood. They’re also extraordinarily long lasting. Unlike many chemicals, perflourinated chemicals generally don’t biodegrade or break down. They stay in the environment for decades, even centuries, and they also can build up in a person’s system over time. They can be passed from one generation to the next through umbilical cords. And they’ve already been found in wildlife around the globe, including dolphins, polar bears, and eagles living in the remotest regions of the world.
“These chemicals as a class have the ability to essentially irreversibly pollute the globe, in that they’ve got extremely high persistence,” said EWG senior scientist David Andrews. “The carbon-fluorine bond is extremely strong and stable and doesn’t break down under normal environmental conditions. So we’re synthetically producing all of these chemicals that have extremely long environmental lifetimes.”
There are enough reasons to be concerned that these chemicals may pose health hazards. C8, the chemical used for decades by DuPont to manufacture Teflon (which has now been phased out, though EWG says it’s been replaced with other perflourinated chemicals), has been linked to various diseases including, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
In its announcement last week, made in response to a petition filed by nine environmental groups last year, the FDA also focused on the potential risks to human health from long-chain perflourinated chemicals.
“We have made a determination that the information provided in the petition and other publicly available relevant data demonstrates that there is no longer a reasonable certainty of no harm for the food contact use of the three [food contact substances,” the agency wrote.
Questions about the use of these chemicals in food wrappers first arose back in 2005, when a former DuPont engineer revealed that the company had been using perflourinated chemicals in coatings for paper-based food wrappers. In the wake of that scandal, Burger King and other companies announced that they would no longer buy food wrappers made using those chemicals. By 2011, pressure from environmental advocates, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, had led US manufacturers to voluntarily cease using the three newly-banned chemicals — but concerns remained about the possibility that imported packaging was left out of the voluntary agreements.
The Plastics Industry Trade Association, SPI, focused on this voluntary agreement in its response to the FDA’s move. “It is the understanding of SPI’s member companies that the materials listed in FDA’s final rule are no longer manufactured for food-contact applications and represent an old technology,” Kyra Mumbauer, senior director of global regulatory affairs at SPI, said in a statement. “FDA’s action thus does not impact SPI’s members.”
And that is a problem. Here’s why. With this new rule, the FDA distinguishes between so-called, “long-chain” perflourinated chemicals, which have eight or more carbon molecules, and “short-chain” ones, which some studies show break down faster than the long-chain version. The newly banned chemicals all fall into the long-chain category, and as SPI indicated, most of them are no longer being used food packaging. In many instances, they have been replaced by short-chain perflourinated compounds.
Also, while long-chain perflourinated chemicals like C8 have been used for decades and have been the subject of far more scientific scrutiny, the short-chain chemicals are relatively under-studied.
“There’s very little public information on the safety of a lot of these chemicals, if not all of them,” Andrews said. “We know the most about the ones that were used for 40 and 50 years. The evidence of how detrimental and how harmful they are to health took decades to accumulate and we want to raise some red flags about these very similar molecules – especially that are being added to food contact materials. This is a place that there is high potential for direct exposure.”
While both the FDA and EPA are required by federal law to take a chemical-by-chemical approach to assessing and regulating potentially hazardous chemical, environmental advocates say that it may be time to change the ways that chemical risks are considered, and to take into account any known risks posed by other chemicals in the same family.
An effort to re-write the main federal law governing chemicals used by consumers, the Toxic Substances Control Act, is currently underway in Washington, DC. In December, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, passed the Senate. The bill is now headed to the conference committee to resolve any differences between that bill and a similar bill passed last year by the House of Representatives. The Lautenberg Act, which initially had drawn strong support from environmental groups, has been through many revisions and now enjoys strong support from chemical industry trade groups.
“A big danger is that this is the first attempt to reform this law since it was passed in 1976, and after all these years of fighting over it, if it gets passed we’ll have a lot of people saying ‘ok we’ve done that, we’ve taken care of chemical reform’,” Bill Walker, an EWG investigator told the Journal, “and it may take a generation before the political will to act comes together again.”