By Dick Clapp

This week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued preliminary health-based guidance to local water companies on levels of perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water (PDF). Based on current knowledge of cancer and non-cancer effects of this chemical, they recommended a limit of 0.04 parts per billion, and they say this will be re-evaluated as additional data becomes available. This is the latest in what will be an on-going process of research and regulation of this ubiquitous and persistent bioaccumulative toxin. The saga that has been unfolding is summarized in a PFOA case study on the SKAPP website, and a series of health studies are underway in Parkersburg, West Virginia, that will be reported over the next two years.

PFOA and its close cousin PFOS have been used for decades in manufacturing Teflon and other non-stick and stain-resistant products. In the past few years, after widespread contamination of drinking water in communities near the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, concerns about human health effects of PFOA have made international news. The extent of the contamination goes well beyond the communities where it was manufactured (in West Virginia, Minnesota, Alabama, Antwerp, Belgium, and elsewhere) because the eight-carbon chemical compounds are so persistent. For example, I had my house dust tested in 2005 as part of a national sampling plan organized by Clean Water Action and I had 100.1 ng/g PFOA in my house dust (along with 214.1 ng/g PFOS and measurable levels of DDT, phthalates, PBDE and other persistent toxic chemicals). Others who participated in this sampling had PFOA in their house dust, as well.

The full extent of exposure to PFOA and its health effects in children, adults, and the rest of the ecosystem won’t be known for years. Early indications are that it may be associated with birth defects, abnormal blood lipids and cancer, but much more will become evident in the next two years. The New Jersey DEP was wise to issue preliminary guidance and thereby draw attention to the extent of drinking water contamination that may already be present in that state. Other states would do well to follow their lead. In the meantime, it serves as another cautionary tale about the need for a more precautionary chemicals policy in the U.S.

Dick Clapp is a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, a member of the Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy Planning Committee, and Co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. He served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit between DuPont and citizens of Parkersburg, WV.

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