The chemicals originally developed by DuPont and 3M had wondrous qualities. They could put out fires. They could protect couches from grease stains. They could make skillets so slippery that burgers slide right onto your plate.
The world came to learn that the perfluorochemicals have a sinister side. They linger and spread in the soil and water, and accumulate in the blood of people and wildlife, including polar bears, who generally live pretty far from sofas and Teflon pots.
While it’s still not clear what health damage might ensue, everyone agrees this was not a good thing.
So back in 2006, eight companies, including 3M and DuPont, reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to phase out PFOA, a major category of perfluorochemicals, completely in 2015. By the end of this year, PFOA will join PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons and leaded gasoline in the graveyard of chemical villains that we once loved.
There’s evidence that public health is already benefiting. Levels of PFOA in people’s blood have declined 41 percent between 1999 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
It’s that rarest of rarities: Government and industry working together to achieve environmental progress.
“This is a really good story in terms of environmental stewardship,” said Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, director of the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
Cleland-Hamnett pointed out that under EPA pressure, manufacturers devised alternatives so they did not have to rely on chemicals with such obvious problems. “It’s definitely an incentive for industry, when a serious and widespread hazard like this is identified.”
That hazard came sharply into view in the Twin Cities in the mid-2000s, when perfluorochemical contamination was discovered in wells supplying drinking water to cities in Washington and Dakota counties. Then it showed up in fish in the Mississippi River, and in Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.
By that time, 3M had already stopped making the chemicals, but they weren’t going away so easily. The company and the state spent years cleaning up old landfills, testing fish and monitoring the blood of east metro residents.
It hasn’t always been an amicable process. Attorney General Lori Swanson is suing 3M to force the company to spend more cleaning up the chemical mess, but four years after its filing, it has yet to come to trial. The company has responded by saying it has already paid $100 million in cleanup costs, while questioning whether the chemicals are actually harmful.
“Over the years, hundreds of studies have failed to demonstrate a causal connection between any adverse health effects to humans as a result of environmental exposure to them,” Fanna Haile-Selassie, a 3M spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Despite the phaseout of these substances, civilization continues. Scotchgard has been “reformulated” so it doesn’t need a perfluorochemical. Its website, meanwhile, shows a pristine-looking river and has a link to Cleland-Hamnett’s office at EPA. Last I checked, you can still buy microwave popcorn, which has used a perfluorochemical on the inside of the bag.
Coinciding with the phaseout, the EPA also announced this month that it will try to prohibit other companies from getting around the ban.
Cleland-Hamnett said the EPA’s having to play catch-up on these chemicals points to a weakness in the Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law designed to keep people safe from poisons. She said the law needs to be modernized so the agency has a better way to identify which of the estimated 80,000 chemicals already on the market could hurt us.
Cleland-Hamnett would not venture a guess about which one of those is the next menace-in-waiting.
Such a thing is inevitable, but for now, it’s good to know that at least one chemical wonder will slip into oblivion.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.