California to list notorious 'forever chemical' as a cause of cancer in people

The class of chemicals known as PFAS have been used for decades in hundreds of consumer products.

March 24, 2021

3 Min Read
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The top state scientific agency charged with protecting Californians from toxic chemicals has proposed adding the “forever chemical” PFOA to the list of substances known to the state to cause cancer in humans under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, otherwise known as Proposition 65.

The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment, or OEHHA, said March 19 that PFOA “meets the criteria for listing as known to the state to cause cancer under Proposition 65,” based on the findings of a National Toxicology Program report last year. In 2019 the Environmental Working Group submitted comments to the NTP on the carcinogenicity of PFOA.

PFOA is the best known of the class of chemicals called PFAS, which were used for decades in hundreds of consumer products–including DuPont's Teflon and 3M’s Scotchgard–even as chemical companies covered up internal studies of its hazards. PFOA, and its cousin PFOS, never break down in the environment, build up in people's bodies and can be passed from mother to child in the womb and through breast milk.

PFOA’s dangers came to light through litigation first filed in 1999 by attorney Robert Bilott on behalf of what ultimately turned out to be tens of thousands of people exposed to the chemical through releases from DuPont’s Teflon manufacturing plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia. In 2005, acting on a petition from EWG and following review of internal company documents submitted by Bilott confirming the toxicity and hazards of PFOA, the Environmental Protection Agency fined DuPont a record $16.5 million, and the company and other manufacturers agreed to phase out PFOA and PFOS.

EWG President Ken Cook applauded the news that the influential California environmental health agency plans to list PFOA as a substance that can cause cancer. Proposition 65 requires that chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm carry a warning label, which historically has pushed manufacturers to remove listed chemicals from their products.

Cook, who has worked for over 20 years to prompt public and governmental action to address the hazards and risks of PFAS and is also a resident of California, noted that the state is frequently a bellwether in setting public health protections.

“This landmark decision by OEHHA underscores the state’s longstanding commitment to protecting its citizens from cancer-causing chemicals like PFOA,” Cook said. “The damage to communities nationwide from PFOA-contaminated drinking water and exposure through everyday consumer products is almost unimaginable, but California’s action underscores the urgency of addressing the crisis.”

Bilott, who has worked for decades to hold PFAS chemical manufacturers accountable in the courtroom, stated:

"The fight to protect the public from PFOA and other dangerous perfluorinated chemicals that began over two decades ago continues today. The more information and scientific data that is uncovered and revealed, the more concerned scientists and regulators all over the planet become. Even though the clear carcinogenic effects of PFOA were known by the manufacturers through their own animal studies dating back to the 1980s, they have continued to deny the cancer threat to humans. The current action in California is just the latest within the scientific and regulatory community to reject the manufacturers’ claims that these forever chemicals present ‘no risk’ to humans."

Source: The Environmental Working Group

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