Industry Conflict of Interest Jeopardizes Regulation of Toxic PFOA

On October 17-20, the Stockholm Convention’s Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee will meet in Rome, Italy. Among other priorities, the Committee will discuss PFOA — a toxic chemical that has been found in the bodies and bloodstreams of people all over the world. CIEL and other NGOs highlighted conflicts of interest that undermine the recommendations for the listing of the substance, and advise that PFOA be listed for in Annex A of the Stockholm Convention, with no exemptions, to eliminate its further production and use.

For decades, the chemicals industry manufactured hundreds of products using PFOA — also known as C8, or the “Teflon chemical.” The chemical is a slippery compound useful for a variety of products — from non-stick cookware to waterproof clothing.

But this widely used chemical also has a lesser known claim to fame. PFOA has been linked to a variety of severe health disorders — from cancers to thyroid disease to high cholesterol. The substance is so chemically stable that it never breaks down. It has been found in our waterways, in the bloodstreams of animals, and in the bodies of people all over the world.  In fact, PFOA has been found in the blood of 99.7% of Americans.

As the toxic risks of this common chemical have come to light in recent years, a more sinister narrative has become clear: Companies knew of the dangers of the chemical years earlier, but failed to inform workers, the public, or regulators about these risks. And beyond its cover-up of the dangers of PFOA, the chemical industry also engaged with regulators to prevent them from pursuing rules to restrict the production of PFOA. For example, according to an investigative series in The Intercept, in the US, DuPont launched a campaign to prevent EPA regulations of PFOA — which included recruiting former EPA officials into their strategy team, lobbying the EPA for a voluntary agreement instead of one that was legally binding, and offering only limited data on the chemical when requested by the EPA.

In response to the growing global awareness and concern of PFOA, in 2015 the European Union nominated PFOA for listing in the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty that aims to protect public health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These POPs take a long time to break down, become widely spread across the globe, and build up in the bodies of humans and animals, with devastating effects on the environment and public health. Listing PFOA under the Stockholm Convention would reduce or even eliminate the use of the substance.

However, when the EU began drafting the risk management evaluation of PFOA, it brought in an outside consulting company (BiPRO) to do the work — a company with major PFOA-producing companies on its client list. Reminiscent of industry meddling in US regulations, the result is a sweeping set of loopholes that excludes many of the major sources of PFOA pollution. In response, CIEL and 18 other NGOs have come out in opposition to the consultancy that was hired despite clear conflicts of interest that will inform decision-making on regulations of a chemical that has profound negative impacts on public health.

Among the sweeping exemptions are uses in textiles, medical devices, and pharmaceutical products. The evaluation offered inadequate information on why these particular exemptions were proposed, even though some of these uses have safer chemical alternatives.

Today, the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee will have its thirteenth meeting (POPRC.13). The Committee is composed of scientific experts who advise the parties to the Stockholm Convention, giving recommendations on how particular substances should be listed. Given the long history of industry covering up these risks, regulators should be wary of the role of industry in obstructing and influencing legislation on toxic chemicals — especially in the potential PFOA listing under the Stockholm Convention.

The Committee should recommend listing PFOA under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention, with no exemptions. A listing under Annex A requires that the states that are party to the Convention eliminate the substance’s production and use.

Though a proper listing of PFOA will not remove the already widespread contamination by the substance around the world, the listing is an important first step in preventing this toxic chemical from further polluting our planet and bloodstreams.

By Marie Mekosh
Communications & Development Associate

Originally posted October 16, 2017