Providing Answers to Chemical Safety Concerns
EPA brings top scientists together to share information about perfluoroalkyl acids.
Some perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs), a class of chemicals used in a variety of consumer products, have been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as potential threats to human health and the environment. The chemicals are a global concern because they are manufactured and released around the world, appear in most humans, sometimes at high concentrations, have been found in arctic mammals, and have contaminated water and soil.
EPA brought together leading researchers studying PFAAs in the United States and other countries at the 3rd Biennial PFAA Days Workshop, held June 8-10 at research facilities in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The workshop provided an opportunity to share recent findings and to explore potential partnerships.
At EPA laboratories, a considerable research effort to better understand PFAAs has been underway. The effort reflects EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s high priority to ensure the safety of chemicals, explained Kevin Teichman, deputy assistant administrator for science in the Agency’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), during his opening remarks at the workshop.
EPA has one of the largest groups of scientists studying perfluoroalkyl acids, providing expertise in many disciplines, said Elaine Francis, national program director of the Safe Pesticides/Safe Products Research Program and one of the workshop organizers, along with Chris Lau, an EPA scientist studying PFAAs. More than 60 articles in peer-reviewed publications have been produced by EPA researchers over the past four years to improve the understanding of the health and environmental impacts of these chemicals, she said.
EPA’s research program has evolved over time. Researchers first focused on the potential toxicity of PFAAs using animal models, and have expanded their efforts to examine how people are exposed, how the chemicals may degrade in soil, what happens to them after they enter wastewater treatment plants, how the chemicals are released from products in commerce and, more recently, what their properties are in biosolids. The research supports ongoing efforts by EPA to reduce the potential health and environmental impacts of PFAAs.
EPA research highlights at the workshop included:
Finding PFAAs: Determining where PFAAs go in the environment after they are released requires robust measurement methods. EPA researchers have developed analytical methods that enable scientists and water quality managers to determine if PFAAs are in the environment and at what concentration.
Monitoring Market Trends: In 2006, EPA initiated the PFOA Stewardship Program. (PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a type of PFAA). Eight major companies in the program committed to voluntarily reducing facility emissions and product content of PFOA, and related chemicals, by 95 percent by 2010 and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content of these chemicals by 2015. EPA scientists are supporting those goals.
EPA researchers are testing consumer products in 12 categories to evaluate whether companies are reducing PFAA content in their products under the program. Preliminary observations show a significant reduction of PFAAs in mill-treated stain-resistant carpeting and some carpet treatment products. Other product categories are showing mixed trends. An interim report will be published in late 2011.
Identifying Biological Activity: How do PFAAs cause reproductive and developmental effects in rodents? Application of biologic methods is needed to understand potential toxic effects. Researchers are examining how PFAAs may interact with nuclear receptors, specific proteins that can alter genetic code and are important to the normal development of an embryo/fetus and maintenance of homeostasis (the body’s ability to regulate biological processes) in adults.
Determining Link to Obesity: EPA researchers are exploring whether PFAA exposure plays a role in the incidence of obesity and metabolic syndrome. The chemicals are being studied because of their potential ability to influence energy metabolism (how biological fuels such as fat and sugar are being stored or converted into energy).
In 2009, EPA issued provisional health advisories for two of the chemicals--PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—in drinking water and developed action plans to address several other chemicals, including the long-chain PFAAs of new concern.Some of the research presented at the workshop will be submitted to the journals Reproductive Toxicology and Environmental Science and Technology, which plan to publish special issues on PFAAs.