Friday, April 07, 2006

Teflon - Great Disovery or Poison in Your House

U of T environmental chemist Scott Mabury shrugs at the suggestion that he has achieved the kind of international influence most scientists only aspire to. His team’s research is largely behind last week’s decision by the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. to call a halt on the production of PFOA, a suspected carcinogen used in the making of Teflon and other non-stick and non-stain coatings.

“I’m very pleased,” said Mabury, chair of chemistry. “It’s good science fuelling good public policy. It’s what we scientists always hope for.”

Mabury’s group provided the scientific community with the alarming news that nearly all humans and animals on the planet are contaminated with a family of chemicals known as perfluororoctanoic acid, or PFOA. Mabury’s further studies have provided important data suggesting that the sources of PFOA are largely household products like stain-repellents and non-stick chemicals.

On Jan. 25 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suddenly asked eight manufacturers to reduce PFOA production by 95 per cent by 2010 and to stop using it altogether by 2015. The call is a surprisingly sudden victory for environmentalists and consumer groups, who, armed with data like Mabury’s, have long been petitioning the EPA to act. Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group is quoted in USA Today as stating that if the EPA is successful in getting the chemicals phased out, it will be “the single biggest action the agency has ever taken.”

Perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, was one of the perfluorinated compounds originally observed in the environment in the late 1990s, Mabury explained. It was identified as a breakdown product of the key ingredient in 3M’s Scotchguard. 3M took a proactive step and voluntarily phased out PFOS when faced with the evidence of its accumulation in the environment and its potential toxicity. Attention has now turned to PFOA, a relative of PFOS, that has been detected in people and animals around the world, and particularly in alarmingly high levels in Arctic animals.


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