EPA curb on chem­i­cal has cut num­ber of U.S. low-weight ba­bies, study finds

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - BY BRADY DEN­NIS AND JULIET EILPERIN brady.den­nis@wash­post.com juliet.eilperin@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/ en­ergy-en­vi­ron­ment

Ef­forts to phase out a chem­i­cal used in non­stick coat­ings have re­sulted in fewer un­der­weight ba­bies born in the United States in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to find­ings pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Hy­giene and En­vi­ron­men­tal Health.

Re­searchers at New York Univer­sity based their find­ings on an anal­y­sis of blood sam­ples of new moth­ers that were gath­ered be­tween 2003 and 2014 as part of a na­tional health study to ex­am­ine lev­els of per­flu­o­rooc­tanoic acid (PFOA). Ex­po­sure to the syn­thetic chem­i­cal — PFOA has long been used in con­sumer prod­ucts as di­verse as stain-re­sis­tant car­pets, non­stick pans, pizza boxes and out­door ap­parel — has been associated with a va­ri­ety of po­ten­tial health prob­lems, in­clud­ing can­cer.

Re­searchers sug­gest that de­vel­op­ing fe­tuses are par­tic­u­larly at risk for birth de­fects and lower-than-nor­mal birth weights. Such con­cerns were a driv­ing force be­hind a 2006 agree­ment be­tween the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­crease and even­tu­ally halt the pro­duc­tion of PFOA by 2015.

For years, PFOA was nearly ubiq­ui­tous in the United States, with much of it trav­el­ing un­reg­u­lated through wa­ter sup­plies. Ac­cord­ing to the EPA, blood serum tests in the U.S. gen­eral pop­u­la­tion be­tween 1999 and 2012 de­tected PFOA 99 per­cent of the time. How­ever, those fig­ures have be­gun to fall as com­pa­nies have phased out the chem­i­cal.

The NYU re­searchers found that PFOA lev­els in women ages 18 to 49 con­tin­ued to rise from 2003 to 2008, when me­dian lev­els peaked at 3.5 nanograms per mil­li­liter. But by 2009, not long af­ter the gov­ern­ment com­pelled com­pa­nies to be­gin phas­ing out the chem­i­cal, the trend be­gan to re­verse. Blood lev­els of PFOA be­gan drop­ping from a me­dian 2.8 nanograms per mil­li­liter to 1.6 nanograms per mil­li­liter by 2014.

Re­searchers used com­puter model­ing to es­ti­mate the num­ber of low-weight births that may have been caused by spe­cific lev­els of PFOA chem­i­cal ex­po­sure. They com­pared the es­ti­mated im­pact of PFOA when blood lev­els were high­est with the im­pact af­ter blood lev­els dropped. That al­lowed them to es­ti­mate that the voluntary phase­out of PFOA and sim­i­lar chem­i­cals has pre­vented be­tween 10,000 and 17,000 low-weight births in the United States an­nu­ally in re­cent years.

“All too of­ten we talk about the fail­ure of EPA or other agen­cies to reg­u­late chem­i­cals,” said Leonardo Trasande, the study’s lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor and a pro­fes­sor at the NYU School of Medicine. “But we don’t give enough credit when an agency does the right thing and works with in­dus­try proac­tively to phase a chem­i­cal of concern.”

A num­ber of fac­tors con­trib­ute to low-birth-weight ba­bies, who weigh 5.5 pounds or less. But Trasande said he and his col­leagues at NYU iso­lated the num­ber that could be at­trib­uted to ex­po­sure to PFOA.

“What we found was this very strik­ing pat­tern,” said Trasande, a pe­di­a­tri­cian and health epi­demi­ol­o­gist. He added that pre­vent­ing so many low-weight births trans­lated into bil­lions of dol­lars in avoided so­ci­etal costs re­lated to such things as in­fant hospi­tal stays, lower earn­ing po­ten­tial for those chil­dren who faced sig­nif­i­cant health and de­vel­op­men­tal prob­lems. “We know that more low-weight ba­bies means ex­tra med­i­cal care.”

The EPA’s sci­en­tific ad­vi­sory panel iden­ti­fied PFOA as a “likely car­cino­gen” in June 2005. Six months later, it reached a $16.5 mil­lion set­tle­ment with DuPont, which used to pro­duce the chem­i­cal com­pound in Park­ers­burg, W.Va., over the com­pany’s fail­ure to re­port pos­si­ble health and en­vi­ron­men­tal risks associated with its prod­uct for more than two decades. That ev­i­dence, which dated as far back as 1981, in­cluded the fact that the chem­i­cal could be trans­ferred from a preg­nant woman to her baby via the pla­centa.

In Jan­uary 2006, eight com­pa­nies — in­clud­ing DuPont, 3M, Ciba and Clari­ant — agreed to stop mak­ing PFOA.

Even as com­pa­nies have elim­i­nated the chem­i­cal from use, that hasn’t meant Amer­i­cans are no longer ex­posed. Mil­lions of prod­ucts that con­tain PFOA and a sim­i­lar com­pound known as PFOS re­main in peo­ple’s homes and in com­mer­cial set­tings.

The EPA last year is­sued a health ad­vi­sory about PFOS and PFOA, warn­ing about po­ten­tial long-term ex­po­sures to the com­pounds.

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