The chemical caused lab rats to lose weight. When pregnant rats were exposed to it, their pups lost weight, too, and their pups’ skulls, ribs, and pelvises tended to develop abnormally. The compound, referred to by the number “647-42-7” in Environmental Protection Agency records, also caused discoloration of the teeth, increased liver weights, decreased how much their infants nursed, and lowered the animals’ red blood cell counts. One report showed that the clear, colorless liquid caused “increased pup mortality” and, in adult rats, elevated death rates.
Female rats exposed to 647-42-7 “did not appear normal,” as another one of the reports explained, going on to detail their symptoms, which included “dental effects; mild dehydration; urine-stained abdominal fur; coldness to the touch; ungroomed coat; decreased motor activity; ataxia [uncoordinated movements]; periorbital [eye area] swelling; brown fur on the lower midline; hunched posture; and slight excess salivation.” At one dose, the chemical caused ridges to form on one of the inner layers of the rats’ incisor teeth, according to one of five reports DuPont sent to the EPA. Six other reports about the chemical submitted to the agency between 2007 and 2013 did not include the name of the manufacturer.
Despite the alarming findings of these animal experiments, between 4 and 40 million pounds of this PFAS compound were produced nationally in four locations in 2015, according to the most recent information available from the EPA. And 647-42-7, described in chemical companies’ filings with EPA as a “reactant,” is just one of 40 chemicals in the class of industrial compounds known as PFAS that are in active use despite the fact that their manufacturers alerted the EPA to substantial threats the chemicals pose to health and the environment. The chemicals were designated “active” on the EPA’s inventory, meaning that they were made or used in the U.S. by at least one company between 2006 and 2016.
DuPont was asked about the chemical and the risk reports it submitted to the EPA but declined to comment for this story.
PFOS and PFOA, the two best known chemicals in a class that contains thousands, have been used made to make firefighting foam, Teflon, and hundreds of other products. After being recognized as a source of water contamination and linked to a wide range of health problems, including cancers, PFOA and PFOS were phased out of use in the U.S. between 2006 and 2015 along with other PFAS compounds based on chains of eight carbon atoms or more. During that period, the chemical industry began moving to “shorter-chain” alternatives, such as 647-42-7, which is based on six linked carbon atoms. These replacement compounds were promoted as safer and more environmentally sustainable.
At a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about corporate responsibility for PFAS contamination on September 10, Daryl Roberts, chief operations and engineering officer of DuPont, acknowledged the dangers of PFOA and PFOS when he “reaffirmed our commitment to not make, buy, or use long-chain PFAS materials.” And Paul Kirsch, chief executive officer of Chemours, which spun off from DuPont in 2015 and inherited its PFAS business, said that the company “supports EPA’s process to determine whether legacy long-chain PFAS chemicals should be designated as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.” Yesterday, appearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Dave Ross, assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Water, promised that the agency “will propose a regulatory determination” for PFOS and PFOA.
Yet as these reports make clear, the short-chain PFAS compounds that remain in use present many of the same threats associated with longer-chain molecules. Manufacturers filed at least one report of substantial risk with the EPA for each of these 40 compounds, according to The Intercept’s analysis of documents accessed through the agency’s website. 3M submitted reports for 21 of these chemicals; DuPont submitted the reports for most of the rest. Some chemicals were the subject of more than a dozen reports. The specific risks associated with these 40 PFAS chemicals — and the fact the EPA has had hundreds of reports documenting them for years, and in some cases, decades — has not been previously reported.
All PFAS chemicals persist indefinitely in the environment and have the potential to contaminate water and remain in the bodies of people and animals. But these compounds presented additional risks that, once discovered, required their manufacturers to report them to the EPA. Among the health effects on lab animals noted in the reports were neurotoxicity; developmental toxicity; decreased pup weight; decreased conception; testicular, pancreatic, and kidney cancers; severe convulsions; bleeding in the lungs; tooth problems; post-natal loss; hair loss; and depression of sperm function.
Ideally, the findings in these animal studies would have led to more testing, according to Laura Vandenberg, a toxicologist and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences who reviewed several of the reports found by The Intercept. Vandenberg cited one study, in which rats began to show “sudden movements characterized by pronounced jumping” after being exposed to one of the compounds. “As a consequence of the pronounced jumping, the snout/limbs of Group 3 rats were observed to protrude through the bars of the confinement cage, resulting on occasions in a trapped snout,” according to the report, which 3M submitted to the EPA in 2000.
“That’s a very severe outcome,” said Vandenberg. “It should have been used as a trigger to study lower doses and more subtle outcomes.” Still, many of the harms associated with the chemicals in the reports did not surprise Vandenberg, who said they were very similar to the effects of PFOA and PFOS seen in animal experiments. “What is shocking is that the concern that came after learning the effects of PFOA and PFOS isn’t being transferred to these other perfluorinated chemicals,” she said. “These chemicals are being introduced as if they’re safe as replacements when in fact they’re not and someone else knew that they weren’t.”
Despite their dangers, at least 15 of these 40 PFAS compounds that were the subject of substantial risk reports are not only on the most recent list of compounds in active use but also, like 647-42-7, are produced in very large quantities. While most manufacturers withheld the exact amount of the chemicals they produced, on the grounds that the information is confidential and that its disclosure would harm their businesses, these 15 were included on a list compiled by the EPA of compounds produced or imported in excess of 25,000 pounds per year in a single location.
Such amounts have the potential to profoundly alter human biology, according to Philippe Grandjean, a toxicologist and adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard University. “A tiny speck could seriously impact the health of a person,” said Grandjean, whose research has shown that very low levels of the chemicals depress children’s immunity. Even if each of the manufacturers of 647-42-7 made the smallest amount in the range of production volumes they reported — which would total 4 million pounds in a single year — that quantity is more than the weight of all PFAS accumulated in the blood of everyone in the United States, according to Grandjean.
7,757 Secret Chemicals
Among the newer generation of PFAS replacements made in large quantities is GenX, DuPont’s substitute for PFOA. Like the chemical it replaced, GenX causes cancer and other diseases in lab animals, as The Intercept was first to report in 2016. That chemical has since been found in the drinking water of some 250,000 people in North Carolina.
Other chemicals used in large quantities since longer-chain PFAS have been phased out appear to present similarly alarming risks, but haven’t yet made it onto the radar of regulators in part because the studies are not included in the published literature.
Consider one compound that looks and behaves much like the PFAS chemical 3M previously used to make the fabric and carpet protector Scotchgard, but is based on a four- rather than eight-carbon chain. Beyond their structural and functional similarity, this new compound shares something else with its chemical predecessor: alarming health effects.
“Mortality was observed at all doses,” explained an EPA summary of studies of the chemical that were submitted to the agency by 3M between 2002 and 2017. In one of the experiments, the compound interfered with the development of baby rats’ skulls, ribs, and foot bones. The more of the compound the rats were exposed to, the more severe the interference was, one of the surest signs that the chemical was responsible for the problems. In another experiment, the compound harmed the livers, kidneys, and bladders of both male and female rats. Because the bladder damage occurred at even the lowest doses given the lab animals, the researchers determined they were not able to set a level at which the chemical had no effects.
“Mortality was observed at all doses.”
The compound was included on the 2012 and 2016 lists of chemicals made in large volume but was not on the list in 2002 and 2006, before the phase out of longer-chain PFAS was complete. Although 3M submitted several reports documenting the chemical’s toxicity to rats and their developing pups, no information was available about where it is made or used, by whom, for what, or in what quantities— because all of that information, including the name of the company itself, was removed as confidential business information.
In some cases, companies have declared the very existence of chemicals confidential. In the EPA’s most recent inventory of chemicals, which was released in March 2019, 7,757 active compounds were on a list that is entirely kept from the public, making it impossible to locate risk reports or any other information about them. While it’s not clear how many of these mystery chemicals are in the PFAS family, “it’s almost certain that there are a lot of PFAS on the confidential part of the inventory,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. That means that many more PFAS chemicals beyond the 40 compounds mentioned in this story have likely been the subject of risk reports that aren’t available.
Companies are also allowed to shield the identities of their products on the list of chemicals made in large quantities, meaning that many more than 15 PFAS compounds may be produced on a massive scale, though it’s impossible to know how many, where, or in what volumes.
Historically, there were few requirements for adding chemicals to this secret list. “Companies simply asserted the identity of a chemical to be confidential and EPA would never review that claim,” said Denison. A 2016 update of TSCA, the law regulating toxic chemicals, tightened up the requirements for shielding the identity of chemicals. But so far those improvements have not yet materialized, according to Denison. “Under the Trump admin, the EPA has been exceedingly slow in implementing these new requirements.”
Nobody’s Looking for Them
If scientists had information about where the compound was made and used, they could know where to check for environmental contamination. Evidence from Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Carneys Point, New Jersey, and some of the other places where hundreds of facilities emit PFAS show that manufacturing and using the chemicals can be a messy business, and the chemicals often seep into nearby soil and water.
Yet even when the location of a production site is known, it is not clear that anyone is looking for these compounds. Several of the companies that make PFAS in large volumes have supplied the addresses of their sites. Two of the chemicals, including one described as “neurotoxic at all levels,” had a 3M facility in Rock Island, Illinois, listed as their production site in the most recent EPA records.
Yet the EPA doesn’t appear to have asked the company to test for either of these chemicals or their breakdown products at the plant. In 2006, the agency did ask 3M to look for PFOA and PFOS in water at the plant. While the company found both of those chemicals at high levels in every spot it looked for them and had already measured them in alfalfa grown at the facility — indicating that the water contamination could lead to food contamination — 3M was no longer making PFOA and PFOS in 2006. It was, however, making this other PFAS compound in large quantities — and, according to EPA documents, still was as of 2016 — but apparently has not been required to look for it.
In response to an inquiry about this story from The Intercept, 3M provided the following statement: “3M regularly and proactively examines the environmental and health impacts of our products, including our PFAS materials. We work closely with the EPA and state and local regulatory agencies to provide appropriate monitoring, testing and public reporting around our manufacturing sites. We have more information on other recent actions we’ve taken around PFAS stewardship at www.3M.com/PFAS.” 3M did not respond to questions about whether it had looked for or found this particular compound in the water near its Rock Island facility — or whether it had done so for three other PFAS chemicals it reported to the EPA.
So far, the EPA’s search for PFAS contamination has been limited to a few better-known compounds in the class. The only national survey conducted by the agency looked for six PFAS chemicals, none of which are still produced in large quantities. There is no national environmental surveillance program for these newer compounds. And, with the exception of GenX, state regulators haven’t been testing for most of them.
The Minnesota state agency responsible for addressing water pollution hasn’t looked for a PFAS compound that, according to the most recent EPA records, was being produced in large quantities at a 3M facility in Ramsey, Minnesota. The chemical had pronounced reproductive effects, according to a 2003 report 3M submitted to the EPA, which found that for pregnant rats given the highest doses of the compound “the number of liveborn pups was significantly decreased and the number of stillborn pups was significantly increased”.
But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency couldn’t test water for it because it wasn’t aware that the chemical was made in its state. “There’s no ability for us to say, ‘Hey 3M, just give us the whole list of what you’re making,’” said Summer Streets, an environmental chemist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Instead the state agency relies on EPA to learn about what’s produced at the plant. And many of the critical details in the documents it receives from the EPA have been withheld on the grounds that they’re confidential business information, according to Streets. “That gets in a way of a lot of work,” she said. “We’re forever behind the eight ball.”
The Honor System
Since 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act has required companies that make, process, or distribute chemicals to immediately report to the EPA information that “reasonably supports the conclusion” that a chemical presents a substantial risk to health or the environment. But the reporting works on the honor system; companies have no requirement to look for this evidence of harm. And there is no way to know whether they send in all they have. If the EPA discovers after the fact that companies have withheld damning information, it can fine them, as the agency did in 2005 and 2006 after realizing that both 3M and DuPont had kept evidence of the health threats of PFOA and PFOS secret for years. But the amounts of the fines the companies faced were miniscule compared to their profits.
If companies do perform tests and report their results to the EPA, the agency doesn’t necessarily have to do anything in response. By law, the regulators can seize the substance, order more testing, restrict its manufacture, or begin the process of banning it — but they don’t have to do any of these things and almost never do. In the case of the vast majority of the hundreds of PFAS compounds that are still made and used in this country, the agency has done little.
One step the EPA has taken with new PFAS compounds, whether they’ve been the subject of risk reports or not, is to enter into legal agreements known as consent orders that limit how companies handle new chemicals they’re introducing to the market. The EPA has issued more than 200 consent orders for new PFAS compounds since 2002, most of which note that the new chemical “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health and the environment” and that there may be “significant (or substantial) human exposure to the substance and its degradation products.” Despite this worrisome combination, the agreements allow the chemicals into commerce. And because the consent orders are often heavily redacted, it’s extremely difficult to figure out whether the restrictions they apply are being violated.
In a 2010 consent order for a PFAS compound used to manufacture paint and coatings, for instance, the EPA required further testing of the chemical once the company produced a certain amount of it, but because that number is redacted, and because the company also declared the amount of the chemical it produces confidential, it’s impossible to determine whether the testing should have been done.
There’s good reason to worry about whether this PFAS compound has made its way into drinking water. In animal experiments, the chemical, which “may be used as a major substitute for PFOA,” as the consent order notes, had effects on rats’ thyroid, livers, and nasal tissues. Abnormalities were also found in some of the tests of male rats exposed to the compound, which the consent order noted was a “sign of concern for male reproductive toxicity.” Despite these red flags, the compound was made in large quantities at a Chemours facility in Deepwater, New Jersey, according to the most recent information on its production, which EPA issued in 2016.
Chemours did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was asked whether it monitored soil or water for contamination from the compound near the Chemours plant in Deepwater but did not reply.
Even when a consent order limits how much of a chemical can be released into the environment, it’s exempt from that restriction if the chemical is a byproduct of another process rather than being produced to be sold. This loophole allowed DuPont to freely emit GenX into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, even though the company had entered into a consent order with EPA that strictly limited its release as a product.
“It’s just loophole upon loophole upon loophole,” said Eve Gartner, a staff attorney at Earthjustice who works on toxic chemicals. Gartner called EPA’s handling of PFAS “an unmitigated disaster” and said that the agency had failed to use its full power under the law. “EPA could have used its authority in a meaningful way to stem the tide of these chemicals into commerce, the environment and human bodies. And instead it has taken tiny baby steps that have really not been protective,” she said. “This is a crisis that we will be dealing with for millennia.”
According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency has taken steps to restrict the entry of new PFAS onto the market. Since 2006, companies have withdrawn their applications to introduce new PFAS compounds in the class on 44 occasions while they were under EPA review. The EPA has also denied 49 applications for low-volume exemptions for PFAS, which allow the companies to begin producing less than 10,000 kilograms per year of a substance without having to undergo a full safety review.
Rather than leading to more research or serving as justification for EPA to forbid the compounds from entering the market, it seems that most of these risk reports were simply filed away. Although they were technically accessible through the EPA website, the specific risks posed by the replacement PFAS chemicals have gone unnoticed by regulators, scientists, and the general public. In the meantime, some of these compounds have spread into the environment. An article published in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety in June noted that seven PFAS replacement compounds were found in 19 rivers in China, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Korea. The chemicals have also already been detected in fish, frogs, seals, polar bears, and killer whales. And though little research has yet been done in the area, a few scientists have already measured replacements PFAS in human blood. One 2017 study found 3M’s PFOA replacement, ADONA, in people living in South Germany. Researchers have found several replacement PFAS chemicals in people living near a Chemours plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And one of the compounds is now widespread in women and fetuses in China.
Had they been made widely available, researchers might have been able to investigate whether people exposed to the chemicals responded the same way the lab animals did.
It’s a question that keeps Hope Grosse up at night. Grosse grew up near a military base in Pennsylvania where multiple PFAS compounds contaminated her drinking water. She was diagnosed with cancer at 25, and she and her sister have struggled with autoimmune problems. She and her older brother are also missing several teeth, and two of her children, who also grew up near the base, have severe dental problems. Everyone in her family has teeth that crumble easily and her 20-year-old daughter, whose dental care has cost the family more than $300,000, is missing 16 teeth.
There is no way to know for sure whether her family’s dental issues or other health problems are due to the chemicals. But when told that several of the risk reports PFAS manufacturers submitted to EPA documented the chemicals’ dental effects, including alterations to the “mineralization of dentin,” one of four substances that comprise teeth, and “the enamel space of the incisor teeth,” Grosse was dismayed.
“It would be a violation of scientific ethics to submit humans to experiments,” said Grosse. “Yet the continued use of these chemicals without further testing has been an experiment on us.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.