• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

Troubled Waters

What are you drinking? Toxic non-stick chemicals and carcinogenic metals?

   In the final days of the Bush administration, officials moved to issue an emergency health advisory for tap water polluted with the original toxic Teflon chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), effectively permitting a significant level of pollution while discouraging cleanup of the toxic substance. According to the Environmental Working Group—a research and advocacy organization—the advisory set very weak standards to protect citizens and a phaseout was postponed until 2015.
   PFOA can be found in tap water in nine states—including Illinois. Nearly every person on the planet has the chemical in their  blood. The problem with chemicals like PFOA in water is that Chicagoans drink this polluted water day after day, year after year, building up long-term exposures at unsafe levels, sometimes resulting in levels of PFOA in blood a hundred times the levels in the tap water. The “Provisional Health Advisory” discouraged the EPA from requiring long-term water testing for PFOA. The Environmental Working Group urges long-term national water testing for PFOA. In 2005 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) voted to recommend that PFOA should be considered a “likely human carcinogen.”
   There is little research provided by industry available on PFOA’s effects on humans, but rats exposed to the chemical have had pituitary damage and facial birth defects. According to the New York Times, at DuPont’s Washington Works facility, from 1979 to 1981, facial birth defects occurred in children of two of seven female employees in its production unit.
   In 2006 DuPont and seven other manufacturers agreed to reduce the PFOA content in their products. In the past 11 years, the makeup of the commercial non-stick products have been re-engineered to avoid reliance on PFOA, but the compound is still found in water, air and in the bodies of people living in the Western world.
    In the medical journal, Human Reproduction, a 2009 study found that women who have a higher concentration of PFOA, one of the original constituents of Teflon, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex and other non-stick products in their blood, may take much longer to become pregnant. Babies are born carrying traces of PFOA that they absorbed through their mothers’ blood.
    One of the other disturbing things about these non-stick chemicals is that they do not break down easily; they just keep accumulating in the environment. The chemicals are not just in clothing, non-stick pots and pans, carpeting and upholstery, they are being used in popcorn bags, firefighting foams, pizza boxes and other packaging.
   Science News reported that searchers at the University of California in Los Angeles found that PFOA in mothers’ blood was also linked to a decreased likelihood that her child would be able to “meet developmental milestones—such as being able to sit or walk without support or retrieve things (such as a toy or book) when asked.”
    In late December, 2010, another study found that there is a toxic metal, Chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium), that is contaminating tap water in 31 cities, including Chicago. Movie-goers probably recognize the chemical from the movie, “Erin Brockovich.” Brockovich garnered a $333 million legal settlement with a California utility because residents were poisoned with Chromium-6 in their groundwater, leading to cancers and other illnesses.
   According to the EPA, Chromium-6 is a known human carcinogen. It causes cancer through mutation and poses a serious threat to the health of Americans—and Chicagoans. The toxic metal has been added to the list of industrial chemicals and drugs that can pass through most municipal water systems and can cause illness, especially stomach cancer.
   In contrast to the previous administration’s efforts to permit non-stick products to remain in the environment, on Obama’s watch, the EPA—now headed by Lisa Jackson—has issued a comprehensive plan to assist local water utilities to address the problem of Chromium-6 by providing significant technical expertise. According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago is going to be testing for chromium and posting the results online, at the urging of the EPA.
  According to ABC News, Chicago processes nearly a billion gallons of drinking water from Lake Michigan every day. In Chicago, Chromium-6 levels are at .18 parts per billion—a level that should be of concern to every Chicagoan.
   So how does Chromium-6 get into our drinking water supply?
Although some occurs in nature, most often the source is industrial waste from chrome plating of metals and the manufacturing of plastics and dyes, according to ABC News. The EPA will be continuing to review the effects of Chromium-6 on human health. Meanwhile, we have a right to know which companies are dumping these poisons in Lake Michigan. Some of Chicago’s surrounding industrial sources include four steel mills in northwest Indiana, including U.S. Steel and Arcelor Mittal Mills, that dumped a combined 3,100 pounds of chromium into Lake Michigan and its tributaries in 2009, according to the Tribune, only nine miles from one of Chicago’s water-intake cribs.
   Many of us remember the efforts in 2007 of Indiana officials to relax limits of discharges of pollutants including toxic chemicals like benzene and metals, relaxing limits on chromium, as well. But public outrage prompted regulators to block a new water permit for U.S. Steel’s large Gary Works, according to the Tribune.
    If our Lake is a dump for toxic waste, then we shouldn’t be drinking the water. No industry has a right to poison our water supply. Fortunately, as more stringent EPA federal standards are complied with, industrial polluters will have to find somewhere else to dump their chemicals and carcinogens. Not Lake Michigan. We’ve drunk enough.

Published: February 10, 2011
Issue: February 2011 Heart Health Issue