A new report suggests that perfluorooctanoic acid, used to make fluoropolymers, is a likely carcinogen - stronger than its current classification as a suspected carcinogen.
The change comes in the final report of the Science Advisory Board, which was reviewing a draft of a PFOA risk assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Both industry and environmentalists involved in the debate over PFOA safety said the report is beneficial to their viewpoints. The key to both arguments: the decision to present the final report as the view of three-quarters of the 16-member board, rather than a majority, as it was presented in the preliminary document last year.
``The last time, the SAB said `the majority.' This is more precise. The SAB made it clear that the report is the view of three-quarters of the panel. It did not weaken its original view,'' said Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman for Washington-based Environmental Working Group.
She also said the board's recommendation that a risk assessment be conducted for PFOA's carcinogenic effect and its recommendation that EPA consider new information and strengthen its risk assessment ``are more protective of human health.''
``It means EPA needs to go back to the drawing board,'' she said.
Some animal studies have shown potentially harmful health effects from PFOA, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that the levels of PFOA to which people are exposed is not harmful. One of the stumbling blocks is that scientists have had difficulty determining how PFOA gets into the atmosphere and people's bloodstreams.
The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. had not issued a statement last week on the report - which was released May 31. But John Heinze, executive director of the Environmental Health Research Foundation of Manassas, Va., and a consultant to SPI, said the final report is ``much better'' than the draft because it clearly points out that there is ``no consensus.''
``It helps put the panel's report into context, by saying these are not definitive conclusions and there is new data that EPA should look at'' before it makes its final recommendation with regard to the carcinogenic nature of PFOA.
``They are now saying that they don't know if it is likely to cause cancer, but that the weight of evidence suggests that it fits more into that EPA classification.''
The report itself explained that the term ``likely'' does not correspond to a ``quantifiable probability'' of cancer and that its view ``does not necessarily represent'' the EPA's views.
For its part, EPA said only it is working ``as expeditiously as possible'' to understand the pathways of PFOA, and that it is important ``not to draw any conclusions ... until all new testing is complete.'' EPA added that it will incorporate SAB input and other research, including a study the agency commissioned two years ago.
Significantly, it also said it will ask SAB to review to its final risk assessment before sending it out for public comment as part of the agency's rule-making process. ``This is a new commitment from them,'' Heinze said.
Completing the final risk assessment could take six months to a year, according to sources, although it is possible that EPA may tip its hand further at a public hearing June 8.
In January, EPA had announced an agreement with Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co., the only manufacturer of PFOA, and seven other companies to cut PFOA emissions from their plants and products by 95 percent by 2010 and to work toward complete elimination by 2015.
``The agency is not waiting for the answers,'' said a spokesman for EPA. ``All major companies involved in the manufacture and use of PFOA have formally committed to this program.''