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Science that sticks: chemist's work behind U.S. decision to ban PFOA.

Environmental chemist, Scott Mabury, MCIC, shrugs at the suggestion that he has achieved the kind of international influence to which most scientists only aspire. His team's research was influential in a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. to call a halt on the production of PFOA--a suspected carcinogen used in the making of Teflon[TM] and other non-stick and non-stain coatings.

"I'm very pleased," said Mabury, chair of the department of chemistry at the University of Toronto. "It's good science fuelling good public policy. It's what we scientists always hope for."

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

On January 25, 2006, the EPA suddenly asked eight manufacturers to reduce PFOA emissions by 95 percent by 2010 and to stop emitting 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 Scotchgard[TM]. 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, which has been detected in people and animals around the world, and particularly in alarmingly high levels in Arctic animals.

Mabury would like to see companies and chemists work together to make sustainable products that can be used without harmful effects. "We need to construct molecules that deliver the properties we like, like the enhancing benefits of drugs, for example, without architectures that cause chemical pollution problems."

Good science leading to good public policy-sounds simple. But many researchers know it can often be decades before even the most conclusive scientific data overcome red tape, controversy and simple ideological resistance and persuade policy makers to get out their pens. But Mabury has achieved extraordinary results here, too. In the case of PFOA contamination, it took only about five years for his team and other scientists to look at the chemical pollution problem, identify it, characterize it, make recommendations that will significantly contribute to solving the problem and see a major regulatory move to address the issue.

"Think of all the other environmental problems," Mabury said. "We're still talking about DDT and PCB contaminations and these things were banned three decades ago. It would be most rewarding, ultimately rewarding, if we were able to solve a chemical pollution problem before most people even knew about it."

Sonnet L'Abbe writes for public affairs and teaches in continuing studies at the University off Toronto. She is the author of A Strange Relief (McClelland and Stewart, 2001).
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Title Annotation:perfluorooctanoic Acid
Comment:Science that sticks: chemist's work behind U.S. decision to ban PFOA.(perfluorooctanoic Acid)
Author:L'Abbe, Sonnet
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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