The culprit is PFOA, a long-living chemical necessary for modern wonders such as Gore-Tex and Teflon but suspected of contaminating the blood of everyone on the planet. Earlier this month, a federal scientific advisory panel concluded that PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, likely causes cancer.
On Wednesday, seven groups including UnitedSteelworkers, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Working Group asked state Attorney General Bill Lockyer to force manufacturers to warn customers under the 1986 consumer protection law known as Proposition 65.
The law requires warning labels on products known to contain carcinogens or reproductive toxins. Most manufacturers faced with a Proposition 65 requirement retool their products to remove the problematic chemical.
"When you think of PFOA, you should think of it as one of the nastiest, most toxic, environmentally unfriendly chemicals," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of Environmental Working Group. "Citizens should have the right to shop their way around this chemical and make decisions to reduce their exposure."
DuPont, the sole U.S. manufacturer of PFOA and maker of Teflon, called a Proposition 65 listing "unwarranted and unjustified." Meanwhile, the top federal regulator overseeing PFOA said Wednesday that industry and government were working quickly to reduce exposure and that consumers need not worry.
"We're not recommending that consumers take any immediate action," said Charles Auer, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
PFOA serves the same function as a drop of soap added to a jar of oil and water: It forces two compounds to mix that otherwise would not go together. It is crucial for the manufacture of almost all nonstick and wind- and water-resistant materials.
Products it creates withstand the most punishing and exacting environments modern industry can throw at them: pipe liners at oil refineries and semiconductor manufacturing plants, high-temperature car engines, surgical devices, even space suits.
It has also become indispensable in consumer products: fleece that blocks wind, carpets that will not stain, microwave popcorn bags that do not leak. Paper dog food bags would not be the same without the chemical, as they would disintegrate without a special treated layer to block the oils.
"There are no human health effects associated with PFOA," said David Boothe, DuPont's strategic planning manager for fluoroproducts. "At least three independent government agencies have said there is no risk to using products made with PFOA."
But for regulators, PFOA is uncomfortably long-lasting: virtually indestructible in the environment, with a half-life in the body the time necessary to purge half the contaminant from blood and other body tissues of four years in humans.
Various studies suggest PFOA is present in the blood of most people at a level of 5 parts-per-billion or less. Mashed potatoes seasoned at such a concentration would require 5 grains of salt for 110 pounds of spuds.
Scientists are uncertain what it does there, but in lab animals it is thought to cause testicular, pancreatic, mammary and liver cancers.
Last month, the U.S. EPA announced a voluntary program with industry to eliminate 95 percent of all PFOA emissions and contamination from products by 2010. Auer said Wednesday that is faster than any ban the agency could force into the books.
But environmental and labor activists said that was not fast enough.
"We have conducted a massive experiment with the American people as a result of the flaws in our chemical policies," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "The potential for such widespread exposure demands that our government err on the side of caution."
More information about the Oakland Tribune's special investigation of our chemical "body burden" can be found on the Web at http://www.insidebayarea.com/bodyburden.
Contact reporter Douglas Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org.