Scotchgard™ and Stainmaster™: A Precautionary Tale for the Green Building Movement

Bill Walsh - February 24, 2006

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital drew blood from the umbilical cords of 300 newborns and reported this month that ninety-nine percent of the babies were born with trace levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, usually called PFOA or C-8. [1] This industrial chemical was, until very recently, a critical component in the manufacture of certain fabric and carpet treatment products such as Scotchgard™ and Stainmaster™, as well as Teflon™ and other nonstick and stain-resistant products. [2]

It is well understood that chemical exposures in utero and during childhood can produce devastating health problems in adulthood. [3] The evidence increasingly suggests that early life exposures to certain chemicals can lead to health problems not only in adulthood, but also down through subsequent generations.[4]

The Society of the Plastics Industry assures us on a website named "PFOA-facts.com" that the results of a 2005 EPA risk assessment "provides added assurance to the public regarding the safety of PFOA" in our newborns. [5] That is a curious "fact." On February 15, 2006, the EPA's Science Advisory Board voted unanimously that the PFOA in a newborn's blood should be considered a likely carcinogen. [6] How reassuring is that?

The American carpet and textile industry has not felt reassured since the 3M Company signaled its intention to stop producing PFOAs back in the year 2000. Though neither the production nor the use of PFOAs is forbidden by law -- even today -- many responsible US manufacturers of building materials and furnishings took a precautionary approach [7] and began phasing-out their use of PFOAs years before the EPA Science Advisory Board finished its review of the chemical. No LEED™ [8] credit is available for PFOA-free materials, nor is there such a thing as a PFOA-free certification. More to the point, had someone proposed a LEED™ credit for "PFOA elimination" in 2000, it would not have passed the test which the US Green Building Council's Technical Science Advisory Board established during its evaluation of the "PVC elimination" credit that was proposed that same year.

During the same five year period that building product manufacturers independently took a precautionary approach to eliminate PFOA use (2000 - 2005), the chemical and plastics manufacturers' trade associations lobbied the US Green Building Council to take the opposite approach with respect to dioxin and PCBs, which, like PFOAs, are a byproduct of certain building materials, are highly toxic to humans, and persist a long time in the environment.[9] The industry groups argued that it might even be counterproductive, be more hazardous, to replace established chemicals with unfamiliar substitutes. Yet that is exactly what the 3M Company did by replacing PFOAs with chemical cousins that have not yet been fully tested for health impacts.

The Scotchgard™ and Stainmaster™ story is a precautionary tale for the green building movement. Instead of celebrating building products that represent leading-edge investment and market support for precautionary approaches to acknowledged health risks -- Shaw Ecoworks™ Carpet (which uses neither PVC nor PFOAs) and Firestone TPO Roofing Membrane (which uses neither PVC nor brominated flame retardants [10]) to name just two -- these innovations go unrewarded, and are arguably penalized by green standards that fail to address acknowledged chemical threats.

Chemical and plastics trade associations have so paralyzed many of the green building movement's deliberative bodies that they are incapable of stating meaningful policy or programs with regard to PFOAs, dioxin, and other notorious persistent chemicals targeted for global reduction and elimination. [11] As a result, the green building movement has been rendered mute on one of the biggest stories concerning building materials in the last five years. How reassuring is that?


Footnotes

[1] For more information about PFOAs see http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/pfoa/.

[2] http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/balte.md.teflon06feb06,1,6405408.story?coll=bal-home-headlines [link no longer available]. In addition to the well-known Scotchgard stain repellents used on carpets and furniture in the home, other products can contain the chemicals in this class. PFOS include: window treatments, fabric wall coverings, decorative pillows, slipcovers, bedspreads and comforters, mattress pads, shower curtains, table linens, carpet and upholstery fabrics in cars and vans, outdoor furniture, leather clothing, footwear, accessories, photographic products and other imaging materials, raincoats, skiwear, golf wear, boat covers, backpacks, tents, shirts, pants, jackets, shoes, boots, gloves, and handbags. See "3M and Scotchgard: 'Heroes of Chemistry' or a 20-year Coverup?" Chemical Industry Archives, http://www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/scotchgard/2.asp

[3] Many readers are familiar with the story of the synthetic hormone Diethylstilbestrol (DES), the first synthetic estrogen originally manufactured in 1938 and not recalled until 1975 when the FDA confirmed that DES damaged the fetuses of pregnant women. Female fetuses exposed to DES endure drastically higher rates of infertility and uterine cancer as adult women. Although most DES Daughters who become pregnant will carry a healthy baby to term, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature birth are more common in DES Daughters. See: http://www.cdc.gov/des/hcp/nurses/history.html

[4] "Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns," Environmental Working Group, July, 2005." http://www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/part3.php

[6] "Board: Teflon Chemical a Likely Carcinogen," Randall Chase, Associated Press February 16, 2006 http://www.ewg.org/news/story.php?id=5066

[7] All statements of the Precautionary Principle contain a version of this formula: When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action. It's the common sense idea behind many adages: "Be careful." "Better safe than sorry." "Look before you leap." "First do no harm." See: http://www.sehn.org/ppfaqs.html, the authoritative source on the precautionary principle.

[8] LEED™ (Leadership In Environmental and Energy Design) is the trademarked green building rating system of the US Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org)

[10] Brominated flame retardants are another highly toxic class of persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals. The Environmental Building News has recommended they not be specified in green buildings, see: http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm?filename=130601a.xml

[11] PFOAs and 96 other PFC related substances [PFCs are Perfluorochemicals, the class of chemicals to which PFOA's belong] have been nominated to be included in Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) for global reduction and phase-out. See http://chm.pops.int/


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