U.S. Officials Accuse DuPont of Concealing Teflon
Ingredient's Health Risk
January 18, 2005 — By Michael Hawthorne, Chicago
PARKERSBURG, W. Va. — More than 50 years after DuPont started producing
Teflon near this Ohio River town, federal officials are accusing the company
of hiding information suggesting that a chemical used to make the popular
stick- and stain-resistant coating might cause cancer, birth defects and
Environmental regulators are particularly alarmed because scientists are
finding perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in the blood of people worldwide
and it takes years for the chemical to leave the body. The U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency reported last week that exposure even to low
levels of PFOA could be harmful.
With virtually no government oversight, PFOA has been used since the early
1950s in the manufacture of non-stick cookware, rain-repellent clothing and
hundreds of other products. The EPA says at this point there is no reason
for consumers to stop using those items. But so many unresolved questions
remain about PFOA that the agency is asking an outside panel of experts to
assess the risks.
"The fact that a chemical with those non-stick properties nonetheless
accumulates in people was not expected," said Charles Auer, director of
the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
Critics say the lack of knowledge about PFOA and related chemicals--called
perfluorinated compounds--exposes a system where environmental regulators
largely rely on companies that profit from industrial chemicals to sound
alarms about their safety. Questions about potential effects on human health
and the environment often aren't raised until years after a chemical is
introduced to the marketplace.
The long and mostly secret history of PFOA began to unravel down the road
from DuPont's Teflon plant in a West Virginia courtroom, where a Parkersburg
family began asking questions in the late 1990s about a mysterious wasting
disease killing their cattle.
Jim and Della Tennant suspected the culprit might lurk in a froth-covered
creek that meandered past a DuPont landfill near the Teflon plant before
spilling into their pasture. Their lawsuit ended with a monetary settlement
that avoided assigning blame for the dead cows, but the legal battle
uncovered a trove of industry documents about PFOA.
One document detailed how DuPont scientists started warning company
executives to avoid human contact with PFOA as early as 1961. Industry tests
later determined the chemical accumulates in the body, doesn't break down in
the environment and causes ailments in animals, including cancer, liver
damage and birth defects.
Recent studies have found that PFOA levels in some children are in the range
of those that caused developmental problems in rats.
"We're not very popular with some of the folks over at the plant,"
said Della Tennant, who lives in a subdivision known as DuPont Manor, a sign
of the firm's importance in this corner of Appalachia. "But I don't
know how you could sleep at night not telling people about this
If found guilty of illegally withholding information by an administrative
law judge, DuPont could face more than $300 million in fines--about $100
million more than the company is estimated to make each year from products
manufactured with PFOA.
DuPont already has agreed to pay up to $345 million to settle another
lawsuit filed on behalf of 60,000 West Virginians and Ohioans whose drinking
water is contaminated with PFOA. Much of what the public is starting to
learn about the chemical comes from industry documents submitted during
Those documents also prompted the EPA's ongoing review of health risks,
which could lead to rules that limit or phase out the use of PFOA.
Company officials say they share the government's concerns about the
presence of PFOA in human blood but contend they did nothing wrong and that
the chemical affects animals differently than people.
"DuPont remains confident that based on over 50 years of use and
experience with PFOA there is no evidence to indicate that it harms human
health or the environment," said company spokesman R. Clifton Webb.
The company's Teflon plant--a sprawling complex of towers, smokestacks and
metal buildings--rises above the flood plain in a sharp bend of the Ohio
River. The area has become something of a makeshift laboratory as scientists
scramble to learn more about the chemical behind world-famous brand names
such as Teflon, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex.
Since 1976, federal law has required companies to disclose what they know
about any risks posed by toxic chemicals. The EPA says independent efforts
to figure out how people are exposed to PFOA and what it might do to them
should have started by the early 1980s, when DuPont discovered an employee
had passed the chemical to her fetus.
Among other things, the EPA accuses DuPont of failing to notify the agency
when two of five babies born to plant employees in 1981 had eye and face
defects similar to those found in newborn rats exposed to PFOA.
DuPont also has known since at least 1984 that water wells in West Virginia
and Ohio were contaminated with PFOA, according to company records. But
people who rely on the wells for drinking water didn't find out until 2002,
when internal DuPont documents started pouring into court.
"Someone made a conscious decision to expose us to this without telling
us," said Robert Griffin, general manager of the Little Hocking Water
Association, which supplies drinking water to 12,000 Ohio customers from
wells across the river from the Teflon plant.
"If you wanted people to be lab rats for such a long period,"
Griffin said, "nobody would ever allow it."
Company lawyers contend DuPont wasn't obligated to share the information
because PFOA doesn't meet the legal definition of a toxic chemical that
poses a "substantial risk."
DuPont documents, though, show company officials were worried the public
would learn that PFOA had contaminated local water supplies. One benefit of
settling the lawsuit over the Tennant family's dead cattle, company
attorneys advised in an internal e-mail, would be preventing the release of
information about PFOA in the water.
"Biggest potential downside: plant contamination issues surface, case
becomes class action," DuPont attorney Bernard J. Reilly concluded in a
March 2000 email outlining tradeoffs if the company chose to fight the
Tennants in court.
DuPont says it has reduced air and water emissions of PFOA by 90 percent at
the Teflon plant. Yet levels of the chemical in water wells on the Ohio side
of the river are the highest recorded to date, according to tests last fall.
"Drinking water data in possession of DuPont 'reasonably supports the
conclusion' that PFOA 'presents a substantial risk of injury to
health,'" the EPA wrote in an October filing.
Scientists are just now starting to learn how much of the chemical is in
people's blood and how far it has traveled from the handful of sites where
PFOA is manufactured or used--information that highlights new challenges for
scientists and regulators.
Substances added to food are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration
and must undergo rigorous testing before their use. But critics say that
with industrial chemicals the EPA is limited by laws that make it difficult
to order testing.
The agency reported in 1998 that it had no toxicity data or "safe
level" for 43 percent of the 2,800 chemicals produced in volumes of 1
million pounds a year or more.
"It borders on the ridiculous," said Tim Kropp, a senior scientist
with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which has helped draw the
EPA's attention to PFOA and other compounds. "There is no way consumers
can be knowledgeable about all of these chemicals. That's why we need the
government to ensure they are safe."
The EPA's case against DuPont has gradually evolved over four years as
industry concerns about PFOA came to light.
Agency officials initially were worried about a related perfluorinated
chemical in Scotchgard, the stain-resistant coating pioneered by 3M.
Regulators started focusing on PFOA after the EPA pressured 3M in 2000 to
stop making the compounds, prompted by research that found the chemicals in
human blood and in foods such as apples, bread, green beans and ground beef.
3M had been the chief supplier of PFOA to DuPont, which now makes the
chemical at a plant in North Carolina.
DuPont announced last week that a new study of more than 1,000 workers at
the Teflon plant found virtually no health effects from exposure to PFOA.
Some workers were found to have higher-than-expected cholesterol levels.
Tests on lab animals have found links to illnesses including liver and
testicular cancer, reduced weight of newborns and immune-system suppression.
The findings concern EPA officials because rats flush the chemical out of
their bodies within days, while PFOA stays in human blood for at least four
As a result, the EPA says, the potential for human health effects cannot be
"Low-level exposure to people over time produces blood concentrations
that may be of concern," Auer said. "As time goes on and the
opportunity for exposure continues, those blood concentrations could move to
even higher levels."
Scientists still aren't sure how PFOA is spreading around the planet. While
DuPont says the manufacturing process leaves only trace amounts of the
chemical in non-stick cookware and other goods, some researchers think that
as Teflon products age they release chemicals that then break down into PFOA.
The compound also is released into air and water during manufacturing.
Studies that have found PFOA in salmon in the Great Lakes, polar bears in
the Arctic and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea suggest the chemical
travels easily through the atmosphere.
Another theory the EPA and academic researchers are testing is that other
perfluorinated chemicals, known as telomers, break down to PFOA. Made by
DuPont and other companies, telomers are used in stain- and grease-repellent
coatings for carpets, clothing and fast-food packaging.
Researchers studying PFOA levels in the Great Lakes think that when carpets
and clothing treated with telomers are cleaned, some of the chemicals wash
into sewage treatment plants that are not equipped to remove them before
wastewater is dumped into lakes and rivers. Landfill runoff could be another
Last spring, former DuPont chemist Glenn R. Evers told a lawyer for people
living near the DuPont plant that the chemicals can be absorbed from french
fry boxes, microwave popcorn bags and hamburger wrappers, among other items,
according to a partial transcript filed by the EPA. The company responded by
describing Evers as a disgruntled former employee with little direct
knowledge of PFOA.
In Parkersburg, some are reluctant to question one of the community's
leading benefactors, even after the PFOA contamination became public. With
more than 2,000 employees, the Teflon plant is the largest manufacturer in a
valley lined with plastics factories and refineries, a hub of economic
strength in a region plagued by chronic unemployment.
"We're not ignoring it, but you've got to look at all the good things
they do," said George Kellenberger, president of the Mid-Ohio Valley
Chamber of Commerce.
But others drawn to the area by the promise of a good job and the rolling,
pine-covered hills aren't so sure.
By the time Matt and Melinda McDowell built their dream home a few miles
north of the Teflon plant, DuPont had known for more than a decade that the
local water supply was contaminated with PFOA.
Like thousands of others in the valley, the McDowells recently received a
letter informing them that DuPont promises to install treatment equipment
for six area water systems under terms of the recent legal settlement. But
they worry about their two sons, ages 8 and 12, who have drunk and breathed
PFOA for most of their lives.
"We are subjecting our children and ourselves to a giant science
experiment," Matt McDowell said. "We don't know what it's doing to
us. But the bottom line is it doesn't belong in drinking water and it
definitely doesn't belong in our bodies."
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News