Air Date: Week of January 6, 2006
DuPont in Sticky Situation
Over Teflon Chemical
By Jeff Young for Living on Earth
-an independent media program
Legal problems and health questions are piling up for DuPont
thanks to a chemical used to make Teflon and dozens of other consumer
products. Living on Earth's Jeff Young tells us how this chemical's
problematic nature came to light.
YOUNG: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jeff Young, sitting in for
The corporate giant DuPont is in a sticky situation over a chemical
used to make the nonstick material Teflon, one of its top selling
products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the company
failed to disclose what it knew about the potential health effects
of the chemical, known as C8 or PFOA. DuPont knew the chemical
was getting into water supplies near one of its facilities, knew
that it was in the blood of workers, and knew it was toxic to
animals in studies.
DuPont recently agreed to pay a record 16 million dollars to
settle those charges. But other legal issues and many health and
environment questions remain unresolved. The Department of Justice
subpoenaed records for a pending criminal investigation. And scientists
are scrambling to learn how the chemical gets into our environment,
our bodies and what effects it might have. Much of this started
in a very unlikely place – a cow pasture along the Ohio
[SOUNDS OF WALKING THROUGH FIELD]
YOUNG: Della and Jim Tenant own these grassy slopes just south
of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where their family has grazed cattle
for decades. In the late 80s the Tenants leased part of the land
to DuPont. The company put in a new landfill to take non-toxic
waste from its nearby facility. Shortly after the landfill went
in, trouble started.
D. TENANT: The cattle started getting tumors,
going blind, going crazy and acting like a bunch of crazy cows.
YOUNG: The cattle drank from a small stream
near the foot of the DuPont landfill. And before long, the cattle
D. TENANT: It was awful. I saw a cow die
one time. It had the most terrifying bawl, and every time it would
open its mouth and bawl, blood would gush from its mouth. And
there was nothing you could do. It was suffering and there was
nothing you could do. And whenever you think about feeding all
those animals to your children, all the time they were growing
up, it's something that puts a lump in your throat you can't take
YOUNG: The Tenants would later learn that DuPont had dumped the
chemical C8 in the unlined landfill. Just a few miles from the
Tenant's land, schoolteacher Joe Kiger lives with his wife in
a tidy home overlooking the river valley. About five years ago
he found a curious letter along with his water bill: a notice
that a chemical had been detected.
KIGER: Fluorocarbon something or other, I can't even pronounce
it. I'm not a chemist.
YOUNG: At first, Kiger thought nothing of it. But on a second
reading, he started to get interested.
KIGER: Red flags started popping up as far as guidelines established
by DuPont, and I kept thinking, 'wait a minute, what is DuPont
doing dealing in our water?' From that point on I told the wife,
I said, 'Honey, I think I'm gonna call some agencies find out
what this C8 is. There's some kind of a chemical in our water
and I'm not even sure why it's in there.'
YOUNG: You may never have heard of C8, but if you use stain resistant
clothes or carpet, cook on Teflon pans, eat microwave popcorn
or fast food French fries, well, you've probably used a product
related to it. The full name is Perfluorooctanoate, it's abbreviated
to PFOA or "Pu-Fo-uh." The term "C8" comes
from its chain of 8 carbons and it's part of a family of many
PURDY: They have peculiar properties compared to most of the
chemicals we contact in our daily lives.
YOUNG: Toxicologist Rich Purdy worked with C8 before retiring
from the 3M company in Minnesota. Those peculiar properties he
mentions made C8 and related chemicals key ingredients for 3M's
Scotchguard brand products.
PURDY: You know how oil doesn't mix with water? Well, these chemicals
don't mix with oil or water. That property allows them, if you
put them into like a fabric, to shed both water and oily dirt.
YOUNG: But Purdy and others started finding the chemical where
it wasn't supposed to be. It's shown up in wildlife in the Arctic
and in trace amounts in blood samples across the country. There's
a good chance that everyone listening to this story has very small
amounts in the blood. And Purdy says these
fluorinated chemicals are persistent in the body, and stick around
a long time in the environment.
PURDY: We often remember DDT, we remember
PCBs, we remember the dioxin chemicals. Well, these fluorochemicals
are more persistent than all of those, much more persistent than
those. As far as we can tell, their half-lives are in thousands
YOUNG: At the time the Tenants' cattle were dying and Joe Kiger
was wondering about his water, little was known about C8 outside
of the few companies that made and used it. That started to change
when Kiger and the Tenants hired lawyers.
J. TENANT: It's a poor way to have to do business that you have
to sue a company to get them to do that which is right.
YOUNG: Jim Tenant sued DuPont for dumping C8 in the landfill
near his pasture.
J. TENANT: They make more money off of Teflon than they do probably
any other chemical they have, so then why didn't they take care
of themselves when they were making it so they wouldn't have all
this pollution down the road? Now down the road has caught up
YOUNG: Tenant's lawyers found animal studies showing high exposure
to C8 is toxic. Those studies spurred Kiger to file what would
become a massive class action suit against DuPont. That suit uncovered
more disturbing health concerns about the chemical and details
of how DuPont handled it. There were internal emails, like this
one Kiger reads from. It's from a DuPont attorney worried that
the company's reporting of C8 emissions was not accurate.
KIGER: "So we've been telling agencies results which are
surely low. Not a pretty situation especially since we've been
telling the water systems not to worry. Ugh!" And that's
a direct quote.
YOUNG: Six water districts around the DuPont plant were found
to be contaminated. Other discoveries had to do with C8 in the
blood of workers in DuPont's Teflon division. The company knew
decades ago that pregnant women who worked there had transferred
the chemical to their unborn. Again, Kiger reads what he learned.
KIGER: In 1981 – now, this one upsets me more than anything
– in 1981 DuPont found C8 in the umbilical cord blood of
a baby born to one plant worker and in the blood of a second baby
born to another worker. Two more workers gave birth to babies
with birth defects. DuPont reassigned 50 women from the plant
but the EPA was not told.
YOUNG: Disclosures like those led EPA to take action. Last February,
DuPont settled the class action suit. DuPont will filter the chemical
from water supplies and pay for some to drink bottled water. The
$107 million dollar settlement was the talk of the town in Parkersburg,
an economically struggling area where DuPont is a major employer.
Kiger says not all of the talk was kind.
KIGER: We've been cussed, discussed, and everything else I could
say as far as that goes. Things about how we're gonna shut down
DuPont and run em out of here. And 'My God, what are you gonna
do with all the money you get out of all this?' and everything.
Anyone who knows anything about class action suits knows the plaintiffs
and the clients don't get anything, I'll leave it at that. (LAUGHS)
YOUNG: Lawyers took a healthy cut, of course, but they're not
getting the lion's share of the settlement, either. Charleston
attorney Harry Dietzler explains where the money went.
DIETZLER: We decided the best way to serve the class as a whole
was to answer the question that everybody that's affected in the
class wants to know, the question being: what does C8 do or not
do to my body."
YOUNG: They set up a first-of-its-kind health screening program
for residents around the DuPont plant.
RECEPTIONIST: Which water source did you consume to make you
eligible for the project?
PARTICIPANT: Warren High School's water system.
RECEPTIONIST: That would be Little Hocking, okay...[TYPING]
YOUNG: By the thousands, people like this young woman have come
to temporary offices in trailers to fill out thorough health questionnaires
and have blood drawn for chemical testing.
PARTICIPANT: My mom said it would help them figure out things
about C8, so I said I would be willing to do it.
YOUNG: For her trouble, she'll walk away with $400 from the settlement
money. So far, 33,000 people have been fully tested, and another
63,000 have done the health questionnaire. Once complete, the
data go to an independent science panel appointed by the court
to judge if there is any link between C8 and human disease. If
there is, DuPont will pay up to $235 million for further health
monitoring. If there's not, attorney Dietzler's case is over.
DIETZLER: And that's not a bad thing. Because that means the
persons who have wondered and worried can be reassured that they
do not have a concern. We get an answer which the community needs.
YOUNG: In 2000, 3M quit making and using C8 out of concerns about
its persistence and potential health effects. DuPont continues
to use it, and now manufactures the chemical at a new facility
in North Carolina where the chemical is again showing up in trace
amounts in surrounding water. The company says it will reduce
C8 emissions, but some company watchdogs say that's not enough.
LEWIS: The real risk from PFOA is not from plant emissions, except
in very localized neighborhoods.
YOUNG: That's Sanford Lewis, with a group called DuPont Shareholders
for Fair Value. Lewis says DuPont has not been honest with stock
owners about the financial risks stemming from health risks if
the chemical escapes from the company's products.
LEWIS: The real risk to most consumers is from your pants, it's
from pancake griddles, it's from your carpet, it's from an array
of consumer products in which these materials are being utilized.
YOUNG: A former DuPont employee says the company knew C8 could
escape from food wrappers, a charge the company denies. Part of
DuPont's recent settlement agreement with EPA includes a $5 million
study into what happens when C8 products break down. EPA Deputy
Administrator Susan Hazen says nothing so far shows a health hazard.
HAZEN: Many of the tests we have asked for will add more certainty
to that, but at this point in time there is no information that
would indicate that under usual consumer circumstances that the
products we use that contain this class of chemicals are of concern.
YOUNG: The EPA is also conducting a risk assessment, the first
step toward possibly regulating C8 and related chemicals. A draft
report from EPA's Science Advisory Board told the agency it should
consider C8 a likely carcinogen in its studies for the risk assessment.
Other health concerns to be studied include liver disease and
developmental problems in the young and unborn. Rich Purdy, the
toxicologist who worked with the chemical at 3M, urges a precautionary
PURDY: I'd like to see uses in clothes
banned, uses in food packaging banned, uses in carpets –
the uses where we're exposed to large amounts daily, I think they're
pretty dangerous substances.
YOUNG: DuPont's spokesperson declined to be interviewed for this
story, but the company did supply a number of written statements.
DuPont says defects among babies born to its Teflon employees
are likely unrelated to C8. It admitted no wrongdoing when settling
the EPA charges of withholding information. And of the health
concerns the company writes:
"To date no human health effects are known to be caused
by PFOA even in workers who have significantly higher exposure
levels than the general population."
YOUNG: You can read more of the company's point of view, and
hear an interview with a scientist planning one of the government's
ambitious new studies into the chemical's potential health effects,
by visiting Living on Earth online. It's www.loe.org.
**WEB EXCLUSIVE: Scientist Kris Thayer of the National Toxicology
Project talks with Jeff Young about the chemical C8 and its possible
position statements and info on PFOA
EPA page on PFOA
Science Advisory Board draft
Working Group on PFOA
for Fair Value
Citizen Action – Dupont campaign
Society of the Plastics
Industry on PFOA
Living on Earth wants to hear from you! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or call our listener line (1-800-218-9988). Our mailing address
Living on Earth
20 Holland Street Suite 408
Somerville, MA 02144-2749
Copyright © 2006 Living on Earth and World Media Foundation.
All rights reserved. No portion of this transcript may be copied,
sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media