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Washington Post

January 13, 2005; Page A04

Teflon Chemical's Potential Risk Cited

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that low-level exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used to make Teflon, could pose "a potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects" on human health.

The statement, a preliminary assessment of the potential risks associated with the processing agent known as PFOA or C-8, is significant because the agency's final conclusion could determine whether the government decides to regulate the chemical. The EPA is seeking as much as $300 million in fines from chemical giant DuPont Co., which uses C-8 to produce nonstick surfaces and materials, for failing to report its studies of the possible dangers linked to the processing agent.

The EPA report, which is based on animal studies, said there is some evidence C-8 can cause cancer and immune deficiencies in rats, but it does not conclude whether these problems could surface in workers or those who drink C-8 contaminated water.

The EPA also found that the chemical could boost people's levels of cholesterol and fats called triglycerides, which might increase the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke. This conclusion mirrors the finding of a study DuPont issued on Tuesday. That study found no health risks associated with C-8 but identified elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels in workers exposed to the chemical.

The firm, which is fighting the fine on the grounds that it has submitted all the legally required reports to the EPA, maintains that the chemical does not pose a health risk, and that any increased cholesterol or triglyceride rates will not occur in the general population because of the public's low levels of exposure.

The EPA sent its draft assessment to a scientific advisory board for review. Agency spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said it may take a year for officials to issue a final C-8 assessment.

"We've not offered any determination of risks," said Charles M. Auer, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. "We are asking the advice of science advisory board to assist in making those kind of scientific judgments."

DuPont welcomed the assessment, saying the company "is committed to continue working with the regulatory and scientific communities and others in industry to gain additional understanding of [perfluorooctanoic acid] to assure protection of public health, safety and the environment."

But officials at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that first raised questions about possible health risks of C-8, said ordinary Americans are vulnerable and the federal government has failed to fully investigate the issue.

The group's president, Kenneth A. Cook, questioned why the agency did not consider whether humans might be at higher risk of testicular, pancreatic and other cancers that have been linked to the chemical in animal studies.

"There's a big difference between sound science and tilted science, and at every turn in this important process, EPA officials favored DuPont," Cook said. "We don't know if DuPont lobbyists played a role or if these were just agency mistakes. But for those who were expecting a thorough and fair review, this is a huge disappointment."

Next month, DuPont will finalize a settlement for as much as $343 million of a class-action lawsuit accusing it of allowing C-8 to contaminate drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia. An administrative law judge, who held a hearing last month on whether DuPont should pay for failing to fully notify the EPA about studies it had conducted on the chemical, has yet to issue a ruling.