The New York Times
July 24, 2005
Will Environmental Fear Stick to DuPont's
By AMY CORTESE
WHEN DuPont agreed to pay more than $100 million last fall to
settle a lawsuit contending that its factory near Parkersburg,
W. Va., had fouled local supplies of drinking water, some investors
hoped to close the book on pollution caused by an important ingredient
used in processing Teflon.
DuPont agreed to pay $100 million to settle accusations that
its Washington Works plant, on the West Virginia side of the Ohio
River, polluted local drinking water. But that was before a group
of scientists advising the Environmental Protection Agency determined
earlier this month that the ingredient, perfluorooctanoic acid,
also known as PFOA or C8, was a "likely carcinogen,"
or cancer-causing agent. That finding could compel the E.P.A.
to formally regulate the chemical.
It could also complicate DuPont's position in two matters: a
criminal investigation into whether it hid tests showing a public
health threat, and a class-action suit filed last week on behalf
of people who bought Teflon-coated cookware.
There is no hard evidence that Teflon-coated cookware - or any
other products that incorporate Teflon, from clothing to cleansers
to fast-food packaging - poses the same threat as PFOA. For its
part, DuPont has long maintained that there is no evidence that
either Teflon or PFOA pose a serious threat.
Still, increased regulation or a successful class-action suit
would be a heavy blow to one of DuPont's most successful and profitable
businesses. According to the suit, which was filed in several
states by two Florida law firms, DuPont nets an estimated $200
million in profit a year from sales of Teflon. The scientific
panel's finding could also be bad news for the chemical industry
in general if it fuels debate over the use of chemicals in industrial
and consumer products, and their potential link to diseases like
cancer and to reproductive disorders.
Such concerns have prompted the European Union and Canada to
tighten controls on chemical use and labeling. The United States
has not taken such steps, in part because the chemical industry
offered in the late 1990's to start a voluntary testing program
for chemicals produced in volumes of one million pounds or more
This month, the Government Accountability Office criticized the
E.P.A.'s ability to ensure that tens of thousands of chemicals
in commercial use - and new agents introduced at the rate of about
700 a year - did not pose a health risk. It said the E.P.A., which
has used its authority to request health data on fewer than 200
chemicals since 1979, should have more authority.
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, has lined
up six co-sponsors for legislation that would expand the agency's
powers and require manufacturers to test their chemicals for health
DuPont has objected to the characterization of PFOA as a likely
carcinogen, and said initial results from its study of 1,000 workers
at its Teflon factory had found no adverse health effect, aside
from higher cholesterol in some people. The company, which says
PFOA itself is not found in Teflon cookware, added that it intends
to vigorously defend itself in the class-action suit. "DuPont
believes consumers using products sold under the Teflon brand
are safe," said R. Clifton Webb, a DuPont spokesman.
Critics point to PFOA as an example of the need to change how
chemicals are regulated. In the 50 years that Teflon has been
made, for example, little has been done to assess whether it affects
human health - even though the chemical is present in the blood
of more than 90 percent of Americans, according to samples taken
from blood banks by the 3M Company beginning in the mid-90's.
Chemical makers are not required to test their compounds for
toxicity before asking the E.P.A. to clear them for sale, and
the agency said that most companies did not test voluntarily.
The E.P.A. relies instead on methods, like computer modeling,
to prevent harmful compounds from entering the market. Even that
screening, however, does not include chemicals that were already
in use when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act,
the E.P.A.'s main tool for policing industrial chemicals, in 1979.
"The system does not work, and our blood and bodies and
tissues are proof," said David M. Ozonoff, a professor of
environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health.
Researchers are starting to look harder at how far PFOA has spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to include
it and related chemicals in a nationwide survey of chemical exposure
next year, and DuPont is paying for tests of people near its factory
as part of the settlement. The E.P.A. is studying why PFOA is
so pervasive and whether it is harmful.
Even if PFOA were shown to cause cancer or some other illness,
it would not be easy to ban. Asbestos provides some insight into
how difficult it can be to ban a commonly used substance, even
when there is evidence of risk. The E.P.A. banned asbestos in
1989 after reviewing more than 100 studies over 10 years and concluding
that the substance was a potential carcinogen at all levels of
exposure. But in 1991, a federal appeals court overturned parts
of the rule, saying that there was not enough evidence; some products
were no longer banned, but manufacturers took many of them off
the market anyway.
Some public health and environmental activists say PFOA could
be the next test case. These critics say that PFOA does not break
down in the environment or in the bloodstream, and some studies
have found that elevated levels of PFOA coincide with some cancers
and birth defects.
"It's been produced for 50 years," said Jane Houlihan,
vice president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental
organization based in Washington that has been a leading critic
of DuPont. "Why only now are we studying it? That is a system
that's completely backwards."
If the E.P.A. were to take action against
PFOA, it would be the first major regulation of a chemical in
more than 15 years. Of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have
been in commercial use since World War II, just five types are
regulated: PCB's, halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes,
dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium.
One company, 3M, has voluntarily discontinued making another
member of the perfluorochemical family, PFOS, a chemical that
some European countries may ban.