DuPont in Sticky Situation Over Teflon Chemical
An aerial view of the Dupont Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the Ohio River. (DEP, State of WV)
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 Steve Curwood.
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 River.
[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 were dying.
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 away.
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 fluorinated chemicals.
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 of years.
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 with them.
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 approach.
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.
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