A panel of scientists that linked exposure to the DuPont Co. chemical C8 to human illnesses said Thursday those findings did not rely on the work of a former West Virginia University researcher whose qualifications have been questioned by a national news report.
Members of the three-person C8 Science Panel said in a statement that they had reviewed the evidence they used in making six “probable link” determinations to see how they may have used studies that were authored by former WVU epidemiologist Anoop Shankar, following an NBC News report that alleged he lied about several aspects of his résumé — including that he had a Ph.D and was a member of the prestigious Royal College of Physicians.
In making two specific findings that C8 was not connected to chronic kidney disease or cardiovascular disease, the C8 Science Panel rejected high-profile papers by Shankar that had concluded there was such a connection.
“We can confirm that the Science Panel has not relied on any work conducted by Shankar in making its decisions of whether PFOA was ‘probably linked’ to any disease,” the Science Panel said in a statement. “While Shankar was a co-author on a few of our publications regarding PFOA, we did the principal analysis on those papers, and Shankar’s role was a minor one, consisting of providing comments.”
The statement said Shankar worked on those studies “as part of the WVU team” that the Science Panel worked with and that, “None of these studies were key in our decisions about PFOA.”
C8 is another name for perfluorooctanoate acid, or PFOA. In West Virginia, DuPont has used C8 since the 1950s as a processing agent to make Teflon and other nonstick products, oil-resistant paper packaging and stain-resistant textiles.
The Science Panel was created as part of a landmark, 2005 settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed against DuPont on behalf of roughly 70,000 Mid-Ohio Valley residents whose drinking water was contaminated by C8 pollution from the DuPont plant south of Parkersburg in Washington, Wood County.
Rather than simply dividing money from DuPont among the residents, the settlement funded the Science Panel to investigate C8 and determine what, if any, adverse health effects could be linked to exposure to the chemical. If the panel found these “probable links,” then DuPont was on the hook for up to $235 million to fund medical monitoring to ensure residents detected any C8-related illnesses early enough that they could be treated.
Part of the settlement money funded blood tests and extensive medical history investigations for residents who drank the contaminated water. Data from that work went to something called the C8 Health Project, and researchers at WVU used the data to try to determine if residents with more C8 exposure experienced increased rates of illnesses.
The Science Panel members — Tony Fletcher of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, David Savitz of Brown University, and Kyle Steenland of Emory University — reviewed the WVU studies in their investigation of C8. However, the Science Panel also examined a broad collection of other reports by other scientists, and did follow-up studies themselves of residents who took part in the C8 Health Project.
Eventually, the Science Panel issued “probable link” findings that tied exposure to C8 to high cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease and dangerous high blood pressure among pregnant women.
In two instances, the Science Panel’s conclusions rejected findings of major WVU papers that listed Shankar as the lead author. Those papers, published in 2011 in the American Journal of Epidemiology and in 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found increased risks of kidney disease and cardiovascular disease in individuals exposed to C8.
Both papers used not the C8 Health Project data from the Mid-Ohio Valley, but blood sample data from a national database the Centers for Disease Control maintains called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. And in both instances, the papers authored by Shankar warned that increased risks of illness were found with blood concentrations of C8 that were within the generally low level found in the general U.S. population — as opposed to the high levels of C8 found in blood samples from residents who drank water contaminated by DuPont.
When it rejected a possible link between C8 and both kidney disease and cardiovascular illness, the C8 Science Panel said that it would not rely on either of Shankar’s papers because both examined a snapshot of C8 levels in blood samples at a particular point of time, and did not provide any analysis of whether the illness or the C8 exposure came first. C9 Science Panel members conducted their own more detailed analysis and said there was not enough evidence to establish a “probable link” between C8 and kidney disease or cardiovascular disease.
DuPont officials have so far declined comment on the media reports concerning Shankar, and the NBC News story did not specifically discuss the C8 studies or allege any problems with any of Shankar’s published papers.
Last week, the DuPont-funded medical monitoring program for Mid-Ohio Valley residents kicked off. The program includes free C8 blood testing, a doctor’s office visit, free cholesterol testing, and free screening for testicular cancer, kidney cancer and thyroid disease.
Since the Science Panel issued its findings, more than 2,200 lawsuits have been filed against DuPont on behalf of individuals who allege exposure to C8 made them sick.
Under the 2005 settlement, residents reserved their right to sue DuPont over any illnesses if the Science Panel found C8 to be linked to those illnesses. In the settlement, DuPont agreed it would not contest the “general causation” between C8 and any illness for which the Science Panel found a probable link. In such cases, DuPont can only argue over whether C8 caused the illness experienced by the specific individual who filed the suit.
When asked about those pending lawsuits, DuPont says that the cases “ignore family history, lifestyle choices and other causes of health issues and disease in these specific individuals.” The company says it will “vigorously defend” against “any and all such lawsuits not based upon valid science.”