EPA and W. Va. lawsuit challenge risks posed by C-8, used to make Teflon
Environmental regulators and a class action lawsuit have challenged the safety of a chemical the DuPont Co. uses to make Teflon, its best-known brand.
As part of an ongoing review of ammonium perfluorooctanoate, also called C-8, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently questioned the research on which DuPont relies to prove that C-8, now unregulated, is safe.
In a written statement last month, the EPA said, “There remains considerable scientific uncertainty regarding potential risks.” The agency, which regulates industrial toxic emissions, also said it soon will “announce a series of aggressive steps that it will take to gather additional scientific information.”
DuPont also faces a class action lawsuit on behalf of anyone who drank water allegedly contaminated by the chemical. Since DuPont began using C-8 in 1951 at its Washington Works facility on the Ohio River near Parkersburg, W.Va., the company has released waste containing the chemical into the air and river, according to court records. The records say DuPont also dumped some C-8 waste into landfills for years, and at least 30,000 households are served by utilities whose water contained C-8.
DuPont stands by C-8, however, saying the chemical does not harm human beings. The company dismisses studies by 3M Co., the original manufacturer of the chemical, that found it causes cancers and liver damage in rats. It also discounts early observations of birth defects in children of its own employees.
DuPont said the EPA evaluation of C-8 had resulted in “an inappropriate risk assessment.”
3M Co. began to phase out the chemical in 2000 and stopped selling it last year, citing its “principles of responsible environmental management.”
DuPont started manufacturing C-8 in October at a plant in Fayetteville, N.C., for its own use and for sale. DuPont also has begun to dispose of C-8 waste along the Delaware River as part of its efforts to control the pollution problem on the Ohio River.
DuPont officials said disposing of C-8 waste in Delaware waters poses no environmental risk.
The company ships C-8 contaminated wastewater by train from West Virginia to its Chambers Works plant in Deepwater, N.J. In 1999, the most recent year for which information was available, the company released treated wastewater containing nearly 10,000 pounds of the chemical into the river.
DuPont has been manufacturing limited amounts of Teflon without C-8 for more than a year. But DuPont officials said there is no “safe, technically sound and environmentally protective” way to make Teflon without C-8.
Teflon is a moneymaker
Much is at stake for DuPont. The company is jettisoning many older, commodity chemicals, including nylon, as it tries to increase business such as fabrics made from genetically engineered crops and plastics for TV displays thinner than anything now available.
But most of those businesses are years from turning a profit. Teflon is among the products that help finance that transition, and DuPont is confident Teflon will remain a top product.
Although DuPont would not discuss profits from Teflon, company executive Richard J. Angiullo said in a November deposition that products made using C-8 accounted for $200 million in after-tax profits in 2000.
In recent decades, DuPont has abandoned some of its most profitable products because of health and environmental concerns. Among them are chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants and lead compounds for high-octane gasoline. More recently, it ceased production of Benlate fungicide and has paid more than $1.7 billion as the result of lawsuits over Benlate.
“There is no evidence or data that demonstrates [C-8] causes adverse human health effects,” said Anguillo, who is vice president of the DuPont division overseeing most Teflon production.
Angiullo said he is confident about Teflon’s future.
Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental group that monitors corporate pollution, has fought with DuPont over contaminated drinking-water wells along the Ohio River. DuPont has withheld information about the dangers of C-8 over the years and continues to under state its danger, he said.
“C-8 is the most persistent chemical ever made, and according to most scientists it has infinite stability in the environment,” Cook wrote last month in a letter to West Virginia Gov. Robert Wise. “This means that all of it ever made will keep cycling through the environment and through people – literally forever.”
Records detail C-8 dumping
Questions about C-8 first arose at DuPont’s Washington Works in West Virginia, where the company uses C-8 to make raw Teflon.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, DuPont vented incinerated waste into the air and dumped waste directly into the Ohio River, according to company documents released in a private lawsuit settled in 2001. The company also disposed of it in a landfill. C-8 migrated from those sources into the tap water of surrounding communities, according to the documents.
In the early 1980s, DuPont purchased hilly parcels of West Virginia land owned by brothers Wilbur Earl, Jim and Jack Tennant. In 1984, the company began dumping waste containing C-8 into an unlined landfill in one of the hollows, records show.
An undated, internal DuPont memo among the records listed the pros and cons of dumping C-8 into a landfill on land formerly owned by the Tennants. Among the pros: “easy to do – less expensive.” Among the cons: “may not protect groundwater.”
C-8 and other toxic chemicals did pollute the groundwater. In 1996, West Virginia fined DuPont a total of $250,000 after regulators reported dead livestock and wildlife near the landfill, and leakage from the unlined landfill into an Ohio River tributary.
The Tennants sued DuPont in July 1999, alleging several hundred cows died after drinking from streams and ponds near the landfill. DuPont settled that case in 2001. Details are confidential, but more than 100,000 pages of company documents disclosed in that lawsuit became the basis of a class-action lawsuit certified last year on behalf of Ohio River Valley residents.
The Cincinnati-based law firm Taft, Stettinius & Hollister has filed the class-action lawsuit against DuPont and the Lubeck Public Service district, the local water utility. The lawsuit alleges that DuPont and Lubek contaminated the region’s drinking water. It seeks unspecified monetary damages, monitoring of residents’ health and a reduction of C-8 emissions at Washington Works.
DuPont began testing drinking water from businesses and homes in the region in 1984 “to learn more about C-8,” Angiullo said. But DuPont said it did not begin to inform the public of what it found until the late 1980s. Levels in DuPont’s test ranged as high as 2.2 parts per billion, according to company documents.
“We did not believe we had any reason to be concerned at these levels,” Angiullo said.
Bob Griffin, general manager of the Little Hocking, Ohio, water authority, said he had no record of ever having been notified that DuPont had found C-8 in its tap water after testing it.
Last year, the authority closed one of its four drinking water wells after finding C-8 levels of 8 ppb.
Griffin said in a letter to the utility’s 12,000 customers in February 2002 that the utility was “shocked” to learn of the contamination.
Cancer, birth defects seen
Studies since the mid-1970s have suggested that C-8 is toxic to animals. But DuPont has said it is harmless to people.
Some of the most critical questions about C-8’s toxicity were raised by its original manufacturer. Amid controversy about a family of related compounds, 3M in the mid-1970s began two decades of studies that found C-8 caused cancers in rats whether inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, which recommends exposure standards for most industrial chemicals, agrees C-8 causes cancer in animals. So does the EPA.
Studies of 3M workers over decades, however, have not conclusively linked C-8 to increased mortality or health problems in people.
DuPont said the way cancer develops in rats is different from the way it develops in human beings, and that some chemicals that cause cancer in rats do not cause cancer in people. An early 3M study also found birth defects in the eyes of rat fetuses exposed to C-8.
DuPont removed women from the Teflon operations at Washington Works in April 1981 after learning of the 3M study. DuPont reassigned the women to the plant after conducting its own review, saying 3M’s study was flawed.
Before that action, DuPont noted eye and nostril defects in two of the seven children born to the women from 1979-1981, according to an internal memo disclosed during the now-settled lawsuit. DuPont said in a written statement Friday that the internal memo recorded only one confirmed birth defect. “There is no indication that it was caused by exposure to [C-8],” the statement said.
DuPont was responding to a letter the Environmental Working Group wrote Friday to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman alleging that the company violated federal disclosure laws by failing to report birth defects. The EPA didn’t immediately comment but is expected to discuss the matter at a press conference Monday in Washington.
Attempts to identify women who worked at Washington Works at the time were not successful.
Forty-eight women of childbearing age now work in Washington Works’ Teflon operations. DuPont expects women will work in C-8 production operations in Fayetteville, although none are now. “We have no concerns that would move us to preclude women from working in any areas where C-8 is used,” said DuPont’s Angiullo.
Although DuPont rejects implications for people from studies showing that C-8 caused cancer in animals, the company in a March 1982 memo cited animal studies to “conclude that female employees of childbearing capability no longer need to be excluded from areas where there is potential for exposure to C-8.” They went back to work.
“It’s disingenuous for DuPont to pick and choose how it wants to use animal studies,” said Kristina Thayer, the Environmental Working Group’s chief scientist.
More recent studies have led 3M to abandon C-8 sales and all production but a small amount for its own use.
After studies in 1997 and 1998, 3M concluded there was “an apparent widespread distribution” of C-8 and a closely related compound in the general population. According to studies 3M submitted to the government in 2001, C-8 was detected in the blood of 96 percent of 598 children tested in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
Citing the prevalence of the chemical in humans, 3M in 2000 announced plans to phase out production of C-8 and all related chemicals for commercial sale made at 3M plants in Alabama, Minnesota and Belgium.
3M’s precaution cost its shareholders. In addition to losing DuPont and other C-8 customers, it was forced to reformulate Scotchgard, its well-known stain-proofing product for upholstery and other household goods, which contained a closely related compound. That led to a $168 million charge against pretax earnings in 2000. The company pulled several Scotchgard products from the market while reformulating them.
DuPont, however, has cited 3M’s ultimate conclusion that C-8 has no ill effects on people. A DuPont spokesman said 3M’s decision “wasn’t motivated by health concerns.”
No safe-exposure limit set
DuPont has considered setting a limit for safe exposure to C-8. Senior DuPont toxicologist Gerald Kennedy proposed in a June 1987 memo, that 0.5 parts per million would be “an acceptable level” for C-8 in the blood of workers.
That year, DuPont recommended that “once a safe level is established, those personnel exceeding 50 percent of this level will be required to be removed from the exposure area,” according to another DuPont memo.
But DuPont never adopted a blood-level limit, although it still tests workers.
“There has never been a medical need,” said Robert Rickard, director of DuPont’s Haskell Laboratory for Health and Environmental Studies
Kennedy wrote to the EPA in January 2001 to report that, among workers tested the previous year, the average exposure was 1.53 parts per million – three times higher than the limit it once considered for workers.
Although DuPont disputes C-8 is a health hazard, since the early 1990s the company has imposed what it calls a “community exposure guideline” of up to 3 ppb of C-8 in water and air in planning how it makes Teflon and controls resulting waste. DuPont calls the voluntary guideline conservative.
“You should not conclude that exposure over that is damaging to health,” Rickard said.
In West Virginia, testing of several local wells revealed concentrations far exceeding DuPont’s community guideline. One test sample in a Little Hocking well field yielded a level of 78 ppb, utility manager Griffin said.
An October 2001 consent decree between DuPont and the EPA’s West Virginia and Ohio regional branches specified DuPont would have to provide temporary alternative sources of drinking water should concentrations of C-8 be found at or above 14 ppb in ongoing testing in the region. The level, since raised to 150 ppb, has been criticized by the Environmental Working Group.
Such high levels haven’t turned up in drinking water in tests by a toxicology group commissioned by West Virginia environmental officials.
C-8 production moved
DuPont said it is committed to limiting emissions of C-8 from the Fayetteville plant to 200 pounds annually. Environmental activists said that even that amount may not be safe, given how the chemical lingers in the human body.
In West Virginia, where it uses C-8 to make Teflon, DuPont has installed scrubbers that a spokeswoman said eventually will contain more than 90 percent of C-8 emissions at its Washington Works plant. The company said they totaled just over 20,000 pounds last year, 75 percent less than in 1999.
That’s not good enough for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. In a Jan. 7, 2003, letter to DuPont, director Christopher Jones said the company’s efforts were not sufficient to guarantee that air pollution would continue to decrease. Ohio EPA specifically asked that DuPont work with West Virginia officials to establish and abide by a limit for air emissions.
DuPont also is grappling with how federal regulation would affect its disposal of C-8 waste into the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. As a result of the pollution-control measures at Washington Works, the company has started shipping wastewater containing C-8 by rail to its Chambers Works treatment plant.
“Our effluents are regulated and in compliance with Clean Water Act permits,” said DuPont spokeswoman Diane Shomper. The EPA’s eventual ruling on C-8 could alter that.
After the EPA’s statement last month that further research is needed to establish the safety of C-8, DuPont issued statements defending the chemical and stating Teflon’s best known use – in non-stick pans – is safe.
DuPont also said it does not oppose the regulation of C-8.
“Regulation in this case would be most welcome,” Angiullo said. “Because it would supply some assurance to society at large” that DuPont is not polluting or otherwise threatening the environment and human health.