LITTLE HOCKING, Ohio — Kenny Taggart always volunteered for blood drives at the DuPont plant across the Ohio River, where he spent most of his adult life mixing chemicals used to make Teflon anti-stick coatings.
When Taggart stopped by the plant’s medical office in the early 1980s to offer another pint, the nurse shook her head and turned him away. His name was on a list of employees whose blood was contaminated with ammonium perfluorooctanoate, a chemical known within the company as C8.
Taggart didn’t know much about C8, but DuPont did.
Company scientists issued internal warnings about the chemical as early as 1961, according to DuPont records filed last year with a West Virginia court. Medical studies conducted during the 1970s and ’80s by DuPont and 3M, chief supplier of the chemical, showed that C8 builds up in human blood, doesn’t break down in the environment and might cause serious health problems, including liver damage, reproductive and developmental defects and cancer.
DuPont records also show the company has known for at least two decades that C8 contamination extends beyond workers at its Washington Works plant west of Parkersburg, W.Va., where the chemical has been used since 1951 to help keep Teflon and related coatings from clumping as they are manufactured.
As the warning signs about C8 mounted at DuPont, few people outside the company were told, including thousands of people in the surrounding river valley who drink and breathe the chemical every day, according to internal documents and interviews with local officials.
Government officials didn’t know much, either. Like thousands of other chemicals used by industry, C8 is not regulated by the federal government. But that could soon change.
Amid growing concerns about the persistence of C8 in humans and its potential health effects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation in September to determine a national standard for the chemical. A decision is expected later this year.
The agency took action after 3M provided research showing that millions of Americans likely have been exposed to the chemical. The studies detected low levels of C8 across the nation in human blood and in foods such as apples, bread, green beans and ground beef.
EPA scientists still are trying to determine how C8 spreads in the environment and what it can do to humans.
Under pressure from the EPA to contain C8 and a related chemical used in Scotchgard, 3M announced in May 2000 that it would stop making them. DuPont now makes C8 at one of its own plants.
”Who knows how much C8 I’ve still got in my blood,” said Taggart, 62, who retired from DuPont nine years ago but still drinks C8-contaminated water at his home in Little Hocking. ”It can’t be good. If it was, the good Lord would have put it in your body when he made you.”
Company says it’s safe
C8 levels found in local drinking water aren’t harmful, DuPont says. The company also says the chemical is used to help process Teflon and is removed before the coating is applied to cookware, clothing and other products sold worldwide.
”While C8 is persistent in human blood, there is no evidence of adverse human-health impact,” DuPont says on a Web site (www.c8inform.com) it established last March to give the public information about the chemical.
When asked to comment, DuPont repeatedly referred The Dispatch to the Web site.
Based on at least a half dozen studies by 3M and DuPont that revealed C8 accumulates in the blood of workers and can be found outside manufacturing plants, DuPont established a ”community exposure standard” in 1991 of 1 part per billion in drinking water.
In May 2002, after much higher levels were found in drinking water on the Ohio side of the river, the state of West Virginia declared that the safe level of C8 in water is 150 parts per billion, a dramatic departure from the standard DuPont continued to cite in internal documents as recently as November 2001.
DuPont officials say their exposure standard was never intended to be a ”safe level,” although a June 1987 memo from the company’s safety office shows that DuPont scientists were instructed to establish an ”acceptable level for C8 in community drinking water.”
”Our internal levels are typically set so conservatively that we are positive we can comply with any level that regulators might set,” said Dawn Jackson, a DuPont spokeswoman. ”Most importantly, we’ve been using C8 for more than 50 years, and we have not identified any health effects associated with exposure.”
Internal documents show that both 3M and DuPont had concerns about animal testing that showed possible connections between C8 and health problems. Those concerns, however, were downplayed over the years.
Federal officials urge further study.
”Toxicological studies in rodents and primates have shown that exposure to (C8) can result in a variety of effects, including developmental/reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity and cancer,” EPA scientists wrote in a Sept. 23 internal memo.
Rats and monkeys are two species that scientists test to determine whether chemicals are toxic to humans.
In Ohio, C8 has been detected in drinking water as far away as Pomeroy, 70 miles downriver from the DuPont plant, and 4 miles upriver in Belpre, a discovery that federal and state officials say indicates the contamination can spread through air as well as water.
The highest levels found so far are in wells of the Little Hocking Water Association, which are directly across the river from the DuPont plant. Tests conducted last year by DuPont contractors revealed that every time the association’s 12,000 customers in Washington and Athens counties turn on a tap, their water contains levels of C8 twice as high as DuPont’s community standard of 1 part per billion.
Local officials shut off one of the association’s wells last spring after tests detected levels of C8 that were nearly eight times higher than DuPont’s community standard. Test borings in the well field found levels in groundwater that were 78 times higher than the DuPont standard.
DuPont tests Ohio water
Court records show that DuPont has known about the contamination in Little Hocking since at least 1984, when the company sent an employee across the river to fill a jug with tap water from Mason’s Market, the local general store.
The tests detected C8 in drinking water on both sides of the river, according to an Aug. 29, 1984, DuPont memo stamped ”personal and confidential.” The memo is one of several internal DuPont documents filed with a Wood County, W.Va., circuit court hearing a class-action lawsuit filed by plant neighbors.
”The fact that DuPont didn’t tell people anything about the C8 says something,” said Robert Griffin, general manager of the Little Hocking water system. ”Either they didn’t know what it does, or they didn’t want us to know what they know.”
Company executives say the tests were part of a ”comprehensive effort to learn more about C8.”
”DuPont acted with the absolute confidence that the low or non-detectable levels of C8 found in the Little Hocking water samples during the mid-1980s posed no risks to the health of Little Hocking residents or our own employees in the area,” Richard Angiullo, vice president and general manager of DuPont’s fluroproducts division, said in a written statement.
Sara Mason, who has owned the Little Hocking general store since 1968, said sales of bottled water have increased since the village was first informed about the C8 contamination last year.
Reaction from her customers has been mixed, Mason said. Some are reluctant to question DuPont, a source of well-paying jobs in a corner of Appalachia faced with chronically high unemployment. Others feel ”violated” by the chemical contamination of water they rely upon daily for drinking and bathing.
”It feels like a burglar has snuck in through my back door,” Mason said. ”It’s there, it’s been there for years, and we’re stuck with it.”
Under an agreement reached last March with the EPA, DuPont must reduce air emissions of C8 to half of 1999 levels by the end of this year. The company also installed equipment to strip the chemical from wastewater dumped into the Ohio River, but there apparently is no known method to remove C8 already in the environment.
EPA scientists began their inquiry in the late 1990s after 3M told the agency that a related chemical, which was used in the company’s line of Scotchgard products, had been found in blood banks from Boston to Los Angeles. Studies provided by 3M showed the chemicals could pose widespread risks to human health and the environment, according to the EPA.
Pressed by the EPA to come up with a solution, 3M chose to stop making all ” perfluorochemicals,” including C8 and the Scotchgard compound, which was used to protect carpets, clothing, fabrics and upholstery from stains and other damage.
The agency was prepared to take steps to order the chemicals off the market if 3M had not acted, according to a May 16, 2000, memo written by Charles Auer, director of the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
Nineteen months later, DuPont announced that it would start making C8 itself at a plant in Fayetteville, N.C. ”It was essential that DuPont take steps to ensure reliable access to this vital raw material,” the company said in a news release announcing the move.
Chemical danger debated
DuPont has studied about 40 alternatives to C8, all of which were abandoned because they either didn’t meet the same performance standards or, like C8, were found to accumulate in human blood.
Officials at 3M said they have no evidence that C8 and the related chemical used in Scotchgard (perfluorooctanyl sulfonate, or PFOS) pose a long-term risk to human health.
”Our decision to phase out production is based on our principles of responsible environmental management,” Charles Reich, a 3M executive vice president, said when the company announced it would stop making the chemicals.
DuPont’s Web site says 3M officials told DuPont the phaseout ”was not based on any health or safety concern.”
EPA and company records, though, suggest the chemicals may be more dangerous than 3M and DuPont have publicly acknowledged.
In 1978, after 3M told DuPont that C8 had been detected in the blood of workers at a Minnesota plant that manufactured the chemical, DuPont officials said that C8 might be causing ”toxic effects” and started their own testing program.
After 3M reported in 1981 that C8 caused birth defects in rats, both companies reassigned women who worked in areas where the chemical was used. They later allowed the women to return to their regular jobs.
DuPont also advised employees exposed to C8 to not give blood but later lifted those restrictions.
In 1990, a researcher in Minnesota found that 3M employees with long-term exposure to C8 had higher rates of death from prostate cancer than employees who did not work with the chemical. DuPont and 3M discounted the results, saying the test group was too small.
Both companies stepped up their research in the 1990s. In a 1997 summary of test results, DuPont said company scientists still didn’t understand how C8 caused cancer in animals ”and therefore relevance to humans cannot be completely ruled out.”
The American Conference of Government and Industrial Hygienists, a national group of workplace health experts, considers C8 a ”confirmed animal carcinogen with unknown relevance to humans.” The banned pesticides DDT and chlordane are in the same category.
One of the most recent studies, conducted last year for 3M, suggested a link between C8 and reproductive and developmental defects in rats. But the companies say the mechanism that caused tumors in rats might not be relevant to humans.
”Rats . . . are uniquely sensitive to C8’s mechanism of toxicity,” DuPont says on its Web site.
In another industry study, C8 was found to kill monkeys and cause damage to the liver and gastrointestinal tract, ”suggesting a different mode of action than observed in rats,” according to a draft EPA hazard assessment prepared last spring.
The EPA believes all of the test results may be relevant to humans.
”Additional toxicology data submitted to the agency suggest a potential for reproductive/developmental toxicity, and additional blood sample analysis data indicate low-level exposures to the general population that are unexplained at this time,” the EPA’s Auer wrote in a Sept. 27 memo.
Ohio endorses findings
West Virginia officials say they based their ”safe level” of C8 in drinking water on the latest available science. The Ohio EPA did not conduct its own study but endorsed West Virginia’s findings.
”If the feds come up with something different, we’ll reassess the situation,” said Jim Leach, an Ohio EPA spokesman.
A panel of scientists that came up with the limit of 150 parts per billion in drinking water included representatives from DuPont and the federal government. It acted under West Virginia laws written to protect water and air from chemical contamination.
”We just couldn’t wait for EPA to finish its hazard assessment, which could take years,” said Perry McDaniel, an attorney for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. ”We studied the matter and then negotiated with DuPont to get some action quicker than that.”
West Virginia’s C8 limit has been criticized by plant neighbors who sued DuPont over the contamination; local water officials in Ohio; and the Environmental Working Group, a research organization in Washington.
”It’s pretty clear they used selective science to mislead the public,” said Richard Wiles, the environmental group’s senior vice president. ”They appear to have come down on the side of being less protective of public health and more protective of DuPont.”
The group has reviewed thousands of pages of documents submitted to the EPA by 3M and DuPont and has posted many of them on its Web site (www.ewg.org). Based on that review, the group concluded that West Virginia greatly underestimated the risks posed by C8.
For instance, West Virginia officials told the public they had applied various EPA-approved safety factors to their calculations but didn’t actually do so, Wiles said. Among other things, the factors would have accounted for the persistence of C8 in humans and the environment, exposure to the chemical through air and food and exposure to infants.
If those factors had been applied, Wiles said, the allowable level of C8 in drinking water would be between 1.5 and 15 parts per billion, much lower than the 150 parts per billion limit established by the state.
DuPont released a statement praising the West Virginia department for supporting the company’s position ”that the presence of C8 at the low levels detected to date in drinking water in the Mid-Ohio Valley is not harmful.”
The company stands by its conclusions.
”The methodology was consistent with the EPA’s methodology,” said Jackson, the DuPont spokeswoman, who called the Environmental Working Group’s criticism ”unfounded.”
After West Virginia established its standard, attorneys for plant neighbors obtained a court order to prevent the leader of the scientific panel from destroying documents related to the investigation. One of the documents proposed a draft ”safe level” of C8 in water of 1 part per billion, identical to DuPont’s community standard.
Critics also note that Jennifer Seed, a U.S. EPA toxicologist on the West Virginia panel, abstained from voting on most of the group’s findings. Seed later wrote a memo urging the federal agency to conduct more study of C8. She did not return telephone calls requesting comment.
Just because the EPA is conducting its own study doesn’t mean the agency has rejected West Virginia’s work, McDaniel said. ”What they are doing and what we did are two totally separate issues and processes,” he said. ”We relied upon accepted EPA protocols and used the best science available.”
Ohioans who live near the DuPont plant can thank a West Virginia farmer for setting in motion a series of events that informed the public about the C8 contamination.
Wilbur Tennant and his wife, Sandra, won a legal settlement from DuPont two years ago after they accused the company of sickening their family and killing their cattle by dumping C8 into a landfill near their farm. When their attorney, Robert Bilott of Cincinnati, asked the EPA to order DuPont to stop using C8, the company sought a restraining order to prevent ”intense media coverage” of the request.
”The general public’s fascination with the topic of environmental contamination and related litigation is evident in the wild success of movies such as . . . Erin Brockovich,” DuPont lawyers wrote in a motion arguing that public disclosure of the C8 contamination would prejudice jurors in the Tennant case.
A federal judge rejected the request for a restraining order. And after West Virginia residents near the DuPont plant began to learn their water was contaminated with C8, Ohio officials started to ask questions about the chemical.
”When we started out back in the ’60s, our biggest worry was the water was too hard,” said Lyle Dayhoff, a retired medical technologist who helped start the Little Hocking Water Association. ”We never had a hint that we might have a problem with DuPont.”
Don Poole, manager of the Tuppers Plains-Chester Water District in Meigs County, said the discovery of C8 in local drinking water has prompted some of his 5,000 customers to resort to dark humor to express their frustration.
Three years ago, the district placed second in a taste test sponsored by the National Rural Water Association. ”My friends joke that it must have been the C8,” Poole said.
”To me, this C8 contamination is a trespass, and they (DuPont) should be treated as trespassers,” he said. ”But unless the U.S. EPA steps in, there is not much we can do about it.”
• Environmental releases
DuPont dumped 55,000 pounds of C8 into the Ohio River during 1999. It released another 31,250 pounds of C8 into the air during 2000, the latest year for which figures are available.
• Where it’s been detected
Tests show that C8 has contaminated drinking water supplies in West Virginia and Ohio. C8 from undetermined sources has been detected in the blood of humans and wildlife across the United States.
• A question of safety
DuPont and West Virginia officials say the C8 levels found in drinking water aren’t harmful. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study that could result in federal regulation of the chemical.
Sources: DuPont, U.S. EPA, West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Excerpt from U.S. EPA MEMO, Sept. 23, 2002
”Toxicological studies in rodents and primates have shown that exposure to PFOA [C8] can result in a variety of effects, including developmental / reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity and cancer.”
Excerpt from U.S. EPA MEMO, Sept. 27, 2002
”. . . additional blood sample analysis data indicate low level exposures [of C8] to the general population that are unexplained at this time.”
Photo, Graphic with Map, Graphic appeared in newspaper, not in the archive.
Photo caption: (1) CHRIS RUSSELL | DISPATCH
Kenny Taggart was advised in the early 1980s not to donate blood because he has traces of a chemical in his bloodstream. The chemical is used by DuPont to make Teflon and other coatings manufactured at a plant west of Parkersburg, W.Va., where Taggart worked for 32 years.
(2) CRAIG HOLMAN | DISPATCH
DuPont’s Washington Works plant has released a chemical into the air and water that has contaminated wells that provide drinking water to 12,000 people in Washington and Athens counties. The wells appear as dark spots on the field across the Ohio river.
(3) Graphic with Map
(4) Chris Russell | Dispatch
DuPont’s Washington Works plant west of Parkersburg, W.Va., looms in the distance behind the well field of the Little Hocking Water Association.