Concerns about polluted drinking water began to emerge for more than 12,000 Washington County residents when a manufacturing chemical called C8 was revealed in some area public water systems in January 2002.
But local water systems had been secretly tested by officials at DuPont’s Washington, W.Va., Works plant, the source of the chemical, decades earlier. Only recently has the public come to learn that the unregulated chemical may be a health risk, a concern company documents show was shared by DuPont years ago even though the company never shared those concerns publicly.
As recently as last month, a national environmental watchdog organization called the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., asked that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigate DuPont’s failure to report this information. The group also asked that DuPont be fined for conducting the tests all those years ago and never reporting the results to the EPA or making them public to local communities. The EWG first made this request in April.
Specifically, the EWG has asked the EPA to investigate DuPont’s failure to notify the EPA of a 1981 finding of birth defects in two of seven children born to women exposed to the chemical while working at DuPont, and of failing to notify the Little Hocking community when C8 was first discovered in that community’s water system back in 1984.
The EPA is continuing to investigate the matter, but it has presented a logistical challenge for the agency because some of the incidents under consideration took place 20 years ago. The agency’s habit is to archive documents every decade, said Dave Deegan, public information officer for the U.S. EPA.These are just the latest wrinkles in the unfolding story of C8.
Located in West Virginia along the Ohio River, the local DuPont plant has been using and emitting the substance into the air, water and soil for more than 50 years as part of the process of manufacturing fluoropolymers like the non-stick coating Teflon. Based on internal scientific research, DuPont officials now claim the man-made substance presents no harm to humans.
Others aren’t yet convinced.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pursuing an extensive investigation of the toxicity of the chemical, coordinating the efforts of science and industry. That’s because this chemical has been found to be exceptionally pervasive, detectable in the bloodstream of more than 90 percent of Americans. The biopersistance of the substance is a concern because it has been found to cause developmental problems in laboratory animals.
Because Mid-Ohio Valley residents are even more exposed to the chemical through the air, water and soil, it’s of special concern locally. In Wood County Circuit Court, alarmed consumers of affected water systems are bringing a class action lawsuit against DuPont because they fear health effects from long-term exposure. Just this week the West Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, specifically DuPont’s challenge of a local judge they say should not preside over the case because he lives within the area covered by the class action suit, and an earlier ruling that would force DuPont to conduct blood tests for any water consumers who want it.
Rulings are expected any day and will determine if the class action trial will move forward in the Wood County court system.
People who live in the affected areas and consume the water say they are unsure what to believe about the chemical. C8 was not a household word in the Mid-Ohio Valley until the substance was detected in local water systems, decades after the DuPont emissions and population exposure began.
“We seem to be adrift in a sea of controversy and uncertainty about the health consequences of C8,” said Robert Griffin, director of the Little Hocking Water Association, which serves 12,000 Ohio residents and whose water has the highest known level of exposure of any public water system.
The Mid-Ohio Valley is the only place in the world where C8 is being directly released into the air and water, said plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Bilott. People who live in Little Hocking, directly across the Ohio River from the plant, are believed to have the highest potential for exposure to PFOA. And, with it running out of some western Washington County household water faucets at a rate of two parts per billion, the simplistic term has come to stand for an enormous mystery about health and safety.
Debra Cochran of Pageville, a stay-home mother of three, has begun her own investigation into the substance, driven by fears about her family’s health. News reports about C8 peaked her interest months ago and now she is trying to find out if the manufacturing chemical could be a contributing factor in a developmental problem suffered by her 6-year-old daughter, Lauren.
“We thought her teeth came in without enamel,” Cochran said. Lauren had to have her teeth removed after they failed to develop properly. Recently Cochran has discovered that several other families in her area have experienced the same problem. She hopes the Center for Disease Control or the National Institute of Health will come in and perform an investigation to determine if pollution could be the cause of the children’s dental problems. As of yet, neither of those agencies have committed to doing so.
While local residents are just now digging for more information about the chemical, public records on file with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection show DuPont’s own investigation of the chemical began decades ago.
DuPont began manufacturing fluoropolymers at the Washington Works plant in 1951. While no emissions data exists from that time, DuPont officials expect that PFOA would have been part of the manufacturing waste stream.
In 1979, studies performed by the Missouri company 3M, on workers who handled the substance at that plant, showed the substance to be persistent in human blood and more prevalent in the environment than anticipated. The 3M company shared this information with DuPont, prompting a voluntary monitoring program for employees with the greatest potential for exposure.
The 3M Company phased out its U.S. production of PFOA in May 2000 after the EPA began an investigation into related fluoropolymers, making DuPont the only domestic manufacturer of C8. The substance is manufactured at DuPont’s Fayetteville, N.C., facility.
A consent order signed Nov. 14, 2001, between the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and DuPont determined that the protective safety level for oral exposure to C8 in drinking water should not exceed 150 parts per billion. By calculating the risk factor at a consumption rate of 0.004 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, the C8 Assessment of Toxicity Team estimated that this level of daily exposure for the human population, including sensitive subpopulations, is not likely to result in detrimental health effects over a lifetime.
So far, of the hundreds of samples collected for analysis from private wells, cisterns, springs, and public water systems, none have been found to exceed the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection 150 parts per billion health protective water screening level for C8.
But DuPont first tested drinking water in the Little Hocking system in March 1984. At that time C8, or PFOA, was detected at the lowest level the test could detect, 0.6 parts per billion. In subsequent testing in June 1984, March 1987, and May 1988, the presence of C8 was not detected in Little Hocking water supplies. No further testing was performed until 2002, when it became part of a consent agreement with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Plant manager Paul Bossert said the 2002 findings were a surprise to DuPont company officials, who were not expecting to find anything.
Similarly, the chemical was detected in the Lubeck Water District beginning in 1984. From that time until 1989, the Lubeck system was found to have C8 ranging in amounts from 0.7 to 2.2 parts per billion. DuPont officials reported the presence of C8 in the Lubeck drinking water to the West Virginia
Department of Environmental Protection in 1989 even though they were not required to communicate with the agency about the unregulated material. DuPont reported its findings to Environmental Protection Agency Region III officials in 1990.
“DuPont does not monitor employee blood for possible health effects,” said Dr. Robert Rickard, Director of DuPont Haskell Laboratory for Health and Environmental Sciences. “Such monitoring is done to evaluate the effectiveness of the company’s industrial hygiene program, which has an overall goal of reducing employee exposure to industrial materials.”
The company documents obtained from the WVDEP show that a number of scientific studies performed internally by DuPont over the years indicated no conclusive evidence of an occupationally related health problem among exposed workers. However, even the corporation’s own studies speculate that the substance may negatively interact with human body chemistry, leading to problems with hormonal, immune, and hepatic responses over the long term.
“Among men, 10 years of employment in C8 production was associated with a significant 3-fold increase in prostate cancer mortality when compared to no employment in production,” said Dr. L. B. Biegel, Senior Research Toxicologist in a Hazard Characterization for Human Health C8 Exposure dated Jan. 9, 1997. “Given the small number of prostate cancer deaths and the natural history of the disease, the association between production work and prostate cancer must be viewed as hypothesis generating and not over interpreted. If the prostate cancer mortality excess is related to C8, the results of this study and other clinical studies suggest that C8 may increase prostate cancer mortality through endocrine alterations.”
The Hazard Characterization says that the primary target organ for C8-induced toxicity is the liver in mice, rats, and dogs, regardless of route of exposure. In contrast, the target organs in the monkey were the gastrointestinal tract and the reticuloendothelial (cell biology) system.
“While the liver does not appear to be a primary target in humans, exposure to C8 appears to modify the hepatic and immune responses to xenobiotics,” said the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1996. Xenobiotics are chemical substances, naturally occurring or not, which are foreign to the biological system.
While the liver hazard for rodents is clear, humans are not thought to be susceptible to the risk. Programs monitoring the health of C8-exposed workers provide no evidence of carcinogenic effects for humans.
Still, people with contaminated water resent that information was not provided to them until very recently. Unanswered questions and conflicting reports have created a prevailing fear of corporate deception and an environment ripe for worry.
“The public has a right to know the truth,” said Jennifer Whipkey , 619 Tenth St., Marietta. “It’s time to stop protecting corporate and government interests and start protecting the health of the general public. It’s not wonder people are so concerned about the C8 terror, they don’t know which half-truths to believe from government agencies and the industry itself.”
Griffin said for many of his customers finding out about C8 contamination in their water was like coming home to find a stranger sitting on your porch.
“You don’t know if he’ll do you harm,” Griffin said. “But some people tell you he will and you don’t really want him there.”
Yet others believe the C8 controversy is unwarranted, particularly considering the small amount of contamination that has been detected.
“The chemical is now regulated in Ohio and West Virginia with an allowable concentration of 150 parts per billion in drinking water,” said Walt Stewart of Marietta, a retired DuPont Washington Works employee. “I have read that the measured concentration is between 0.5 and 2 ppb. Why is that a problem? There are trace amounts of many chemicals in our drinking water and it is unrealistic to think that they can be removed to zero.”