A major federal health survey could include the first independent analysis of how widely a common but increasingly controversial chemical is affecting humans.
The chemical, which is found in everything from stain-proof carpeting to water-resistant clothing, already is known to have contaminated public water supplies along the Ohio River and to have mysteriously accumulated in the blood of people across the nation.
However, exactly how pervasive and risky this exposure is remains unclear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in preparing what will be the largest study of human chemical exposure, is considering checking for perfluorooctanoate, also known as C8 or PFOA.
The chemical is used to make Teflon coatings for dozens of popular household products.
Amid mounting pressure from consumer and environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April launched its own investigation of C8.
The EPA study will try to determine the health hazards of C8, which currently is unregulated, and how widespread the chemical is.
First reported in 2001, the National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals involves taking blood and urine tests of about 2,500 people and measuring selected toxins. It’s updated every two years.
The first survey tested for 27 chemicals. The most-recent one tested for 116 chemicals.
As planning continues for the third study, the CDC is considering dozens of other chemicals for testing, including C8.
The CDC hasn’t decided how many chemicals it will add. It’s collecting public comments and will complete a list later this year.
“The aim was to make the public aware of the exposures of chemicals that get into their bodies,” said John Osterloh, a physician and chief medical officer at the CDC. “This better information helps us make better public-health decisions.”
DuPont, which makes C8, has said the chemical poses no danger but hasn’t responded to the possibility of it being included in the CDC study.
“We don’t have a position at this time,” said Dawn Jackson, spokeswoman for the company’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, W.Va. “We are aware of the proposal. It is currently under evaluation. We will comment directly to the CDC.”
A class-action lawsuit is pending on behalf of as many as 50,000 people who live near the plant, including residents in Ohio and West Virginia whose public water supplies contain C8. A West Virginia judge has ordered the company to pay for blood tests, declaring C8 “toxic and hazardous to humans.”
In April, The Dispatch reported industry studies showing the presence of C8 in the blood of people across the nation, with children often showing higher concentrations. The chemical also has been linked to cancer, liver damage and other health problems in studies on rats.
The EPA, in announcing its investigation, cited concerns about the possibility that C8 might cause developmental problems in young girls and women of childbearing age.
The American Council on Science and Health, an independent group of scientists, is overseeing the EPA study. Its goal is to ensure that science isn’t misused in public-policy debates.
The group hasn’t taken a position on C8. For now, it has planted itself between both sides, helping the EPA sort the science from the rhetoric.
“We’re keeping an eye on all parties,” spokesman Jeff Stier said. “We’re advocates for science. We want to make sure it’s science that drives public policy.”
But, he added, “Simply because a chemical is measurable in the human body does not therefore mean it’s harmful.”
Given C8’s presence in public drinking water near the DuPont plant and the direct exposure of employees, its appearance in the bloodstream of local residents is not surprising.
However, industry studies on file at the EPA show that C8 is in the blood of people as young as 2 and as old as 96. It’s unclear how it’s being absorbed.
The CDC study would look at a broader cross section of people, representative of the entire U.S. population. In the past, the study has helped distinguish high and low levels of various chemicals, demographic and geographic exposure trends, and helped researchers focus future studies.
The 2001 study, for example, highlighted a cluster of leukemia cases in Fallon, Nev., and corresponding high levels of carcinogenic chemicals.
“It tends to steer future research,” said Osterloh of the CDC. “It gives them a better tool for risk assessment.”