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DuPont won't say how C-8 is formed

Residents fear contamination

Dec 18, 2005 | The Environmental Protection Agency wants to know a lot more about the fate and breakdown of chemicals the DuPont Co. makes or sells for use at its Chambers Works plant in New Jersey and other sites around the globe to make nonstick, nonstain, grease-repellent products.

But government and company officials are refusing all requests for names of the chemicals and products targeted in a $5 million study included in a record-breaking $16.5 million settlement announced by the EPA last week. And that has some workers and residents around the Deepwater, N.J., plant wondering if they have been contaminated or misled.

"We expect that our local management will be forthcoming with this information, since it concerns the health and safety of our membership inside the facility," said James Rowe, president of the United Steelworkers local at Chambers Works, near the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The EPA would say only that DuPont must spend $5 million on a three-year study of nine fluorotelomer-based products and chemicals. The research work is part of a $16.5 million penalty that settled federal claims DuPont failed to report water pollution, human blood contamination and toxic hazards connec- ted with production of Teflon and other nonstick materials.

Chemicals up for study, the EPA said, have been "claimed by DuPont as confidential."

"There have been a number of questions asked about the biodegradation study that we're not in a position to talk about," said R. Clifton Webb, a DuPont spokesman.

Settlement documents include only generic names for the targeted chemicals.

The deal has its roots in mounting concern over detection of perfluorooctanoic acid also known as PFOA or C-8 in the human blood around the world. Some scientists suspect the potentially toxic chemicals are residues of fluoropolymers and broken-down fluorotelomers used in a variety of industries.

Both compounds are made with fluorine, carbon and other chemicals, assembled into long, durable chains. Although fluorotelomers are produced without PFOA, a chemical now made in America only by DuPont, researchers are concerned that the fluorotelomers can biodegrade or get broken down under some conditions into PFOA.

The still-confidential DuPont studies "will provide valuable information so we can better understand the presence of PFOA in the environment and any potential risks it may pose to the public," said Susan Hazen, the EPA's principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances.

A huge number of products have fluorotelomer ties, ranging from grease-resistant coatings on fast-food wrappers to fire-fighting foams, from soil- and stain-resistant carpets to medical products, from personal care items to cleaning supplies.

Fluoropolymer-related chemicals used to make Teflon have been released to the air and water for years from Chambers Works, DuPont has confirmed, although levels have fallen by 98 percent since 1999.

Both types of compounds show up on a list of chemicals that DuPont provided to New Jersey last year in a report on what the company knows or believes may be in wastewater discharges at Deepwater.

"I'm right here in Collins Park, only half a mile from the river, and I want to know more," said Jeffrey M. Ousey, who lives due west. "It needs more attention here. They've known about this for years. It's as bad as the cigarette companies knowing about cancer and tobacco for years."

Hazen said DuPont's studies could prompt action.

"During the course of those three years, there will be interim reports coming out of the agency," Hazan said. "Much of the information in those reports may in fact lead us to be able to draw some conclusions earlier than three years."

Accused of withholding facts

Federal and industry officials launched intensive studies of PFOA health risks in 2003 after the synthetic chemical began turning up in the blood of people and animals around the globe. That study gained urgency as the EPA uncovered details about DuPont's failure to report troubling findings at its Washington Works Plant near Parkersburg, W.Va.

The agreement released last week points out that the research will assess the potential for nine of DuPont's fluorotelomer products to break down to PFOA and related compounds.

Wilmington resident Al Denio, a former DuPont chemist, said the company's handling of problems with its $1 billion line of nonstick, nonstain products could threaten its survival.

"They assure us that it's not harmful, but how do I know that," said Denio, chairman of the Sierra Club Delaware Chapter's anti-pollution committee. "It bothers me to think that this stuff is in everybody's bloodstream and they keep saying: 'Don't worry about it.' "

DuPont officials have repeatedly said they are unaware of any human health concerns connected with the chemicals, but the company has reduced PFOA emissions at plants by 98 percent since 1999.

EPA officials late last year accused DuPont of withholding information about potential health hazards connected with PFOA-related compounds. The agency said the company held back for decades evidence that the chemical could contaminate fetal blood in pregnant workers, as well as information about pollution that eventually tainted water systems serving more than 30,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia.

Another allegation in the eight-count complaint settled by the $16.5 million penalty charged that company officials failed to report "significant lethality" in rats exposed to unnamed perfluorinated compounds in 1997, a fact "that should have been reported immediately," an EPA official said.

Jane Nogaki, South Jersey representative for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said the latest settlement is reason enough to take another hard look at DuPont's commercial wastewater operation. Chambers Works is New Jersey's second-largest source of toxic pollution.

Testing is first step

DuPont and EPA officials have repeatedly disagreed about methods for testing the ways fluorotelomers degrade in the environment -- a dispute that in June 2004 prompted annoyed EPA officials to announce that the government would conduct taxpayer-funded studies. Until that point, federal officials had hoped that industry would finance research into the ways the compounds move in the environment and living tissues.

DuPont officials had confirmed that Chambers Works, until recently, discharged thousands of pounds of PFOA yearly, mostly into the Delaware River by way of the company's commercial wastewater plant.

Last month, a former DuPont employee accused the company of ignoring warnings about fluorotelomers and the grease-resistant coatings produced at the same site during the late 1980s.

"We hope the testing demanded by the EPA, as part of its settlement with DuPont, is a step in the right direction to determining the safety of these chemical products," Rowe said. "In light of the EPA's unprecedented and historic fine against DuPont, our doubts have grown about DuPont's truthfulness over the years about the real effects of these chemicals."

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