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EPA admits C8 may be unsafe for humans

Agency says chemical used by DuPont also poses a risk to the environment

Mar 9, 2006 | JEFF MONTGOMERY Federal officials have quietly admitted that chemicals used to make popular nonstick, nonstain products may be unsafe to humans and the environment.

The acknowledgement came in a proposed requirement to test any new products that rely on controversial chemicals already used in materials like DuPont's flagship "Teflon" coating.

"Based on recent information, EPA can no longer conclude that these polymers will not present an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment," the Environmental Protection Agency said in the proposal published without fanfare in a federal legal register Tuesday.

The proposal and its conclusions surfaced as The DuPont Co. faces new scrutiny over the handling of those chemicals at its Chambers Works plant on the Delaware River, near the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The compounds have been labeled as a likely cause of cancer.

DuPont and the EPA both have said that Teflon is safe for consumers, but have agreed to a phase-out plan for some fluorine-containing chemicals used in its production.

One of those chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid, also called PFOA or C8 is used by DuPont Co. in the production of Teflon and other products.

PFOA-related products are a $1 billion a year business for DuPont. The company sells the materials to other businesses for use in thousands of products ranging from cookware to fabric coatings, food packaging, denture cleaners, shampoo, electronic goods and fire-fighting foams.

In a prepared statement, DuPont said it believes its products are safe and that it was studying the EPA's plan for testing of new products.

"We do not believe the rule has a significant impact on our business," the statement noted.

DuPont, the only producer of PFOA in the United States, and several major producers worldwide, already have agreed to phase out the chemical under an EPA-sponsored program.

Tim Kropp, a senior scientist for Environmental Working Group, said the EPA's latest proposal indicates that products are reaching consumers without adequate study of potential health hazards.

"As the proposal clearly lays out, the reason they're worried about the new formulations is that they're worried about the old ones," said Kropp, whose group pressed the EPA to act for years on PFOA. "The EPA doesn't have the power to take on old chemicals very well.

"I think this document, combined with the proposed phase out, is really sort of a vindication for the concerns that have been raised over the past couple of years," Kropp said.

The proposal, he said, "will give an extra measure of confidence that the alternative that the companies have agreed to move to are safer."

Chemical found in N.J. well

In Pennsville Township, N.J., near the Chambers Works site, officials have confirmed that low-level traces of PFOA which has been labeled as a likely cause of cancer have turned up in one well used to supply public taps.

Similar results are under study in Carneys Point and Penns Grove, according to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit group that discovered the contamination during house-by-house testing.

"This is going to become a big issue," said Tracy Carluccio, a Riverkeeper staffer. "It's already found in so many places in the environment that any new source is of concern."

In mid-December, DuPont agreed to pay $16.5 million in fines and compensatory spending to settle EPA charges the company failed to report PFOA releases and human exposures, and information about possible toxic effects. The terms require the company to spend $5 million studying how a wider variety of related chemicals and consumer products behave and break down in the environment.

The company established a $108 million reserve last year to cover class-action lawsuit settlements involving water pollution claims by West Virginia and Ohio residents.

Exposure studies have found the chemicals "at low levels in the blood of humans and wildlife throughout the United States, providing clear evidence of widespread exposure," the EPA noted in its announcement Tuesday.

The agency listed several ways the chemical could potentially be getting into humans," including consumption of food packaged in treated papers, inhalation of chemicals from treated products or pollution from manufacturers."

Although blood concentrations in most people are low, its widespread presence and its potential to accumulate in blood and tissue is a concern, the EPA notice said.

DuPont officials have meanwhile revealed that they hope to begin shipping some PFOA-related chemicals from Chambers Works to a proposed $20 million facility in Pascagoula, Miss., for treatment prior to use in New Jersey. The treatment is designed to reduce impurities in the product and create more environmentally friendly products, David McMellon, manager of the company's First Chemical plant, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

"What I'm getting from our folks is: 'If there wasn't anything wrong with it before, why are they taking it down there for treatment and sending it back?' " said John Rowe, president of a United Steelworkers union local at Chambers Works.

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