Group Says DuPont Hid Dangers of CoatingNov 17, 2005 | The News Journal The DuPont Co. failed to act for years on warnings about higher-than-expected food contamination from a coating widely used in fast food burger wrappers and other nonstick food containers, a national group asserted Wednesday.
Citing anonymously leaked memos and accounts by a Delaware scientist who once worked for the company, Environmental Working Group claimed DuPont "covered up" critical information about risks from a chemical now found in 95 percent of Americans' bloodstreams, and in humans and animals around the globe.
Clear signs of trouble surfaced as early as 18 years ago for the nonstick wrappings, the group said.
DuPont has denied the claims made by the group and by Glenn R. Evers, a Hockessin-area resident who was terminated by DuPont in 2002 after working for more than two decades as a company researcher.
Company officials later released a letter from the Food and Drug Administration saying the agency had no reason to change current safety findings for the coatings, although studies are continuing.
Evers said he was aware in 1987 that a test had shown the nonstick coating sold by DuPont, called Zonyl RP, leaked a chemical at more than three times a federally approved limit.
"They went on contaminating people for another decade, and they in all likelihood are doing this today," Evers said.
The claims focused new attention on potential health concerns involving products that earned DuPont $1 billion in revenues in 2004, including the company's flagship Teflon coatings and a huge variety of consumer and industrial goods.
Environmental Protection Agency officials are now studying how perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and related compounds get into the environment and affect living things. Contamination from Zonyl RP can break down into PFOA, a substance under consideration for labeling as a "likely cancer-causing agent," Evers said.
Company denies claims
DuPont has insisted that Teflon and other company products are safe and Wednesday denied the claims made by EWG and by Evers.
Evers said Wednesday he was aware as early as 1987 about a test result showing that a nonstick paper coating sold by DuPont leaked a chemical similar to PFOA at more than three times a federally approved limit. The product is a type used in fast food enclosures, wraps and bags worldwide.
"When we received this data, it was: 'Oh my God, we're out of compliance. We've already sold this product. What are we going to do?' " Evers said, describing the reaction of some company scientists at a meeting at DuPont's Chambers Works plant in Deepwater, N.J. He added that the company never reported the result or issued a warning.
DuPont branded Evers' comments false in a recently released statement, and said the former employee had filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company. The statement also said Evers "had little if any direct involvement" in topics he discussed while giving information for a lawsuit involving pollution at a West Virginia plant involved in Teflon production.
"In his deposition, Evers expressed a wide range of personal opinions that are inaccurate, counter to FDA's findings, and which DuPont strongly disputes," DuPont said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce next week a penalty agreement with DuPont for company failure to report potentially toxic effects, including possible birth defects, at the West Virginia site. Maximum penalties in that case could top $300 million, although the EPA has publicly ruled out a full penalty on all counts.
Environmental Working Group, a non-profit science, environmental and consumer organization, has criticized DuPont for failing to report potential risks from its perfluorinated compounds, a class of materials that are potentially toxic, build up in living tissues and are capable of lingering in the environment unchanged for thousands of years.
Prodding by the group helped build pressure for an ongoing EPA study of PFOA risks. The EPA also opened a criminal investigation into DuPont's reporting of risks or problems associated with PFOA and related chemicals.
Letter sent to FDA
EPA officials last year filed civil complaints against the company for failing to report problems with the compounds at the company's plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., prompting DuPont to set aside a $15 million reserve earlier this year.
EWG said DuPont "suppressed" its discovery that Zonyl RP leaked chemicals from food wraps at higher-than approved rates.
"DuPont never informed the FDA of this important finding, even though it is clear that it could have had a major impact on the public's health, and could have triggered a re-evaluation of the safety of the Zonyl as a paper coating that leached into foods," EWG senior vice president Richard Wiles said in a letter urging the Food and Drug Administration to investigate.
"Zonyl was and presumably still is, used as a grease and water barrier for food containers for hundreds of popular food items, from french fry and pizza boxes to cooking and doughnut packages, candy wrappers and microwave popcorn bags," Wiles said.
The FDA in a letter to DuPont on Wednesday said that a recent study had found "negligible" risks that PFOA will escape from nonstick cookware, and said that chemicals released by nonstick paper coatings are different from PFOA.
"At this time we have no reason to change our position that the use of both perflurocarbon resin and telomer-based coatings are safe for use in contact with food" under current rules, FDA Consumer Safety Officer Paul Honigfort wrote. "However, we are still investigating" total exposure to the chemicals from all sources.
EPA review ongoing
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said the agency "has an extensive effort under way to determine the sources of PFOA, how the public is being exposed, and whether these exposures pose a potential health risk."
DuPont established a $108 million reserve last year to pay settlements in connection with a class action lawsuit involving citizen water pollution claims in Ohio and West Virginia. The settlement includes a medical monitoring agreement that could cost the company up to $235 million.
Evers, who has criticized DuPont publicly on pollution issues in Delaware, said he came forward "because I'm concerned about what the EPA might decide next week" about penalties in the agency's civil action. He also said he was intercepted and questioned by armed criminal investigators for the EPA after making statements to attorneys in connection with the class action case in West Virginia.