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Health Concerns Stick To Teflon

Additive turns up in people and animals, though scientists say the risk is uncertain

Oct 9, 2004 | Philadelphia Inquirer

More than 65 years ago in a south New Jersey laboratory, a DuPont Co. chemist accidentally invented a waxy, white powder that would become one of the mainstays of the modern kitchen: Teflon.

Today, this nonstick marvel is getting attention far beyond the stovetop.

A chemical used to make it, perfluorooctanoic acid — PFOA — has been turning up in people and animals worldwide: river otters in Oregon, polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, and in the blood of 96 percent of children tested in 23 states.

Scientists are not sure how the chemical is getting into people not from using Teflon pans, they say and they don't know whether it poses any danger at current levels.

But the hardy substance does not break down in the environment.

And it has been linked to liver and developmental problems in lab rats, prompting a broad review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We need to get to the bottom of this," said Charles Auer, director of the agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

PFOA is just one of dozens of synthetic intruders found in the human body in recent years, thanks to increasingly sophisticated equipment that allows scientists to measure the slightest traces of chemicals.

But this one has drawn unusual scrutiny.

DuPont agreed last month to pay at least $108 million to settle a class-action suit brought by residents near a company plant in West Virginia, where PFOA has been found in the drinking water.

And in July, the EPA prompted partly by the research of a Washington-based nonprofit organization called Environmental Working Group accused DuPont of failing to disclose certain health-related information about PFOA from as early as 1981.

A public hearing is pending, after which an administrative law judge can impose fines of more than $300 million.

Meanwhile, a growing number of scientists think the biggest source of PFOA is not Teflon , but a related family of chemicals called telomers.

Telomers, made by DuPont and a handful of other companies, are widely used to make grease- and stain-repellent coatings for take-out food boxes, carpets and clothing.

Burger King, for example, stopped selling food in telomer-coated boxes in 2002. McDonald's has said in the past it uses such boxes, but would not say whether it still does.

The various accusations have provoked consternation at DuPont, based in Wilmington, Del., whose executives describe it as a "science company" that cares about the environment.

The company says it has broken no laws and has sharply reduced emissions of PFOA.

And studies on plant workers have shown PFOA to be safe, said Don Duncan, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, an industry group.

"It's not as if we've got people dropping in the streets out there," he said.

Today, the DuPont plant in Fayetteville, N.C., is the nation's lone manufacturer of PFOA.

In a preliminary assessment last year of risks to human development, the EPA found the chemical levels linked to problems in rats to be anywhere from less than 70 to more than 9,000 times the levels found in women and children.

For some health effects, including a weaker immune system and low organ weights, scientists have found no dose to be totally safe in rats.

Critics advocate a precautionary approach: Stop making the suspect chemicals.

"We're already to the point where it is in people and getting near the point where there's significant risk," said Tim Kropp, a toxicologist at Environmental Working Group.

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