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Teflon Controversy Heating Up

May 23, 2005 | For the past two years, there has been a growing concern over the safety of the manmade chemical known as C-8 or PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) which can be found in everything from bread to birds, green beans to ground beef, dolphins to drinking water, and in the blood of up to 96% of the population of the United States. The acid is used to manufacture Teflon coating for cookware and hundreds of other products like telephone cables, carpets, clothing, computer chips, chemical piping, and automobile fuel systems. Since there are no known "natural" sources of C-8, scientists are curious as to how the chemical enters the environment. C-8 has also contaminated the groundwater in areas where Teflon is manufactured.

DuPont, which pioneered the development of PFOA and continues to dominate its use, claims that the chemical is harmless to humans. It also disputes that C-8 is released during normal cooking (as opposed to overheating). Others are not so sure that either assertion is true.

Studies have concluded that C-8 is one of several toxic gases released by Teflon when it is heated to temperatures which, at their low end, are only slightly above normal cooking temperatures. C-8 has been shown to cause tumors in rats and fumes from Teflon coated cookware can cause what is known as "polymer fume fever," a condition which has been shown to kill birds even at low temperatures but which DuPont claims is harmless to humans if the cookware is used at a temperature of up to 500F. When Teflon is overheated (above 700F), fatal cases of polymer fume fever in humans have occurred (at 842F). In 2005, however, the Environmental Protection Agency stated that tests on laboratory animals linked PFOA to liver, pancreatic, and testicular cancer, reduced birth weight, birth defects, and immune suppression.

The EPA also found that elevated cholesterol and triglycerides were a risk of exposure to C-8. As a result, the EPA stated that low-level exposure to PFOA could pose a "potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects" in humans. DuPont also agreed to a $343 million settlement of a class action arising out of the contamination of drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia and plans to dramatically decrease the use of PFOA in Teflon coatings by the end of 2006. Now, the Justice Department has issued grand jury subpoenas seeking documents from DuPont with respect to PFOA and related chemical compounds. The suspicion is that DuPont withheld critical information concerning possible health risks posed by PFOA.

A 1961 internal document indicated that DuPont scientists had already warned company executives to avoid human contact with PFOA. DuPont faces more than $300 million in fines if it is found guilty of withholding such information. Even DuPont’s shareholders are now demanding that the company fully disclose all legal and expert fees, media and lobbying expenses related to PFOA.

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