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Teflon Production Linked To Cholesterol

DuPont, 3M accused of failing to report potential effect of chemical exposure

Dec 23, 2004 | The News Journal

Long-term studies of blood samples from workers at an Italian chemical plant show a potential link between blood concentrations of a chemical used in Teflon production and a slight rise in cholesterol levels, documents filed with the Environmental Protection Agency show.

An environmental group based in Washington, D.C., accused DuPont and 3M Co. of failing for months to report the potential effect from chemical exposure on cholesterol levels, and claimed the delay was similar to those involved in an earlier complaints by the EPA.

Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., said DuPont was aware of the issue as early as Feb. 15, and said the later report warranted a maximum fine of as much as $6 million under EPA guidelines.

One DuPont Co. official who was involved in the review said Wednesday that at its earliest opportunity earlier this year, the company notified the EPA about the finding after agreeing that formal results would be relayed through another American company that dealt directly with the Italian chemical firm.

"You're talking about a spreadsheet with thousands of data points on it and you've got to do months of statistical analysis before you can figure out whether it means anything," said Robert Rickard, director of environmental science at DuPont's Haskell Laboratory.

Two EPA complaints have been lodged against DuPont claiming that the company was long overdue in notifying regulators about possible health issues involving perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a compound used in making Teflon. Penalties in the cases could run into the millions, EPA officials have said.

Rickard said the blood sampling in Italy spanned 17 years and 35 employees, giving researchers one of the most complete records yet of PFOA concentrations in worker blood over time.

Even so, Rickard said, researchers obtained only limited and qualified findings. He said the results in Italy may be inconsistent with other research findings, and may not take into account other factors.

"We don't know whether they've been exposed to other chemicals in their normal work process. About all we can say is: They're healthy. There are not health effects. There appears to be a very weak association between PFOA levels in their blood and cholesterol," Rickard said.

The environmental group's claim targeted a type of compound used in some forms to make DuPont's flagship nonstick product. The chemicals involved are the subject of a study by EPA scientists, amid concerns about the unexpected, widespread presence of PFOAs in the environment and potential health risks.

Some animal-based studies have suggested that the materials can increase risks of birth defects, developmental problems or other health problems such as cancer.

Comparing the numbers

Rickard said that concentrations of PFOA in the blood of the Italian factory group averaged 16 parts per million and ranged as high as 90 parts per million, far above the 500 parts per billion range seen in some American plants and 5 parts per billion in the general population.

A university researcher based in Verona, Italy, found that workers exposed to PFOA had about a 15 point higher total cholesterol level compared with those without workplace exposure.

Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance in the body found among the fats in the bloodstream. It is used to form cell membranes and some hormones, among other functions. Normal levels are considered to be below 200, with elevated levels associated with increased risks of heart disease and stroke.

Total cholesterol levels in the exposed workers averaged 233, compared with 214 in the nonexposed group.

"In other words, it seems that PFOA [probably only at high blood concentrations] can interfere with metabolism of cholesterol," researcher Giovanni Costa wrote. "Such findings need precise interpretation."

Costa said no significant effects were seen in other types of blood tests.

"I think what you can take away from this is, at most, we're seeing a minor biological change, at the most, and we're not even sure about that," Rickard said.

Federal officials are working with a number of companies to develop tests to determine how PFOA and related chemicals break down and reach the environment and living tissues.

DuPont is conducting or participating in research on the issue around the globe, ranging from blood levels in hundreds of workers - including some at the Chambers Works in Deepwater, N.J., and attempts to determine if the chemicals reach humans during the breakdown of stain-resist

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