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Exposure to Teflon Component (PFOA) Continues to Raise Serious Health Concerns As Results of New Study Are Released

Oct 1, 2007

Over the past four years, the chemical perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), also known as C-8, has come under increasing scrutiny as a result of various scientific studies that have linked the compound to a number of health risks.

Last year, after much inaction and equivocating, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demonstrated a commitment to putting an end to the use of PFOA in the manufacture of Teflon and numerous other products. In February of 2006, an EPA Scientific Advisory Board unanimously approved a recommendation labeling PFOA a “Likely Carcinogen.”

Back-to-back actions by the agency, while not specifically ordering any outright ban on the chemical, ensured its demise as a component of the manufacturing process used to produce a variety of non-stick and stain-resistant products. Many manufacturers have taken the hint and have either discontinued the use of the chemical or planned for such discontinuance in the foreseeable future.

(PFOA and a similar chemical perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) are persistent organic pollutants, which can cross the placental barrier, and are widely used as industrial surfactants and emulsifiers. They are also found in nonstick pans, carpets, furniture, household cleaners, shampoos, shoes, clothing and food packaging, such as microwave-popcorn bags.)

Although this recent progress would seem to indicate that, eventually, PFOA would be banned in the United States, there was no real indication of when the drive to attain that ban would gain enough momentum and government backing to force the issue to a final determination.

In December, 2005, in the largest settlement involving a civil administrative penalty under any federal environmental statute in agency history, the EPA announced that DuPont agreed to pay $10.25 million in fines and $6.25 million to fund environmental projects to settle allegations that the company withheld information about the dangers of the toxic chemical.

The settlement resulted from the EPA’s action against DuPont, for allegedly withholding information about the potential health and environmental risks posed by PFOA under provisions of both the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The EPA charged that the company knowingly withheld information for more than 20 years about the health effects of PFOA and about the pollution of ground water supplies around DuPont’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Since 2004, there has been a growing concern over the safety of the manmade chemical, 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 compound, which is an 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. In 2005 and 2006, Teflon netted DuPont a reported $200 million in profit a year.   

Because there are no known “natural” sources of PFOA, 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. The company also disputes that PFOA 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 August, 2005, DuPont agreed to pay up to $343 million in settlement of a class action arising out of the contamination of drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia linked to its plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Of that amount, most of the $107 million to be paid for damages to the water supply of some 50,000 people living near the plant will be used to fund a detailed scientific review and a landmark community health study with respect to the dangers posed by C-8 in the six Ohio and West Virginia water districts covered by the settlement. 

Up to another $235 million was to be set aside for future medical monitoring if the studies find C-8 can make people sick.

By February, 2006, over 43,000 individuals had signed up for the health study and more than 17,000 had been tested since August, 2005. There was a waiting list of about 26,000 people. Eventually, up to 60,000 people were expected to take part in the study. Each person who completes the screening will be paid $400.

In 2006, a court-appointed panel of three epidemiologists began reviewing the results of the screening project.

Although DuPont continued to claim that there is no confirmed danger posed by C-8, the company announced that it planned to dramatically decrease the use of PFOA in Teflon coatings by the end of 2006.

In 2005, however, the EPA stated that tests on laboratory animals linked PFOA to liver, pancreatic, and testicular cancer, reduced birth weight, birth defects, and immune suppression.

The agency 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.  

The EPA had previously released a draft assessment of the chemical which, based on animal studies, found “suggestive evidence” that the substance may be a human carcinogen.

In May 2005, the Justice Department issued grand jury subpoenas seeking documents from DuPont with respect to PFOA and related chemical compounds. The suspicion was 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 faced more than $300 million in fines if it was found guilty of withholding such information.

In August 2005, a draft report released by an independent EPA scientific
advisory board which reviewed the earlier EPA assessment and which will now be submitted to the EPA, concluded that PFOA (C-8) is “likely” to be a human carcinogen and, as a result, the EPA should conduct cancer risk assessments for a variety of tumors found in rats and mice exposed to it.

Another startling revelation was reported in the Charleston Gazette on July 10, 2005. According to an April 2004 sworn statement by Dr. Bruce Karrh, DuPont’s former medical director, the company found similar birth defects in two of eight children born to women who worked at the Parkersburg chemical plant 25 years ago.

"The adverse effect on birth weight observed at low levels of exposure in our study, combined with ubiquitous PFOA contamination in human blood may be a cause for concern," the researchers wrote online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Dr. McLaughlin went on to state, however, that "it's really too early to advocate any kind of an alarmist statement on the part of physicians. We still need to learn a lot more about what's going on."

Animal studies have shown exposure to PFOA and PFOS during pregnancy affect birth weight and length of gestation.

In this latest analysis, the researchers studied 1,400 pregnant women randomly selected from the Danish National Birth Cohort. The subjects completed four computer-assisted telephone interviews, provided blood samples in their first and second trimesters, and gave birth to a live child without congenital defects. An umbilical cord blood sample was also collected shortly after birth, as were weight and gestational age at birth.

According to MedPageToday.com, the mean maternal plasma levels for PFOA were similar to those reported for U.S. populations, but were orders of magnitude lower than those that have previously been associated with developmental problems found in animal toxicity studies. In addition, MedPageToday.com reported (on August 27) that the “researchers found significantly lower birth weights with increasing maternal plasma PFOA levels. The unadjusted mean birth weights were:

  • Lowest at 3,562 g for the highest PFOA exposure quartile of 6.97 ng/mL and above...
  • 3,595 g for the group with levels ranging from 4.21 to 6.96 ng/mL...
  • 3,611 g for women in the quartile with PFOA levels 3.91 to 5.20 ng/mL (P<0.01)...
  • Highest at 3,737 for the lowest exposure group with levels of 3.91 ng/mL or lower.”

This association between birth weight and PFOA levels was considered significant. When adjustments were made for potential confounders, the estimate was reduced but remained significant even after further adjusting for PFOS levels.

Subjects who were pregnant with their first child had substantially higher PFOA levels than those who had given birth before, with the levels decreasing as the number of prior births increased. The researchers stated that this may reflect "fetal uptake during pregnancy and excretion during lactation."

As noted above, some U.S. and European manufacturers have already phased out PFOA and PFOS in conjunction with the actions taken by the EPA. This may explain the decline in population serum levels.

The researchers remain concerned, however, that the chemicals “are still produced elsewhere and other similar compounds are believed to break down to PFOS or PFOA in the environment.” In addition: "If these compounds reduce fetal growth, continued exposure will be of public health concern, and other potential reproductive effects should be studied."

Finally, the team was careful to point out that "the observed association may not be causal," and that: "Chance may play a role in some of our findings, and it is also possible that there are factors associated with both lowest PFOA levels and high birth weight that were not taken into account in our statistical analyses."

It should be noted that the study was supported by the International Epidemiology Institute, which received funding from the 3M Company and that the company's toxicology laboratory performed all laboratory analyses.

Man-made toxic substances continue to pose significant health threats in the United States and around the world. In underdeveloped nations, the problem is even greater due to the lack of remedial measures and poor technology. As a result of such pollution, many toxic chemicals can be found in dangerously high concentrations in the air, drinking water, the oceans, rivers, edible fish (mercury in tuna, for example), wildlife, domesticated food-animals (cows, chickens, etc.) and their edible dairy products (eggs, milk, cheese, etc.), food crops (vegetables, fruits, and grains), plants, building materials (treated wood products), dangerous prescription and over-the-counter medications (every drug is, by its very nature, a toxic chemical to some extent), and even in our blood.

While a significant number of dangerous short-term effects of these toxins have been identified, long-term health risks remain difficult to prove. Even many short-term effects may go undetected as a result of being misidentified or overlooked.

Parker Waichman LLP has been in the forefront of the fight to protect the public from the dangers posed by toxic substances in both the environment and consumer products. Whether by mass tort litigation or individual law suits, the firm has obtained significant monetary awards (verdicts and settlements) to compensate those injured, or the survivors of those killed, by these substances. Often, the recovery includes long-term or lifelong medical monitoring.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a toxic substance in the environment or contained in a consumer product, there may be liability on the part of a third-party which will permit a monetary recovery or other compensation. If a death has occurred, the same possibility may exist. If you wish to discuss such a situation, please contact Parker Waichman LLP at www.yourlawyer.com for a free consultation.

 

 

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