Teflon has become so accepted as an everyday product that the word itself has become an adjective. Like “Scotch” tape (instead of cellophane tape) and “Xerox” copies (instead of photo static copies) before it, Teflon has been associated with people who seem to be able to escape blame or negative publicity as in the cases of John Gotti, the “Teflon” Don, and Ronald Reagan, the “Teflon” President.
Unfortunately for E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co., the chemical giant that invented Teflon 50 years ago, the nonstick nature of the product does not seem to be protecting the company from a steadily-growing mountain of evidence, litigation, studies, and investigations calling Teflon’s safety into question.
For the past two years, there has been a growing concern over the safety of the manmade chemical known as C8 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 C8, scientists are curious as to how the chemical enters the environment. C8 has also contaminated the groundwater in areas where Teflon is manufactured.
DuPont, which also pioneered the development of PFOA and continues to dominate its use, claims that the chemical is harmless to humans. It also disputes that C8 is released during normal cooking (as opposed to overheating).
Others are not so sure that either assertion is true. Studies have concluded that C8 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.
C8 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 500F. When Teflon is overheated (above 700F), fatal cases of polymer fume fever in humans have occurred (at 842F).
Last August, 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 in 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 C8. Up to another $235 million is to be set aside for future medical monitoring if the studies find C8 can make people sick.
The company also announced that it plans to dramatically decrease the use of PFOA in Teflon coatings by the end of 2006.
With these announcements, DuPont hoped the worst was over for its lucrative Teflon business which nets a reported $200 million in profit a year.
In 2005, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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 C8. 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.
Earlier this year, the EPA released a draft assessment of a chemical used in the production of Teflon which, based on animal studies, found “suggestive evidence” that the substance may be a human carcinogen.
In May, 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.
Dupont is attempting to settle the EPA claim and has set aside $15 million for that purpose. To date, however, no agreement has been finalized.
Then, earlier this month, 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 (C8) 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.
This latest finding is seen by environmental advocacy groups as significant since it will increase the pressure on the EPA to conduct human health risk assessments for a variety of cancers as well as potential toxic effects on the human immune system.
Another startling revelation was reported in the Charleston Gazette on July 10. 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.
According to the Charleston Gazette article: “A DuPont researcher said the number was ‘significantly greater’ than the expected rate of birth defects in the general population. In April 1981, the researcher proposed that DuPont do a detailed study to determine if exposure to the toxic chemical C8 was to blame. Three months later, DuPont officials dropped the study, a former top corporate doctor has testified.
Dupont officials also decided not to report its preliminary findings to federal regulators, according to the testimony, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act…‘To my knowledge, it was never reported to EPA, and, to my knowledge, I didn’t ask anybody whether it was reported,’ Karrh said of the birth defects data.”
Finally (for now), two Florida law firms filed class-action lawsuits on July 19, charging DuPont with concealing the potential health hazards associated with Teflon nonstick cookware coatings. The lawsuits were filed in a number of federal district courts.
The relief being sought includes monetary damages to class members, the creation of a fund for medical monitoring of consumers who have bought and used products containing Teflon, and placing warning labels on Teflon coated cookware.
Although DuPont announced it intends to “vigorously defend itself against the allegations in the lawsuit,” the mounting problems for Teflon (and C8) may no longer be of the nonstick variety.