In the largest settlement involving a civil administrative penalty under any federal environmental statute in agency history, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that DuPont will pay $10.25 million in fines and $6.25 to fund environmental projects to settle allegations that the company withheld information about the dangers of the toxic chemical, PFOA.
The settlement stems from the EPA’s action against DuPont, for allegedly withholding information about the potential health and environmental risks posed by perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA (C8), 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.
As we have previously reported, for the past two years, there has been a growing concern over the safety of the manmade chemical known as C8 or PFOA 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. Teflon currently nets DuPont a reported $200 million in profit a year.
Because 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 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 C8 in the six Ohio and West Virginia water districts covered by the settlement.
Up to another $235 million is to be set aside for future medical monitoring if the studies find C8 can make people sick.
So far, some 43,000 individuals have signed up for the health study with more than 17,000 having been tested since August. There is a waiting list of about 26,000 people. Eventually, up to 60,000 people are expected to take part in the study. Each person who completes the screening will be paid $400.
Beginning in 2006, a court-appointed panel of three epidemiologists will begin reviewing the results of the screening project.
Although DuPont continues to claim that there is no confirmed danger posed by C8, the company announced that it plans to dramatically decrease the use of PFOA in Teflon coatings by the end of 2006.
Earlier this year, 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 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.
The EPA has released a draft assessment of the 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 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 of this year, 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.
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.
The Charleston Gazette also reported that: “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.”
The study will look for a number of potential links involving C8; however, cancer and heart disease are of the greatest concern. Those results may take up to four years to report. Each sample taken from the test subjects is tested for the presence of C8 and for organ function.
While the EPA declared that the settlement "sends a strong message that companies are responsible for promptly giving EPA risk information associated with their chemicals;" DuPont has not admitted liability and continues to take the position that “there (are) no human health effects that we know about that are caused by PFOA. We’ve seen nothing."
Thus, with strong evidence against it and a downside risk of over $300 million in civil penalties for failing to report the substantial risks posed by PFOA, DuPont made the prudent business decision of settling the entire EPA case for a total of $16.5 million.
DuPont’s general counsel summed up the company’s position on the settlement by stating: "Frankly, we could have litigated this thing for several years. We wanted to get this thing behind us so we could move forward."
A federal criminal investigation of DuPont’s actions with respect to PFOA is ongoing.