Chemical byproduct of Teflon contaminates
water around DuPont plant
By Michael Hawthorne
Published January 21st, 2005
PARKERSBURG, W.Va. - (KRT) - More than 50 years after
DuPont started producing Teflon near this Ohio River town,
federal officials are accusing the company of hiding information
suggesting that a chemical used to make the popular stick-
and stain-resistant coating might cause cancer, birth
defects and other ailments.
Environmental regulators are particularly alarmed because
scientists are finding perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA,
in the blood of people worldwide and it takes years for
the chemical to leave the body. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency reported last week that exposure even
to low levels of PFOA could be harmful.
With virtually no government oversight, PFOA has been
used since the early 1950s in the manufacture of non-stick
cookware, rain-repellent clothing and hundreds of other
products. The EPA says at this point there is no reason
for consumers to stop using those items. But so many unresolved
questions remain about PFOA that the agency is asking
an outside panel of experts to assess the risks.
"The fact that a chemical with those non-stick properties
nonetheless accumulates in people was not expected,"
said Charles Auer, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution
Prevention and Toxics.
Critics say the lack of knowledge about PFOA and related
chemicals - called perfluorinated compounds - exposes
a system where environmental regulators largely rely on
companies that profit from industrial chemicals to sound
alarms about their safety. Questions about potential effects
on human health and the environment often aren't raised
until years after a chemical is introduced to the marketplace.
The long and mostly secret history of PFOA began to unravel
down the road from DuPont's Teflon plant in a West Virginia
courtroom, where a Parkersburg family began asking questions
in the late 1990s about a mysterious wasting disease killing
Jim and Della Tennant suspected the culprit might lurk
in a froth-covered creek that meandered past a DuPont
landfill near the Teflon plant before spilling into their
pasture. Their lawsuit ended with a monetary settlement
that avoided assigning blame for the dead cows, but the
legal battle uncovered a trove of industry documents about
One document detailed how DuPont scientists started warning
company executives to avoid human contact with PFOA as
early as 1961. Industry tests later determined the chemical
accumulates in the body, doesn't break down in the environment
and causes ailments in animals, including cancer, liver
damage and birth defects.
Recent studies have found that PFOA levels in some children
are in the range of those that caused developmental problems
"We're not very popular with some of the folks over
at the plant," said Della Tennant, who lives in a
subdivision known as DuPont Manor, a sign of the firm's
importance in this corner of Appalachia. "But I don't
know how you could sleep at night not telling people about
If found guilty of illegally withholding information
by an administrative law judge, DuPont could face more
than $300 million in fines - about $100 million more than
the company is estimated to make each year from products
manufactured with PFOA.
DuPont already has agreed to pay up to $345 million to
settle another lawsuit filed on behalf of 60,000 West
Virginians and Ohioans whose drinking water is contaminated
with PFOA. Much of what the public is starting to learn
about the chemical comes from industry documents submitted
during court proceedings.
Those documents also prompted the EPA's ongoing review
of health risks, which could lead to rules that limit
or phase out the use of PFOA.
Company officials say they share the government's concerns
about the presence of PFOA in human blood but contend
they did nothing wrong and that the chemical affects animals
differently than people.
"DuPont remains confident that based on over 50
years of use and experience with PFOA there is no evidence
to indicate that it harms human health or the environment,"
said company spokesman R. Clifton Webb.
The company's Teflon plant - a sprawling complex of towers,
smokestacks and metal buildings - rises above the flood
plain in a sharp bend of the Ohio River. The area has
become something of a makeshift laboratory as scientists
scramble to learn more about the chemical behind world-famous
brand names such as Teflon, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex.
Since 1976, federal law has required companies to disclose
what they know about any risks posed by toxic chemicals.
The EPA says independent efforts to figure out how people
are exposed to PFOA and what it might do to them should
have started by the early 1980s, when DuPont discovered
an employee had passed the chemical to her fetus.
Among other things, the EPA accuses DuPont of failing
to notify the agency when two of five babies born to plant
employees in 1981 had eye and face defects similar to
those found in newborn rats exposed to PFOA.
DuPont also has known since at least 1984 that water
wells in West Virginia and Ohio were contaminated with
PFOA, according to company records. But people who rely
on the wells for drinking water didn't find out until
2002, when internal DuPont documents started pouring into
"Someone made a conscious decision to expose us
to this without telling us," said Robert Griffin,
general manager of the Little Hocking Water Association,
which supplies drinking water to 12,000 Ohio customers
from wells across the river from the Teflon plant.
"If you wanted people to be lab rats for such a
long period," Griffin said, "nobody would ever
Company lawyers contend DuPont wasn't obligated to share
the information because PFOA doesn't meet the legal definition
of a toxic chemical that poses a "substantial risk."
DuPont documents, though, show company officials were
worried the public would learn that PFOA had contaminated
local water supplies. One benefit of settling the lawsuit
over the Tennant family's dead cattle, company attorneys
advised in an internal e-mail, would be preventing the
release of information about PFOA in the water.
"Biggest potential downside: plant contamination
issues surface, case becomes class action," DuPont
attorney Bernard J. Reilly concluded in a March 2000 email
outlining tradeoffs if the company chose to fight the
Tennants in court.
DuPont says it has reduced air and water emissions of
PFOA by 90 percent at the Teflon plant. Yet levels of
the chemical in water wells on the Ohio side of the river
are the highest recorded to date, according to tests last
"Drinking water data in possession of DuPont `reasonably
supports the conclusion' that PFOA `presents a substantial
risk of injury to health,'" the EPA wrote in an October
Scientists are just now starting to learn how much of
the chemical is in people's blood and how far it has traveled
from the handful of sites where PFOA is manufactured or
used - information that highlights new challenges for
scientists and regulators.
Substances added to food are regulated by the Food and
Drug Administration and must undergo rigorous testing
before their use. But critics say that with industrial
chemicals the EPA is limited by laws that make it difficult
to order testing.
The agency reported in 1998 that it had no toxicity data
or "safe level" for 43 percent of the 2,800
chemicals produced in volumes of 1 million pounds a year
"It borders on the ridiculous," said Tim Kropp,
a senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Working
Group, which has helped draw the EPA's attention to PFOA
and other compounds. "There is no way consumers can
be knowledgeable about all of these chemicals. That's
why we need the government to ensure they are safe."
The EPA's case against DuPont has gradually evolved over
four years as industry concerns about PFOA came to light.
Agency officials initially were worried about a related
perfluorinated chemical in Scotchgard, the stain-resistant
coating pioneered by 3M. Regulators started focusing on
PFOA after the EPA pressured 3M in 2000 to stop making
the compounds, prompted by research that found the chemicals
in human blood and in foods such as apples, bread, green
beans and ground beef.
3M had been the chief supplier of PFOA to DuPont, which
now makes the chemical at a plant in North Carolina.
DuPont announced last week that a new study of more than
1,000 workers at the Teflon plant found virtually no health
effects from exposure to PFOA. Some workers were found
to have higher-than-expected cholesterol levels.
Tests on lab animals have found links to illnesses including
liver and testicular cancer, reduced weight of newborns
and immune-system suppression. The findings concern EPA
officials because rats flush the chemical out of their
bodies within days, while PFOA stays in human blood for
at least four years.
As a result, the EPA says, the potential for human health
effects cannot be ruled out.
"Low-level exposure to people over time produces
blood concentrations that may be of concern," Auer
said. "As time goes on and the opportunity for exposure
continues, those blood concentrations could move to even
Scientists still aren't sure how PFOA is spreading around
the planet. While DuPont says the manufacturing process
leaves only trace amounts of the chemical in non-stick
cookware and other goods, some researchers think that
as Teflon products age they release chemicals that then
break down into PFOA.
The compound also is released into air and water during
manufacturing. Studies that have found PFOA in salmon
in the Great Lakes, polar bears in the Arctic and dolphins
in the Mediterranean Sea suggest the chemical travels
easily through the atmosphere.
Another theory the EPA and academic researchers are testing
is that other perfluorinated chemicals, known as telomers,
break down to PFOA. Made by DuPont and other companies,
telomers are used in stain- and grease-repellent coatings
for carpets, clothing and fast-food packaging.
Researchers studying PFOA levels in the Great Lakes think
that when carpets and clothing treated with telomers are
cleaned, some of the chemicals wash into sewage treatment
plants that are not equipped to remove them before wastewater
is dumped into lakes and rivers. Landfill runoff could
be another source.
Last spring, former DuPont chemist Glenn R. Evers told
a lawyer for people living near the DuPont plant that
the chemicals can be absorbed from french fry boxes, microwave
popcorn bags and hamburger wrappers, among other items,
according to a partial transcript filed by the EPA. The
company responded by describing Evers as a disgruntled
former employee with little direct knowledge of PFOA.
In Parkersburg, some are reluctant to question one of
the community's leading benefactors, even after the PFOA
contamination became public. With more than 2,000 employees,
the Teflon plant is the largest manufacturer in a valley
lined with plastics factories and refineries, a hub of
economic strength in a region plagued by chronic unemployment.
"We're not ignoring it, but you've got to look at
all the good things they do," said George Kellenberger,
president of the Mid-Ohio Valley Chamber of Commerce.
But others drawn to the area by the promise of a good
job and the rolling, pine-covered hills aren't so sure.
By the time Matt and Melinda McDowell built their dream
home a few miles north of the Teflon plant, DuPont had
known for more than a decade that the local water supply
was contaminated with PFOA.
Like thousands of others in the valley, the McDowells
recently received a letter informing them that DuPont
promises to install treatment equipment for six area water
systems under terms of the recent legal settlement. But
they worry about their two sons, ages 8 and 12, who have
drunk and breathed PFOA for most of their lives.
"We are subjecting our children and ourselves to
a giant science experiment," Matt McDowell said.
"We don't know what it's doing to us. But the bottom
line is it doesn't belong in drinking water and it definitely
doesn't belong in our bodies."