DuPont’s “PR” on PFOA Studies

After reviewing previously undisclosed documents*, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward writes how a group of notable occupational health scientists and epidemiologists felt DuPont misrepresented the scientific evidence to-date about the health risks associated with PFOA (ammonium perfluorooctanoate, a.k.a. C8).  Ward writes about concerns expressed in private email exchanges among scientists on the firm’s Epidemiology Review Board (ERB), an independent and external committee, when DuPont made a big public announcement (and to its employees at the Washington Works plant (near Parkersburg, WV)) about results of a worker-health study. 

 The ERB members are: Thomas Beauchamp PhD, Mark Cullen MD, Ellen Eisen PhD, Jonathan Samet MD, Noah Seixas PhD, and David Wegman MD

Ward writes:

On Jan. 11, 2005, DuPont publicists invited reporters to the company’s Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg for a major announcement.  ‘To date, no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA,’ announced the headline on DuPont’s news release.  Plant manager Paul Bossert repeated the line in a letter to Washington Works employees. The study results…’Reaffirm what we have said all along: There are no known human health effects associated with exposure to PFOA.’

DuPont’s Jan 11, 2005 news release also stated:

“The results of this study were reviewed by DuPont’s Epidemiology Review Board, which is comprised of independent experts from Georgetown University, Yale University, the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.”

As Ward notes in his article, the study itself had been reviewed by the independent scientists on the ERB, but not the press release or other written materials distributed to the press and the Washington Works’ employees.  Moreover, DuPont’s promotion of the scientists’ university affiliations was a typical PR ploy, trying to impress the local press and DuPont’s own employees, and suggest that the findings were somehow “endorsed” by these top-tier institutions.  A cheezy, but predictable PR move.

Through emails and other documents released in another lawsuit involving DuPont’s plant in Salem County, NJ, Ward reports:

Noah Seixas of the University of Washington, was ‘a bit shocked’ by DuPont’s press statements…[while] David Wegman [chair of the ERB]… was “quite uncomfortable” with the way the company described the findings.

Four members of the expert team agreed that [plant manager] Bossert’s letter to employees ‘was somewhere between misleading and disingenuous.’

In describing the results of the first-phase of a health study of more than 1,000 Washington Works’ employees, the DuPont news release stated:

“The study, based on 62 blood and urine tests, found no association with PFOA blood levels in nearly all of the results reported, including:

  • “No correlation between liver functions and exposure to PFOA
  • No correlation between blood counts and exposure to PFOA
  • No correlation between any cancer markers measured and exposure to PFOA with respect to prostate cancer, leukemia, or multiple myeloma.”

On October 17, 2006, DuPont’s medical director, Sol Sax MD, made further public announcments about the health study of Washington Works employees.

“…DuPont epidemiologists today released a study that found no increased mortality risk in workers exposed to PFOA.  The results showed lower mortality rates [among the workers] than those found in both West Virginia and the U.S. general population.  …The study, which was reviewed by an external board of scientists, examined the occupations of 6,027 people who had worked at DuPont’s Washington Works plant between 1948 until the end of 2002. 

“‘The Washington Works II study supports a conclusion that there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA,’ said Sol Sax.  …’If health effects were associated with PFOA exposure, they almost certainly would be more prevalent among employees who are occupationally exposed to the compound or who handle it regularly.'”

Ken Ward also reviewed emails messages during this 2006 time period and reports that the ERB members were equally troubled by the “overly certain” tone expressed by DuPont with respect to the Washington Works II study.

Is anybody really surprised that a chemical manufacture tries to put a positive spin on the results of a worker health study?  And, let’s not forget this particular firm’s history of sequestering information to local residents about PFOA-contamination in their water supply, and its failure to disclose information to the U.S. EPA as required under TSCA.  (Read a case study here.)

I’m struggling, however, with a different issue, that is, the value of company-funded committees like DuPont’s Epidemiology Review Panel (ERB).  Isn’t it a good thing that DuPont has an ERB made up of some of the nation’s best epidemiologists and occupational health scientists? 

In decades past, many large firms had their own medical departments, some with their own epidemiologist or statistician.  The staff monitored workers’ exposure to chemicals and maintained records on employees’ health conditions.  In some cases, these “corporate medical records” provided government agencies and labor organizations some of the best (and only) data for occupational health epidemiological research. 

We recognize today the abuses that arose from these programs, including workers not having access to their own medical records and exposure data, and discrimination and dismissal for health conditions.  By the mid-1980’s, (I’m guessing) most company medical departments were disbanded or degraded into broader human resource offices.  (I wonder how much of this change evolved from the anti-prevention/anti-public health attitude: “if we monitor our workers’ environment and health, and we find a problem, we’ll have to do something about it; if we don’t look, we won’t know.”)

So, back to DuPont’s ERB.  Shouldn’t I be satisfied to know that DuPont is one of the few firms that still has a corporate medical officer (Sol Sax, MD) and an epidemiologist (Robin Leonard, PhD**)? 

Shouldn’t I be satisfied to know that David Wegman, MD, MPH who has spent his career studying occupational injuries and illnesses, and has been a staunch proponent of strong workplace-prevention measures and regulations, is chair of the ERB? 

Isn’t it possible that Dr. Wegman’s work on the ERB (and that of the other distinguished researchers) is having a positive effect on DuPont’s employee-health research? 

Wouldn’t I rather have a committe composed of scientists like Dr. Wegman, instead of Professor Snickelfritz who’s never been convinced that any chemical is hazardous to health?

Is it better to have a committee like this, with scientists who’ve proven their committment to worker health, even if they don’t have complete control over what the firm (e.g., DuPont) releases in public announcements?

Should the ERB have made public their concerns about the content of DuPont’s public announcement, or is that not a proper role for this group?

As a public health scientist, should you reject all offers to consult for a firm if you don’t have the right to disclose freely your work and personal opinions?

I’d love to hear what others think.

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*Note: Available in Public Access to Courts Electronic Records (PACER) in RE: Rowe v. DuPont (1:06cv-01810)

**Recent published papers by Robin Leonard, PhD (here, here, here)

Comments

  1. #1 Jordan Barab
    October 16, 2007

    It’s interesting to note what the study DID find:

    The study did find a 10 percent increase in total cholesterol among some workers. The company said the finding was limited to those with the largest concentrations of C8 in their blood.

    “The association of PFOA with the increases in total cholesterol and other endpoints in this study was observed in people in an industrial setting,” Dr. Sol Sax, DuPont’s chief medical officer, said at the time. “Given the extremely small levels of PFOA exposure generally seen outside the work setting, it is my medical opinion that no association would be seen in the general public.”

    But in an e-mail message, Wegman disputed DuPont’s description of the study findings and Sax’s views of what those findings meant.

    First, Wegman wrote, elevated cholesterol level “is certainly a health effect.” Next, he wrote, the study data actually showed “significantly elevated values” for cholesterol among workers with all levels of C8 exposure.

    So, to answer some of the questions, an ERB with trusted experts is fine, but they also have to have control over any conclusions and press statements, or else you’re losing much of the benefit.

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