DuPont Workers and a Cancer Cluster?

DuPont was busted a couple of years ago by U.S. EPA for failing to report information about adverse health effects associated with exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8), the chemical used to make Teflon and other non-stick surfaces.  Now it seems that DuPont is dutifully submitting information to EPA’s TSCA 8(e) docket and we can thank the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward for trolling through the docket to find items of public interest.*  Ward recently reported on an analysis conducted by DuPont which identified 19 cases of carcinoid tumors among DuPont employees; 6 of the cases were among workers at the Parkersburg, WV Washington Works plant. 

In the submitted report to EPA, the DuPont official wrote:

“Six cases of this rare tumor type among approximately 5,000 workers at the Washington Works plant introduces the possibility of a cancer cluster…”

The DuPont report was submitted to EPA in December 2007, amending a report they sent in November 2007.  Epidemiologist J. Morel Symons, PhD, MPH of DuPont’s Haskell Global Centers for Health and Environmental Sciences, undertook the investigation after two cases of appendiceal cancer were confirmed among acrylics workers at the Washington Works plant.  Using DuPont’s Cancer Registry, which was established in 1956 and includes cancer cases diagnosed among active DuPont employees, Symons group ultimately identified 19 (histologically confirmed) carcinoid tumor cases and 99 cases of possible carcinoid cancer cases.** (Report Table A2) 

In DuPont’s November 2007 report to EPA, the company stated:

“the results reported here are most likely due to a random distribution of events, which does not require further investigation of occupational exposures at this time.” (emphasis added)

After identifying the additional cases among the Washington Works’ employees, Symons wrote that the information “raises new questions.”  His revised incidence rate estimates suggest the workforce’s overall rate of carcinoid tumors is comparable to the U.S. population (3.8 cases per 100,000 people.)  The estimated rate among Washington Works’ employees alone, however, was 7.33 per 100,000, and when compared to other DuPont plants with carcinoid tumor cases, it translates to a possible five-fold increased risk of carcinoid tumor incidence.

In the December 2007 report, Symons recommends to DuPont officials that:

“an analytic investigation be designed and conducted to determine whether a common etiologic agent can be identified among affected employees at the Washington Works plant.”

Reading DuPont’s report made me engage in that unsatisfying ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ exercise.  I’m glad, on the one hand, that DuPont has a cancer registry and talented epidemiologists to analyze the data contained in it.  How much more might we know about exposure-disease relationships if other robust disease registries were in place?

On the other hand, when DuPont’s scientists prepare these reports and send them up the management chain for approval (in this case to Wayne Lednar, MD, PhD and Scott Loveless, PhD) but who is responsible for providing this information to current and former workers?  And, what role do workers or their representatives have in deciding what and how the data is analyzed?
                                                                    
As Ken Ward’s story notes, worker involvement is left a mystery to us:

“The findings have never been announced publicly and it is not clear what information about the reports DuPont shared with its employees.” 

It seems to me, if Ward had not written about this possible cancer cluster, we would have not heard a peep about it from DuPont.  But since Ward did, other reportors picked up on the information, including Andrew Eder of The News Journal (Delaware). He wrote his own story and tracked down a former Washington Works’ employee, Ken Wamsley.

“The former lab analyst worked for 39 years at the plant, including 27 years working with PFOA.  He retired in 2001—just before being diagnosed with colon cancer.  Walmsley, who said he ‘probably tested more C8s than anyone else,’ had to have his rectum and part of his colon removed because of the cancer. ‘If it was a carcinogen, we should have been warned. We used to test that stuff out without a protective hood.’”

In contrast Eder’s and Ward’s stories on this possible cancer cluster, the Associated Press story, which then gets reprinted widely (example here), preferred telling us the DuPont line.  The AP version includes, for example: 

“Early work suggests there are more cases than would be expected at the plant.  But that’s merely a suggestion because little is known about what causes carcinoid tumors.  “We’re facing a situation where we have limited information.”‘  (emphasis added)

And,

“The cancer cases date back to the 1980s and include current and retired employees.”

Your point is?  The 1980′s is so long ago?  Employees diagnosed with cancer and are now retired are irrelevant for epidemiological purposes?

And this:

The DuPont plant manager said ’there’s no reason to believe the cancer situation at Washington Works is related to C8 or any other chemical.’ 

The AP reporter failed to write that the contrary is also true:

there’s reason to be believe that the cancer cases are related to C8 or another chemical at this DuPont plant and possibly other workplaces.

Finally, on the heels of this information about a possible cancer cluster among DuPont employees, a coalition of community environmental groups and workers are demanding testing of about 750 private drinking water wells in towns near DuPont’s Chambers Works plant in Deepwater, NJ which may have PFOA contamination.  Their call comes following DuPont’s disclosure to the State Dept of Environmental Protection that the firm’s testing of groundwater revealed levels of PFOA which exceeded the NJ’s ’alert level.’”

The Coalition’s news release notes:

“A year ago February, the NJDEP set the nation’s safest drinking water guidance level for PFOA. New Jersey identified the safe ‘alert level’ of only .04 parts per billion after finding PFOA contamination in drinking water supplies across the state. While all wells showed some PFOA content, eight of the nine monitoring wells exceeded New Jersey’s ‘alert level.’  The sampling results also suggest that DuPont’s ‘interceptor wells,’ which are supposed to have contained the company’s pollution, may not stop the spread of these contaminants into the surrounding communities.” (emphasis added)

Sheesh.  I guess we are starting to piece together “How’d that C8 gets into your blood.”


Notes:

*In an earlier post on The Pump Handle called “TSCA 8(e), Teflon and Me” we reported that EPA’s on-line TSCA 8(e) docket was seriously outdated, with the “most recent” submissions dating back to July 2008.  We are pleased to report the docket is now current through May 2008.  Public health advocates who haven’t already done so should follow Ken Ward’s lead and troll away for documents that may be of interest to workers, communities or the general public.

**For more information about PFOA, EPA’s lawsuit against DuPont for failing to comply with TSCA, and the class-action suit involving 70,000 residents living near DuPont’s Washington Works plant, see the SKAPP case study and links to key documents (here)

Celeste Monforton, MPH is with SKAPP and a Lecturer and Research Associate in the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health at The George Washington University School of Public Health.