DuPont’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia used a chemical called perfulorooctampic acid – abbreviated as PFOA or C8 – to manufacture Teflon. A group of Parkersburg-area residents sued DuPont over PFOA contamination in their drinking water, and they eventually reached a $107.6-million settlement with the company. The settlement required DuPont to clean up local water supplies, included funding for research on the health effects of PFOA, and provided for additional medical funding if that research found health effects linked to exposure.
The settlement called for establishing an unbiased panel of three scientists to explore potential links between PFOA exposure and disease, and three respected epidemiologists were chosen: Anthony Fletcher of the London School of Hygiene, David Savitz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Kyle Steenland of Emory University. Now, results of their research are coming out, and they’re not reassuring. Over the past few days, the panel has reported that evidence suggests PFOA is connected to human birth defects, high blood pressure in pregnant women, and changes in the human immune system. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports:
Babies whose mothers had high levels of C8 in their blood were 70 percent more likely to have birth defects, according to the study by the C8 Science Panel. Woman with greater than average levels of C8 in their blood were 30 percent more likely to have preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy, according to the panel’s analysis.
Members of the three-scientist panel downplayed both findings, calling them “weak relationships,” but also saying the results support the need for continuing to study C8’s health impacts.
Last week, the panel filed other results with a judge; these linked C8 exposure to changes in the human immune system. Here’s Ward on that study:
The three-person C8 Science Panel found “several significant associations” between the level of C8 in people’s blood and the levels of disease-fighting antibodies.
Science panel members cautioned that they did not yet know if the changes in antibodies were caused by increased C8 or not. C8 levels and antibody levels were measured at the same time, and the panel is doing follow-up studies to try to get more answers.
“While this cannot be directly interpreted as indicating an increase in disease risk in this population, it warrants further investigation,” the Science Panel said in its report, filed Thursday in Wood Circuit Court.
The panel’s findings mirror those made public nearly a year ago by researchers at West Virginia University, who are examining the same data.
These aren’t the first findings that the science panel has released. In January, they reported that residents with higher levels of C8 in their blood tended to also have higher levels of uric acid, which has been linked to hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases. Their study “Predictors of PFOA Levels in a Community Surrounding a Chemical Plant” has been published (currently online ahead of print) in Environmental Health Perspectives; it reports that “PFOA levels in this population varied with distance of residence from the plant and employment at the plant.”
While we don’t yet have all the evidence we want about PFOA’s health effects, these studies are definitely cause for concern. Actually, DuPont seems to have known for several decades that PFOA was something to be concerned about – but, as we’ve seen with harmful substances from asbestos to tobacco, the company kept its concerns to itself even as workers and the public continued to be exposed. Richard Clapp and Polly Hoppin (with Jyotsna Jagai and Sara Donahue) describe what DuPont knew and what actions it took – or failed to take – in a PFOA case study posted at our DefendingScience.org website.
Parkersburg-area residents aren’t the only ones who are exposed to PFOA. In an Enviroblog update on the science around PFOA, Olga Naidenko reports that the vast majority of us have PFOA in our blood – which isn’t surprising, since the chemical is widely used to make stain- and grease-proof coatings that are used in consumer products from carpets to food packaging. PFOA has been found in drinking water sources and ambient waters in at least 11 states and DC. And here’s her description of what research into the chemical has found:
PFOA is also unique because there so much new information about the toxicity of this chemical that was published in the last several years, with new updates appearing nearly every month. PFOA causes cancers of the testicles, liver, pancreas, and possibly mammary cancer in rodents; it disrupts fetal development and affects the immune and the nervous systems.
Chemical plant workers exposed to PFOA on the job have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancers. At the levels found in the general population (nationally, the median level is around 4 parts per billion (ppb), according to CDC research), PFOA is associated with lower birthweight and size in newborn babies, infertility problems in women and decreased sperm viability in men.
3M, which supplied PFOA to DuPont, stopped making the chemical in 2000. DuPont has agreed not to make, use, or buy PFOA after 2015 – although its website insists “DuPont believes the weight of evidence indicates that PFOA exposure does not pose a health risk to the general public.” The people of Parkersburg would probably like to believe that, but the evidence of their own bodies suggests otherwise.