Saving Science: PFOA Update

Matt Shudtz

Nov. 4, 2008

In CPR’s recent white paper, Saving Science from Politics, Rena Steinzor, Wendy Wagner and I proposed reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to strengthen the Act’s “adverse effects” reporting requirements.  Under TSCA, registration of a chemical with EPA triggers a continuing obligation on regulated firms to submit to EPA any information they obtain that “reasonably supports the conclusion” that a chemical or mixture they manufacture, import, process, or distribute “presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.”  We think that legal standard gives regulated parties too much discretion.


As we explained in Saving Science, DuPont began studying the human health effects of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used in manufacturing Teflon) in 1978.  By 1981, the company had compiled reports about PFOA in pregnant workers and their offspring, developing “the first direct human evidence of PFOA crossing the placenta in humans,” a startling discovery that greatly increased the risks posed by exposure to even low doses of the chemical.  But the first evidence of these studies did not reach EPA for 20 years, and even then, it was not by DuPont’s hand. EPA learned of the studies in 2001, when a West Virginia attorney notified the agency that he’d obtained them through a legal process known as “discovery.”  Robert Billott discovered documentation of the studies while investigating a class action lawsuit against DuPont for suspected PFOA contamination of groundwater surrounding a West Virginia plant.


DuPont’s decades-long failure to disclose what it knew about PFOA earned it a hefty fine from EPA.  And its failure to prevent PFOA from escaping into the groundwater surrounding its plants has prompted other legal action.  In one settlement agreement, DuPont agreed to provide funding for an independent investigation into the public health consequences of its failure to contain PFOA.  That independent project is called the C8 Health Project (C8 is another name for PFOA).


The C8 Science Panel (the analytical team associated with the C8 Health Project) is charged with assessing the possibility of a link between PFOA exposure and disease in the communities surrounding DuPont plants.  Recently, it released two studies showing extremely high levels of PFOA in the blood of Ohio and West Virginia residents who get their drinking water from sources contaminated by a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  The results also show a correlation between PFOA exposure and high cholesterol levels.


From the panel’s press release:

The first report describes the C8 levels in the blood of C8 Health Project participants, and some of the factors which explain these C8 levels. Overall, the median (mid-value) C8 level was 28 parts per billion (ppb), much higher than the US population average of about 5 ppb. The most important factors predicting C8 level were living currently in any of six contaminated water districts, working at DuPont, and being male. Current residents in any of the six contaminated water districts had a median level of 38 ppb. Those living in water districts further from the DuPont plant had lower C8 levels. Current residents of the Little Hocking water district had the highest level (median 224 ppb), followed by current residents of Lubeck (70 ppb), Tuppers Plains (37 ppb), Belpre (35 ppb), Pomeroy (12 ppb), and Mason (12 ppb) water districts. Those who were no longer residing in these water districts had lower levels (median 18 ppb). Those who had worked at DuPont had higher levels (current workers 148 ppb, former workers 75 ppb). Males had higher levels than females (34 ppb vs 24 ppb).


The second report examines the relation between blood C8 levels and cholesterol levels in adults at the time of the C8 Health Project, in 2005-2006. Participants with higher levels of C8 tended to have higher levels of cholesterol, with an 11-point increase in total cholesterol between those with lowest C8 levels to those with highest C8 levels. A similar increase was seen for C8 sulfonate (C8S), another fluorocarbon found in the blood of C8 Health Project participants. C8S was not released from the DuPont plant, and levels in the community are similar to levels across the US. The risk of having high cholesterol (defined as more than 240 mg/dl cholesterol in the blood) was about 50% higher in those with raised C8 or C8S in the blood, as determined by comparing those in the top 25% of C8 (or C8S) levels to those in the bottom 25%. The report explained that no conclusions can be made about C8 causing the increase in cholesterol because cholesterol and C8 were measured at the same time in this population, and there is no way to determine which one came first. The Science Panel is carrying out other studies which will not be limited in this way.

This news isn’t good.  EPA and other public health agencies should had known about the widespread public exposure to PFOA earlier – say, in the early 1980s, soon after DuPont first found evidence suggesting occupational exposure could cause birth defects.  Congress needs to revise TSCA to promote earlier disclosure of adverse health effects.


For more on PFOA, also check out EPA’s website.


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