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Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 12 News List

DuPont in deep water over Teflon's hidden danger to humans and the environment

While it remains one of DuPont's most valuable assets, evidence suggests that Teflon may be making people sick and harming the environment, and the fact that the company has known and concealed this for decades is not going to help its defense of an upcoming class-action lawsuit in court

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont has made Teflon -- and allegedly concealed its polluting and life-threatening properties -- for decades

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Teflon has been hugely successful for DuPont, which over the last half-century has made the material almost ubiquitous, putting it not just on frying pans but also on carpets, fast-food packaging, clothing, eye-glasses and electrical wires -- even the fabric roofs covering football stadiums.

Now DuPont has to worry that Teflon and the materials used to make it have perhaps become a bit too ubiquitous. Teflon constituents have found their way into rivers, soil, wild animals and humans, according to company, government environmental officials and others. Evidence suggests that some of the materials, known to cause cancer and other problems in animals, may be making people sick.

While it remains one of DuPont's most valuable assets, Teflon has also become a potentially huge liability. The Environmental Protection Agency filed a complaint last month charging the company with withholding evidence of its own health and environmental concerns about an important chemical used to manufacture Teflon. That would be a violation of federal environmental law, compounded by the possibility that DuPont covered up the evidence for two decades.

Formal response

DuPont contends that it met its legal reporting obligations, and said that it planned to file a formal response this week.

If an EPA administrative judge does not agree, the agency could fine the company up to US$25,000 a day from the time DuPont learned of potential problems with the chemical two decades ago until Jan. 30, 1997, when the agency's fines were raised, and US$27,500 a day since then. The total penalty could reach US$300 million.

The agency is also investigating whether the suspect chemical, a detergentlike substance called perfluorooctanoic acid, is harmful to human health, and how it has become so pervasive in the environment. The chemical -- which is more commonly known as PFOA or C-8, for the number of carbon atoms in its molecular structure -- has turned up in the blood of more than 90 percent of Americans, according to samples taken from blood banks by the 3M Co. beginning in the mid-1990s. Until it got out of the business in 2000, 3M was the biggest supplier of PFOA. DuPont promptly announced it would begin making the substance itself.

The EPA is auditing 3M to determine if there were any civil violations of environmental law involving its chemically related products, Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for the agency, said. The EPA's action on July 8 prompted the Chinese government to begin its own study on the safety of Teflon, and some stores there pulled Teflon-coated pans from their shelves, the government-run China Daily newspaper reported.

Some people who live in or near Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont has manufactured Teflon for 50 years, are not waiting for more studies. Thousands of them have joined in a class-action suit filed in Wood County Circuit Court against the chemical maker, which they charge knowingly contaminated the air, land and water around the plant for decades without informing the community. The chemical has been found in the public drinking water at levels exceeding a longtime internal guideline considered safe by DuPont. The trial is scheduled to begin next month.

DuPont is contesting the accusations, and insists that neither PFOA nor Teflon poses risks to humans. "The evidence from over 50 years of experience and extensive scientific studies supports our conclusion that PFOA does not harm human health or the environment," said Stacey Mobley, general counsel of DuPont, in a statement responding to the EPA ruling.

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