Richmond, VA; Mar. 24, 2006 – Virginia workers and environmentalists want state and federal regulators to investigate chemical giant DuPont and its use of a controversial Teflon-related chemical at a plant near Richmond. The request, issued by a coalition of labor and environment advocates â€“ follows investigations into similar complaints in other cities.
Investigations elsewhere have already revealed dangerous levels of a chemcial substance in blood samples of workers and in water supplies near the companyâ€™s plants. A type of perfluorooctanoic acid, also called PFOA or C8, the polymer is used in the Teflon-manufacturing process.
The United Steelworkers and Ampthill Rayon Workers International unions joined with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, initiating the campaign with a letter to government regulators. Addressing the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the groups wrote that according to DuPontâ€™s own internal documents, C8 "was used for years at the [Richmond Spruance] plant amid concerns of environmental pollution, worker exposure and the potential exposure of customers to the PFOA remaining on Teflon and Kevlar products."
The Richmond groups also blasted DuPont for knowingly dumping so much C8 into the James River that the company considered decreasing production during periods of low river flow, as revealed in DuPont documents obtained by the groups and reviewed by The NewStandard.
While some scientists and public interest groups have been warning about the dangers of the chemical for years, it was only this month that the EPA issued a formal warning.
DuPont manufactures and uses PFOA in the production of non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, outdoor clothing, and paper coatings for food packaging. Last December, the EPA levied a $16.5 million fine â€“ the largest administrative penalty in the agencyâ€™s history â€“ against DuPont for violating the Toxic Substances Control Act. The government charged that for more than two decades, DuPont had failed to report information showing the use of PFOA at a West Virginia plant presented a risk to humans, animals and the environment.
DuPont further agreed to a $107 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by more than 80,000 residents near Parkersburg, West Virginia after PFOA was detected in the public water systems.
While some scientists and public interest groups have been warning about the dangers of the chemical for years, it was only this month that the EPA issued a formal warning, saying it could no longer conclude that PFOA "will not present an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment."
The agency also quietly posted a new rule proposal in the Federal Register on March 7 of this year to test any new products that use polymers like PFOA. In the proposal, the EPA confirmed the presence of these chemicals in fish, birds, and mammals, including humans, across the United States and in other countries.
Jay Palmore, president of Ampthill Rayon Workers International (ARWI) Local 992, which represents about 1,100 DuPont employees, said the union began looking into possible PFOA exposure among workers in Richmond after learning about EPA investigations in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia.
Palmore said he was "disturbed" that the EPA had not initiated an investigation into DuPontâ€™s plant in Virginia on its own. "The government is supposed to be protecting the people, the community and the workers," he said. "But we donâ€™t see that."
According to the EPAâ€™s proposed rulemaking, the chemicalâ€™s widespread distribution suggests that PFOA might linger in exposed organisms, including humans, long after initial contact. The agency also noted that PFOAs "have shown liver, developmental and reproductive toxicity at very low dose levels in exposed laboratory animals."
Joshua Low, conservation coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the organization is calling on the EPA to investigate whether PFOA is present beneath the Richmond plant or had contaminated the James River or the groundwater supply.
"We need to know whether or not [PFOA has] contaminated any peopleâ€™s drinking water," he said.
Though DuPont has stated that PFOA exposure does not pose a health risk to "the general public," last February, the EPAâ€™s Science Advisory Board recommended that the agency change its classification of PFOA from "suggested carcinogen" to "likely carcinogen."
In a written response to questions from TNS, DuPont spokesperson and plant manager Rick Hodge said PFOA was eliminated from the Richmond plant after the company shut down a Teflon fiber unit in 2004, which had been in operation since 1953. Hodge said employees "had minimal potential for exposure to PFOA because of the type of process employed in that operation" and because of industrial hygiene programs that included ventilation and protective equipment "used to minimize exposure to chemicals."
But Palmore said DuPont has not fulfilled the unionâ€™s request for information about how extensively PFOA was used in its Spruance plant and when the plant ceased using it. He said the union is planning to test 25 to 50 workers who were exposed to the chemical, and if the results show high levels, they want DuPont and EPA to test everyone that worked with PFOA.
"The problem is people are continuing to be exposed [to PFOA] every day; itâ€™s accumulating in our blood, and thereâ€™s no warning whatsoever on products," said April Dreeke, spokesperson for the United Steelworkers International (USW) union, which represents DuPont and paper-plant workers elsewhere. The union has welcomed the EPAâ€™s recent proposal to test new PFOA-related products, but criticized the initiativeâ€™s precursor, the PFOA 2010/15 Stewardship Program, which workersâ€™ advocates say lacked real accountability.
The program sets goals for a 95 percent reduction of PFOA in industrial emissions and product content by 2010, and complete elimination by 2015. Spokesperson Hodge said Dupont was the first company to volunteer to participate in the program.
The C8 Working Group, a coalition of environmental groups in Durham, North Carolina, is also demanding that DuPont release information about the levels of C8 in blood, air and water samples near its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County â€“ the only place in the US where PFOA is still manufactured.
"No community should have to rely on the good will of a company which for 30 years has profited from the use and manufacture of these chemicals, while hiding their potential dangers from the public," the group said in a statement. "Given DuPont's record of pollution, EPA enforcement actions, multimillion-dollar penalties and settlements, the public should be skeptical of any program relying on its voluntary cooperation."