July 11, 2004 – The Environmental Protection Agency is asking DuPont, the second biggest chemical maker in the United States, to pay the largest toxic contamination penalty ever for failing to report health and environmental problems linked to an ingredient used to make Teflon. The exact figure has yet to be determined, but could be hundreds of millions of dollars. DuPont reported earnings of $973 million in 2003.
But activists and those claiming to be harmed by the chemical say the fine is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, is a waxy, soap-like substance used in stain and stick-resistant products like Gore-Tex and some pizza boxes. It remains unregulated, despite mounting evidence that it may be linked to birth defects and other medical problems.
"This is shaping up as another in a long series of industry-friendly environmental 'enforcement' actions by the Bush EPA," wrote Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an activist organization that researches connections between health and the environment. "There's no message being sent here except the weakness of the Bush Administration and how it succumbed to DuPont's lobbying. It's pathetic."
People who live near DuPontâ€™s Parkersburg, West Virginia plant are suing the company alleging that they are suffering from everything from respiratory problems to cancer as a result of high levels of C8 in the water and soil surrounding the plant.
The Washington Post reports that after two women working in the Parkersburg plant had children with birth defects similar to those found in animals during studies conducted in 1981, DuPont transferred women of childbearing age away from the C8 section.
The Post also notes that internal DuPont documents show the company detected high C8 levels in the blood of both childbearing female workers and their babies. The company then sent a letter to female workers saying they were not aware of a relationship between human birth defects and the chemical. However, they cautioned, "We think this is a matter of sufficient concern that, as a precaution, a female who has [a blood level] above [the local normal] level should consult with her personal physician prior to contemplating pregnancy."
Nevertheless, the company did not notify the EPA, and brought the women back to work with C8 a year later, after the chemicalâ€™s supplier told DuPont that C8 did not cause birth defects in animals, the Post reports.
Under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, companies are required to report new information that "reasonably supports the conclusion" that a chemical "presents a substantial risk of injury to health."
Activists at the Environmental Working Group argue that Teflon, a $2 billion industry, should be banned altogether. They allege the chemicals that make up Teflon cause both long-term and short-term health problems.
A 20/20 report on the dangers of Teflon featured an interview with Bucky Bailey, a 22 year-old who was born with one nostril and a deformed right eye. His mother worked at the Parkersburg plant while she was pregnant, and the family blames her exposure to C8 for Baileyâ€™s birth defects.
"I've never, ever felt normal," Bailey, who has endured over 30 surgeries to correct the abnormalities, told 20/20. "You can't feel normal when you walk outside and every single person looks at you."
The same show also reported on a disturbing short-term side effect caused by using Teflon-treated pans. The sickness, known as "Teflon Flu," occurs from exposure to fumes released from an overheated Teflon-coated pan. The symptoms include headache, chills, backache, and a temperature between 100 and 104 degrees.
Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group told 20/20: "At 554 degrees Fahrenheit, studies show ultrafine particles start coming off the pan. These are tiny little particles that can embed deeply into the lungs. At 680, toxic gases can begin to come off of heated Teflon."
DuPont officials do not dispute that the dangerous fumes can be released, but they told 20/20 that normal kitchen use would not get the pans hot enough to release fumes.
However, when 20/20 cooked bacon in a kitchen demonstration, the pan heated past 554 degrees in just a few minutes.
Uma Chowdhry, Dupont's vice president of research and development, told 20/20, "You get some fumes, yes, and you get a flu-like symptom, which is reversible."
The Environmental Working Group has tried to get mandatory warning labels on the pans for years, with no success.
But even if Teflon were banned tomorrow, any health problems linked to the chemical could persist because, as the Delaware News Journal reports, levels of the chemical, which is entirely man-made, have been found in the blood of almost everyone ever tested, including people in remote areas of China.