Court-Appointed Scientists Say Teflon Health Studies Could Take Years

By | November 17, 2006

Ohio and West Virginia residents who sued DuPont over a chemical used to produce Teflon may have to wait up to five years before learning if their health has been adversely affected by the substance, members of a science panel said Tuesday.

Some of the results could be released as early as next year, and the scientists on the court-appointed panel say they’ll consider steps to keep the public informed of their progress.

The panel plans to do at least nine studies on the chemical, ranging from possible links to heart disease and cancer to its effects on birth outcomes, panel members said at a news conference.

The panelists want to do another study on the effects of the chemical ammonium perfluorooctaonate, also known as C8 or PFOA, on workers at the Delaware-based company’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg.

The panel is waiting to hear from Wood County Circuit Judge Arthur Gustke on whether that study can go forward. On Monday, Gustke told a lawyer for the plaintiffs that the panel can conduct such a study. “It will be my ruling that they get it,” Gustke said.

The company is fighting the science panel’s request, saying it’s outside the scope of a 2005 class-action settlement with West Virginia and Ohio residents who claimed their water supplies were contaminated by the chemical.

DuPont has conducted it own studies of its workers, and claims that current and former Washington Works employees had death rates no higher than workers at seven DuPont plants in other states, the population of West Virginia or the rest of the nation’s population. But, additional tests would be needed because the study found slightly elevated cases of kidney disease, diabetes and heart disease, DuPont said.

But those cases were statistically insignificant and may be coincidental to the use of C8, DuPont spokesman Dan Turner said Tuesday.

For example, while there were 20 diabetes deaths reported by the study, those could be from factors unrelated to the chemical. West Virginia has one of the highest rates of adult diabetes in the country.

At the time the study was released, Dr. Sol Sax, DuPont’s chief medical officer, said the data could not conclusively prove there was no link between C8 and the slightly elevated cases of kidney disease, diabetes and heart disease.

The science panel’s planned nine studies will be completed in stages between 2007 and 2011. The earliest studies will look at possible links between C8 and heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other disorders. Panelists will review data gathered from healthscreenings of about 70,000 Ohio Valley residents for those findings.

Based on the findings, DuPont could be required to spend another $235 million to monitor the residents’ health.

“This is the biggest study of its kind to look at almost any environmental contagion,” said Tony Fletcher, a panelist and epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I know people are anxious to get answers as quickly as possible.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the panel has to make quarterly reports on its progress to both DuPont, the plaintiffs and the court. On Tuesday, panelists said they’d be open to making those reports public.

“We prefer a more transparent process,” Fletcher said.

The panel’s work could cost between $10 million and $15 million, said panel member Kyle Steenland, an Emory University epidemiologist. DuPont is paying for the studies as part of the settlement agreement.

Though used since World War II, C8’s long-term effects on humans are unknown. DuPont has long maintained there are no harmful health effects. The Science Advisory Board for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined C8 to be a likely cancer-causing agent in humans.

DuPont officials have said they will continue to use C8 in its manufacturing processes at the plant. The chemical is distilled out before the final product is completed and so is not present in Teflon or other final products.

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