By Dr. Mercola
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid (also called C8), was an essential ingredient in DuPont's non-stick cookware for decades. The chemical is now the subject of about 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, along with others filed against various companies that used the chemical.
The legal process has uncovered hundreds of internal documents revealing that DuPont knew of the chemical's danger to the public and employees, yet continued using it, despite the known risks.
A decade ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards associated with PFOA.
In 2005, a panel of three scientists was ordered as part of a settlement to determine the chemical's effects on people. After seven years of research, the panel linked PFOA to ulcerative colitis, imbalanced cholesterol,1 pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer.
Its health effects were deemed to be widespread and occurred even at very low exposure levels. Now residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, where a string of rare cancer deaths, thyroid disease and other health problems occurred, are suing PFOA manufacturers for contaminating their local water supply.
Hoosick Falls Residents Demand Answers Over PFOA Water Pollution
Earlier this year, four residents of Hoosick Falls filed a class-action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, which ran the area's plastics plant.
PFOA was produced at the plant as part of a powdery substance called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which was added to products to help them repel grease and water.
It's alleged that for a period of about 15 years, the "heavier-than-air" material was released from smokestacks and into the surrounding environment.
In the 1980s, "scrubbers" were installed in the smokestacks to help prevent pollutants from being released, and it's alleged that workers would clean the scrubbers and other contaminated equipment outdoors on a hill outside the plant, just 400 yards from the area's primary underground well. Times Union reported:2
"A toxic chemical that contaminated the Hoosick Falls water system may have seeped into the village's underground wells over a period of decades, when workers at a nearby plastics plant cleaned smokestack filters and other equipment on the ground outside the facility, including flushing manufacturing byproducts into a storm drain.
In addition, several people who worked at the McCaffrey Street plant, owned by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics since 1999, recalled how a powder-like smoke plume that seemed heavier than air often settled in the valley around the small plant that overlooks the Hoosic River. The facility is several hundred yards from the village's water treatment plant."
In 2014, one area resident, Michael Hickey, sent water samples to be tested after his father, who worked at the plastics plant, died of kidney cancer. The testing revealed elevated levels of PFOA in the water supply.
Initially, the response was slow from state and local government — the state Health Department initially told residents there were no health risks from consuming the contaminated water, then abruptly changed their tune after the EPA advised residents not to consume or cook with the water.3
Blood Tests Reveal Elevated PFOA Levels
While the EPA's long-term exposure limit for PFOA in residential water is 100 parts per trillion (ppt), levels in Hoosick Falls' water have exceeded 400 ppt.4 State-sponsored blood tests for PFOA levels in local residents have shown levels significantly above the national average in many cases.5
Water filters have been installed in residents' homes and a study is planned to monitor illness and mortality trends in the area, according to an impromptu June 2016 meeting between residents and state Operations Director Jim Malatras, Ph.D., According to Times Union:6
" … [R]oughly two dozen residents … voice[ed] their outrage over what they describe as a too-slow response from public officials to the perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA contamination of the … community's water supply, and the state Legislature's continued unwillingness to hold hearings on the crisis.
… Several times, Malatras tried to turn the focus away from the administration to the company that has been designated as one of the likely polluters, Saint Gobain Performance Plastics.
(Facilities now owned by Honeywell have also been identified by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as another likely source of PFOA.)"
PFOA Cover-Up Compared to Tobacco Industry
As noted in a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), DuPont knew about the risks of PFOA but continued making it anyway:7
"DuPont had long known that PFOA caused cancer, had poisoned drinking water in the mid-Ohio River Valley and polluted the blood of people and animals worldwide. But it never told its workers, local officials and residents, state regulators, or the EPA."
DuPont, along with seven other companies, including 3M, were involved in producing PFOA over the decades.
The chemical is being called the "tobacco of the chemical industry" because of the decades-long corporate cover-up of its health effects, the lawsuits pending and how difficult it is to make companies accountable for producing disease-causing products, even after the evidence is clear.
In DuPont's case, they had animal evidence of harm — from liver toxicity and kidney damage to death — for decades, but the company did not alert regulators of a potential problem.
Then there were the company's workers, some of whom gave birth to babies with birth defects after working in the company's PFOA division. DuPont knew of the problems and was tracking its workers for such health effects, but again failed to inform regulators of their findings.
Worse still, when 3M submitted a troublesome rat study to the EPA suggesting harm, DuPont told the EPA they believed the study was flawed.
While continuing to study the chemical's effects on its workers, DuPont was also tracking the chemical's spread into nearby waterways, as well as its emissions into the air through smokestacks.
At first, DuPont disposed of PFOA by dumping it in the ocean and later moved to disposing of it in unlined landfills and ponds. They knew the chemical was spreading widely into the environment and convened a meeting to discuss what to do about it, but decided to keep using the chemical anyway.
DuPont Allegedly Ordered Tracking of Its Own Numerous Dumping Sites
DuPont reportedly ordered a "thorough review" of the company's waste sites in the early 1980s, a task that proved to be colossal because of the sheer number of dumping grounds. According to The Intercept:8
"Tracking the contents of all these barrels, pits, dumps, leaks, landfills, spills and waste streams over time was a monumental task. Even back in the 1980s, the company, which was founded in 1802, had an environmental trail that defied cataloguing.
'There were waste sites from the '50s and '40s,' said [former DuPont government affairs employee Craig] Skaggs, who remembers there being 113 plants at the time — and the waste sites as being far more numerous. 'Waste would be hauled off in drums and taken to these sites and buried. And often, these sites were owned by other people.'"
Today, DuPont officials have disputed the existence of such a report, but Skaggs is adamant "it still exists somewhere … retained by the legal department."9 It's not only plastics factories that are to blame for widespread PFOA pollution. Water testing around military bases has also shown contamination to drinking water from PFOA and other perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, used in firefighting foam. As reported by The Intercept:
"Research on people in West Virginia and Ohio who had consumed water contaminated by leaks from a nearby DuPont factory showed probable links between the chemical and six diseases, including kidney cancer.
[Resident Lori] Cervera [who was diagnosed with kidney cancer at the age of 46] soon discovered that the very same chemical, as well as a related one, PFOS, had been found in drinking water in her area. Both were part of a larger class known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, 'emerging contaminants' that were still being studied — and had yet to be regulated.
And, according to public notices from the local water and sewer authorities, both had come from foam that was used to put out airplane fires and train soldiers at two nearby military bases ... "
Will DuPont Merger Allow the Company to Avoid Lawsuits?
Four of the more than 3,500 lawsuits filed against DuPont in relation to the company's dumping of PFOA into the Ohio River have already gone to court. One case was dismissed after a doctor changed the plaintiff's diagnosis, but in another, a woman who developed kidney cancer was awarded $1.6 million.
A third case — a man who allegedly developed ulcerative colitis after drinking PFOA-contaminated water — was settled, and a fourth case involving David Freeman, a man with testicular cancer, went to court in May 2016.10 Starting in April 2017, 40 of the cancer cases against DuPont will be heard over a 10-month period each year, although DuPont may be trying to skirt liability in any way they can.
In July 2015, DuPont created a new company called The Chemours Company, which heads up its "performance chemicals" division and now holds responsibility for a large amount of the company's environmental liabilities, including PFOA.
DuPont's Disappearing Act
In December 2015, DuPont further announced they would be merging with chemical giant The Dow Chemical Company and had plans to split the resulting company into three new entities. The Intercept reported:11
"Together, the moves leave those struggling with DuPont's environmental legacy with lots of questions. So even as they're litigating the case of David Freeman, an Ohio man who developed testicular cancer after drinking water contaminated with PFOA, attorneys have also been asking the court to compel DuPont to demonstrate its ability to cover any awards to Freeman and other plaintiffs.
In particular, they want to know 'where the liabilities and obligations of DuPont will fall' if the merger takes place. In their most recent legal brief in what is known as the Leach case, submitted on May 11 to Federal Judge Edmund Sargus, lawyers reiterated fears that the proposed Dow-DuPont merger 'may be an attempt to extinguish DuPont's liability' for claims related to PFOA."
For the record, PFOA is only one of DuPont's (and now Chemours') toxic legacies. The company is also facing litigation over:12
- Benzene, a carcinogenic chemical used in some DuPont paints (one painter was recently awarded $8.4 million after developing leukemia linked to the paints). At least 27 other benzene lawsuits are pending
- Asbestos, including more than 2,000 upcoming lawsuits
- Silica (83 pending cases), which causes potentially fatal lung disease when inhaled
- Butadiene, a carcinogen used by DuPont to make neoprene
EPA Lowers 'Safe' Level for PFOA in Drinking Water
In 2015, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggested PFOA falls into the realm of substances like asbestos and lead — those we know are toxic at virtually any level. EWG's report found the EPA's safety guideline for PFOA in drinking water — 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) — may be more than 1,000 times too high to protect public health.13
Fortunately, in May 2016 the EPA announced new guidelines of .07 ppb for both PFOA and PFOS (including a maximum combined level of .07 ppb if both chemicals are present). The new standard takes into account lifetime exposure that would occur from drinking contaminated water.14
Unfortunately, EPA data shows that water systems in 18 states are contaminated with PFOA and/or PFOS above the new federal threshold. That being said, even the new threshold may not be low enough to protect public health. The EWG report stated the safety level should be 0.0003 ppb.
It builds on earlier research that found PFOA levels in human blood above three-tenths of a nanogram — a billionth of a gram — per milliliter could be harmful. EWG's Bill Walker, who wrote the report, told VICE News:15 " … [T]he truth of the matter is that it [PFOA] appears to be hazardous at very, very, very low levels of exposure … In practicality, when you're talking about these very, very tiny levels, there just may not be a safe level of exposure."
How to Reduce Your Exposure to PFOA and Related Chemicals
First and foremost, I recommend using a high-quality water filtration system unless you can verify the purity of your water. To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.
In addition, you'll want to minimize your use of common products that contain PFCs like PFOA and PFOS. PFCs are used in a wide variety of consumer products, particularly those made to repel water or resist oil and stains. Products that often contain these chemicals include:16,17
- Takeout containers such as pizza boxes and sandwich wrappers
- Non-stick pots, pans and utensils
- Popcorn bags
- Outdoor clothing
- Camping tents
- Stain-repellant or water-repellant clothing
- Stain treatments for clothing and furniture
- Carpeting and carpet treatments
- Certain cosmetics, particularly eye shadow, foundation, facial powder, bronzer and blush
It's important to understand that while PFOA is no longer being used in the U.S., similar replacement chemicals have been added in its place. As recently as 2013, Greenpeace International tested 15 samples of waterproof clothing, shoes and swimsuits and found PFCs in all but one, according to EWG.18
Some food wrappers, beverage containers, pizza boxes and other food packaging may also be PFOA-free, but not necessarily safe, as the PFOA replacement chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety.
Eating organically grown, and biodynamic whole foods is a primary strategy and, as an added bonus, when you eat properly, you're also optimizing your body's natural detoxification system, which can help eliminate toxins your body encounters from other sources. When your diet is mostly fresh foods, you'll minimize exposure to PFCs common in takeout containers. From there, simply leading a healthy lifestyle will help you to have as minimal a chemical exposure as possible.