Slick Company Stands behind Teflon©

A recent civil suit against DuPont claims that the company continued marketing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical used to manufacture Teflon&, despite 20 years of research showing derogatory health effects. The class action lawsuits by two firms in Florida call for DuPont to spend $5 billion dollars to reimburse people for their Teflon© cookware, and label products containing PFOA. The suit also demands that DuPont reserve funds for further research on PFOA exposure and to possibly pay for associated medical problems of its customers.

The pressure on DuPont is rising. Last fall it paid $340 million to plaintiffs in West Virginia, where a Teflon© manufacturing facility is located, who claimed that PFOA leaked into their water supply. In May of 2005, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Environmental division issued a criminal subpoena to DuPont in its investigation of DuPont's studies of PFOA's in its own employees in 1981. And the EPA has charged that the company violated the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act from June 1981 to March 2001 and failed to turn over laboratory results.

The current suit focuses on the companies alleged irresponsibility in monitoring the health effects of its product. According to a BBC report, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said:

"DuPont has known for over 20 years that the Teflon© product and the PFOA chemical it contains causes cancer in laboratory animals...I don't have to prove that it causes cancer. I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their product."

Dupont replies:

"Approved standard FDA tests also show that non-stick coatings used for cookware sold under the Teflon© brand, do not contain any PFOA...Like any household product, cookware coated with Teflon© non-stick is safe when used properly. Teflon© is a trusted brand and is used all over the world by millions of people every day."

PFOA is currently not regulated by the EPA. Although the European Union, Canada and Japan have taken actions to limit potentially toxic chemicals, the United States has been far less proactive. There are several explanations for this. Federal oversight was postponed in the late 1990's, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), when the chemical industry offered to voluntarily test chemicals being produced in large volumes. There are also logistical issues to effective regulation. The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) is procedurally daunting, making it exceedingly difficult to regulate toxicants. As well, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined in 2001 that the agency provided biased reports, because its panelists were often affiliated with the companies whose chemicals they were reporting about.

For these reasons and more, the EPA has only requested health data on fewer the 200 chemicals since 1979, resulting in increased criticism. Theo Colburn, a pioneer for low-dose toxicity research, noted in an an interview with PBS Frontline, that the EPA does little to protect people who depend on their oversight of potential toxicants, and that it ignores existing research evidence about health hazards. A recent (GAO) report found that the EPA is weak on regulating chemicals and protecting public health. As the EWG told the NYT:

"If the E.P.A. were to take action against PFOA, it would be the first major regulation of a chemical in more than 15 years. Of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been in commercial use since World War II, just five types are regulated: PCB's, halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium."

In an attempt to tighten up the agencies oversight, Senator Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) and Senator James Jeffords (I- Vermont), introduced the "Kids Safe Chemical Act", that will require that chemicals used in households be tested prior to their release on the market. It also proposes expanding the regulatory power of the EPA.

Since the EPA has now labeled PFOA a "potential carcinogen", it can theoretically participate more in the regulation of the chemical. Naturally, some are skeptical about how fast the changes will actually occur and many point to the slog that happened in asbestos regulation despite the numerous lawsuits and legislation enacted to clean it out of the environment.

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