On U.S. Rivers, Teflon’s Old Cancer Ties Are Stoking New Fears

  • EPA is investigating after Cape Fear River found polluted
  • Some Wall Street analysts worry about fresh round of suits

On a cool spring morning last year, Jason Galloway lugged his father’s kayak up to the edge of the Ohio River and slid it into the calm water. This wasn’t a pleasure trip. Galloway, by his own admission, isn’t very skilled with an oar in his hands and, to make matters worse, can’t swim.

He had come to gather water samples at spots in the river downstream from the Chemours Co. plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. And what he says he found is adding to growing concerns over a new generation of chemicals -- designed to be safer than the old ones -- that Chemours and others make for products like Teflon cookware, waterproof fabrics and grease resistant food packaging.

Galloway’s Kayak on Ohio River.

Source: Jason Galloway

Last month, a study detected one of the new chemicals, known as GenX, downstream from a different Chemours plant -- some 400 miles away in Fayetteville, North Carolina. That news sent the company’s stock and bonds tumbling as protests erupted over the safety of the local drinking water.

It’s the latest chapter in a two-decade litigation and public relations ordeal that has buffeted DuPont Co., and now its spun-off unit Chemours. DuPont was accused for years of polluting the Ohio River separating Ohio and West Virginia with the widely-used Teflon chemical known as PFOA. In February, the two companies appeared to put the issue behind them when they agreed to a $670 million settlement to cover 3,500 personal-injury suits stemming from the old compound in drinking water around its Parkersburg plant.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the new chemical while some Wall Street analysts are discussing the potential for a fresh round of lawsuits against Chemours.

“History seems to be repeating itself,” said Jeffrey Dugas, a spokesman for advocacy group Keep Your Promises DuPont. “We don’t know if this chemical will have adverse health effects, but it has already contaminated drinking water.”

Health Screening

Chemours said that it believes GenX levels around the Fayetteville plant are “well below the health screening level’’ announced by North Carolina regulators last month, adding that emissions “have not impacted the safety of drinking water.’’ In response to the controversy, Chemours said it started capturing the wastewater containing GenX and is working with regulators and local officials to determine the next steps.

Fayetteville chemical plant

Photographer: Ken Blevins/The Star-News via AP Photo

The EPA said in a statement last month that its probe would review GenX toxicity data and update its risk assessment. There is no requirement that drinking water be tested for GenX and most similar chemicals, nor any federal limits on exposure.

DuPont had been using the old chemical, PFOA, also called C8, since at least the 1950s.

‘Probable Links’

After residents near Parkersburg started raising health concerns and filing lawsuits in 2001, DuPont agreed to an independent science panel, which studied 80,000 residents for seven years, and found "probable links" between PFOA and six diseases including testicular cancer and ulcerative colitis. After losing a handful of individual suits, DuPont and Chemours reached this year’s settlement on the PFOA suits.

The EPA encouraged companies beginning in 2006 to phase out PFOA and related chemicals, and DuPont agreed to do so. The industry replaced them with GenX and other new-generation agents known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS. The new class is eliminated faster from the body, making them safer, Chemours says. 

At a conference in Boston in June about the chemicals, several scientists agreed that they cycle out of humans more quickly, but expressed concerns, citing their persistence in the environment including plant life, as well as a dearth of studies.

“Every perfluorinated compound that’s been studied causes problems,” said Linda Birnbaum, who directs an environmental health unit of the National Institutes of Health.

More Research

Much more research is needed to determine whether levels of the chemical found in North Carolina or near Parkersburg are safe, according to Jamie C. DeWitt, an associate professor at East Carolina University and author one of the few peer-reviewed studies of GenX.

“GenX isn’t as potent, but we are seeing some concerns,” she said.

Galloway, who has a degree in chemical engineering and is now a student at Ohio State University in molecular genetics, went on his vigilante sampling trip after reading about the new chemicals. He said he took the samples into the EPA for testing, and is working with the agency on a study for peer-review.

“When I saw the plant was still operating, I tried to look up information on emissions and couldn’t find anything, so I decided to get involved,” Galloway said in a phone interview.

Public Outcry

The EPA didn’t return requests for comment on Galloway’s samples, and Chemours said it can’t respond until the agency is done evaluating them.

Protesters demonstrate at a meeting of Chemours and local officials, in Wilmington, North Carolina, June 15.

Photographer: Ken Blevins/The Star-News via AP Photo

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, local officials are grappling with their next step after the public outcry, initially sparked by a peer-reviewed study in November that found GenX is in the Cape Fear River and that current filtration systems have little ability to remove it.

“We need assurance that the water is safe,” said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County commissioners, which covers affected communities around Wilmington, North Carolina, downstream from Chemours’ Fayetteville plant. “We worry, and we want more data as soon as possible.”

In Fayetteville, Chemours is required to capture GenX when used to make Teflon but not when discharged as a byproduct of a separate process.

Tom Claps, a litigation analyst with Susquehanna International Group, said in a research note that while lawsuits are likely, it may take a long time, citing the 16 years it took from the first lawsuit against DuPont over PFOA in Parkersburg to the recent settlement.

Chemours also inherited 17 factories globally that make fluoroproducts like Teflon. Its plant in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, recently came under scrutiny from Dutch officials concerned about GenX in the local drinking water. Its factories in Changshu, China, and Shimizu, Japan, also use GenX.

— With assistance by Joshua Fineman

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