Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging

How Green is DuPont's Alternative?

June 9, 2008

Credibility Gap: Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging: DuPont Claims at Odds with Science

No matter how strong the evidence that PFOA may be harming human health, DuPont spokespeople refute it, year after year: "…PFOA does not harm human health or the environment." (See DuPont press quotes) Normally, this might be dismissed as a typical corporate interpretation of study results or just another example of a company over-zealously defending a profitable chemical. But in this case DuPont has gone beyond spin, to a much higher level of deception.

Documents obtained from litigation against DuPont for PFOA contamination of water supplies in West Virginia and Ohio show that DuPont’s own ethicists and medical experts found the company’s spin on PFOA science to be “misleading”, "disingenuous", "unacceptable", and "not supported by the available facts" (DuPont's Epidemiology Review Board 2005-2006).

DuPont’s mischaracterizations of the science have long raised concerns from environmental advocates and communities affected directly by their pollution and neglect. But in 2005 and 2006, this misinformation campaign ran into a serious buzzsaw in the form of DuPont’s own Epidemiology Review Board (ERB), a group of independent scientists, medical doctors, and ethicists from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and other prestigious universities, chosen by DuPont to review PFOA epidemiology studies, including several studies of workers at their Parkersburg, West Virginia fluorochemical plant.

DuPont’s own Epidemiology Review Board (ERB)

Thomas Beauchamp PhD
Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar,
Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics

Mark Cullen MD
Director, Section of Occupational and Environmental Medicine,
Yale University School of Medicine

Ellen Eisen PhD
Adjunct Professor,
Department of Environmental Health,
Harvard University

Jonathan Samet MD
Chairman of the Department of Epidemiology,
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Noah Seixas PhD
Professor, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences,
University of Washington ERB Chair

David Wegman MD
Dean, School of Health and Environment,
University of Massachusetts Lowell

Beginning in 2005, ERB members raised serious ethical and scientific concerns about the manner in which DuPont was deliberately mischaracterizing the results of studies of workers in Parkersburg. Over the course of the next two years the committee was extremely critical of DuPont’s public presentation of this and other scientific information.

For example, DuPont's presentation of the results a worker study to plant workers and the press in 2005, concluded, among other things, that:



Based on an evaluation of human health and toxicology studies, DuPont believes that the weight of evidence suggests that PFOA exposure does not cause cancer in humans and does not pose a health risk to the general public... To date, no human health effects are known to be caused by PFOA, even in workers who have significantly higher exposure levels than the general population.

-- Washington Post, June 29, 2005




This interpretation was far from an objective reading of the study results, and in response, DuPont's Epidemiology Review Board (ERB) member, Thomas Beauchamp PhD, of Georgetown University called DuPont's conclusion:



"Somewhere between ‘misleading' and ‘disingenuous' has red-flag written all over it;"



The entire committee shared this opinion, as expressed by David Wegman, MD, and chair of the ERB:



"We were unanimous in believing that, contrary to the statement at the start of the [employee] letter, we believe that the results do show a health effect"…"it is certainly not appropriate to say ‘… no human health effects;'"



Beauchamp, commenting on the specific nature of DuPont's ethical lapses, further stated:



"The claim of no health effects is not supported by available facts (factual inappropriateness)... such a statement is misleading, whether intentionally or not, and it is unacceptable to mislead in this way (moral inappropriateness)."



Overall, the ERB concluded that DuPont's presentation of the study results:



"Was considered by us all to be misleading;"



(See PDF file for ERB February 2005)

This was not the last time that the ERB would catch DuPont ignoring or twisting the facts for their own benefit. Throughout 2005 and 2006, things got worse for PFOA manufacturers. In December 2005 EPA settled its PFOA case against DuPont for the largest environmental administrative penalty under the Toxic Substances Control Act in agency history (US EPA 2005).

The charge against the company was that for 20 years it had failed to disclose important study results, as required by law, showing that PFOA crossed the placenta, as demonstrated in a study showing that two out of seven female DuPont workers tested for PFOA during pregnancy gave birth to babies with severe facial birth defects (US EPA 2004). In DuPont's view, these findings, which were reported by company scientists in 1981, did not indicate a substantial risk to human health, even though they represented the first evidence ever that PFOA could make its way to the fetus and potentially cause serious birth defects. In the end, DuPont was forced to pay a record $16.5 million fine for failing to report these findings to the EPA (US EPA 2005). But despite this record fine for concealing critical data in a study showing severe birth defects in babies exposed to PFOA, the company did not change in any way its claim that no human health effects are known to be caused by PFOA.

One month later, in January 2006, the PFOA Review Panel of EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) issued its draft report recommending that, based on its review of available PFOA carcinogenicity data, PFOA should be considered a "likely human carcinogen" (SAB 2006). DuPont responded with their stock claim that "to date no human health effects are known to be caused by PFOA" (DuPont 2006a).

In February 2006, members of DuPont's ERB, who were apparently becoming increasingly fed up with DuPont spin, submitted two consecutive memoranda to DuPont, stating: "Given the many gaps in understanding of population exposures to PFOA and of possible health consequences, we strongly advise against any public statements asserting that PFOA does not pose any risk to health… We also question the evidential basis of DuPont's public expression asserting, with what appears to be great confidence, that PFOA does not pose a risk to health" (DuPont's Epidemiology Review Board 2005-2006). (See PDF file for ERB February 2006)

In March 2006 eight fluorochemical manufacturers, including DuPont, agreed to participate in EPA's PFOA Stewardship Program aimed at reducing facility emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals on a global basis (US EPA 2006a).

In July 2006 members of the ERB panel stated again that DuPont's ongoing reports continue "to avoid or downplay the significant findings" (DuPont's Epidemiology Review Board 2005-2006) (See PDF file for ERB July 2006).

Later that year, in October 2006, DuPont publicly announced preliminary results of its own study of death rates among PFOA-exposed workers at the Washington Works plant, indicating increased rates of death for heart disease, kidney cancer and diabetes (DuPont 2006b). Members of the ERB panel were very concerned about DuPont's press release that "appears written to leave the impression ‘don't worry'" (DuPont's Epidemiology Review Board 2005-2006). (See PDF file for ERB October 2006)

In November 2006 DuPont entered into a Consent Order with EPA for additional tests on PFOA under which EPA noted that new PFOA studies have raised a "concern for public health" and that PFOA "may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons" (US EPA 2006b).

The company's response continued in the same vein, "So DuPont's position on this is, to date, there are no known health effects from exposure to PFOA." Fort Worth Star Telegram, December 5, 2006

One month later, DuPont Spokesman David Booth offered this riff on the same propaganda, adding that PFOA is "essentially a high-tech detergent" that has been used for 50 years in manufacturing plastic and "as there are no known health effects from PFOA."" Biloxi Sun Herald, January 26, 2007

Throughout 2007, a series of human studies were released unambiguously demonstrating adverse health effects linked to PFOA exposure. These include two studies that observed association between PFOA blood levels and smaller birth weight and size in newborn babies (Apelberg, Witter 2007; Fei 2007); two DuPont worker studies showing increased levels of cholesterol and liver damage related to PFOA exposure (Sakr, Kreckmann 2007; Sakr, Leonard 2007); a DuPont study demonstrating increased mortality from diabetes, cancers of kidney and bladder, all cardiovascular disease and ischemic heart disease in fluorochemical plant workers (Leonard 2007); and two 3M studies indicating abnormal thyroid hormones, elevated cholesterol and increased blood levels of liver enzymes as well as increased risk of mortality due to stroke and prostate cancer for PFOA-exposed employees (Lundin 2007; Olsen 2007).

One of the studies, carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, found the chemical in every single one of the 299 umbilical cords analyzed, suggesting that every baby is born in the US already contaminated with PFOA. Similar levels have been found in babies in Europe and Japan. It also found that the babies whose cords had the highest concentrations of PFOA were born lighter, thinner and with smaller head circumferences than others. The second study - carried out in the US and Denmark, with babies drawn from the Danish National Birth Cohort - came up with similar findings for birth weight, the only measurement the scientists made.

Not surprisingly this new science has not swayed the DuPont public relations machine. Commenting on this wave of new science that has repeatedly shown adverse health effects of PFOA exposure in newborn babies, DuPont once again stated that "there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA", adding that "Our position is that the studies have not changed our position." The Independent, August 26, 2007