The Environmental Protection Agency (search) said Wednesday that people nationwide could face "a potential risk of developmental and other adverse effects" from exposure to low levels of a chemical used in making the nonstick substance Teflon (search).
EPA issued a draft assessment of the potential risks of perfluorooctanoic (search) acid and its salts, known as PFOA, or C-8. The report, based on animal studies, says some evidence exists that PFOA is carcinogenic in rats, but the cancer hazard for people is less certain.
It suggests the chemical targets the liver and is present in the breast milk of rats. It also says the chemical could raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels (search) in people — a finding that chemical maker DuPont Co. publicly released Tuesday. DuPont said its study found no overall health problems.
While PFOA is used to make Teflon, it is not present in Teflon itself, which is applied to cookware, clothing, car parts and flooring. PFOA also is used to produce materials used in firefighting foam, phone cables and computer chips.
EPA officials emphasized that its assessment was preliminary, saying that while the agency "has concerns with respect to the potential nationwide presence of PFOA in blood and with the potential for developmental and other effects suggested by animal studies, there are significant uncertainties in the agency's quantitative assessment of the risks of PFOA."
The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that brought DuPont's record on PFOA to EPA's attention, said that based on other studies of PFOA, it believes the potential cancer and heart disease risks from the chemical are being played down too much.
"There is a more serious risk, we believe, than what EPA is discussing," the group's spokeswoman, Lauren Sucher, said.
DuPont's study was released to the EPA and to its workers, who were exposed to PFOA at its plant in Parkersburg, W.Va. The company's study was reviewed by experts from five universities, and DuPont plans more follow-up research.
In its study, the Wilmington, Del.-based company reported there were "no human health effects known to be caused" by PFOA. The company said its study was based on 62 blood and urine tests among 1,000 employees at DuPont's Washington Works plant on the Ohio River.
DuPont said it found elevated levels of total cholesterol and fats called triglycerides among workers exposed to PFOA, but noted that the study data "did not indicate that PFOA was or was not the cause of the increases in serum cholesterol and triglycerides."
Sol Max, DuPont's chief medical officer, said "no association would be seen in the general public" for cholesterol and triglycerides, because exposure to the chemical was minimal outside a work setting.
DuPont also said its study found no association between elevated PFOA blood levels and liver function, blood counts, prostate cancer, leukemia or multiple myeloma.
The company is battling charges by EPA that it did not fulfill its legal obligations to share lab results about the potential harm from the unregulated chemical, known as PFOA or C-8, on several occasions. An administrative court hearing on those charges was held last month.
The company maintains that it did fulfill its obligations and that PFOA is harmless.
DuPont agreed, however, to pay as much as $343 million to settle charges it contaminated drinking water in West Virginia and Ohio with PFOA over the past 50 years. As many as 60,000 residents around the plant sued over their exposure to the chemical. The settlement will not become final until after a public hearing in February.