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Teflon Is Forever

For decades, DuPont has sold the answer to crud, gunk, and grime. What the company didn't advertise was that its nonstick wonder sticks—to us.

Still, consumers of Teflon pans and pants (not to mention the mascara, dental floss, and other personal care products made slippery with a touch of Tef) have it relatively safe. The people who make the stuff, and who live near the plants, face far worse dangers. The granddaddy of trouble plants—and the one inspiring a range of lawsuits—is DuPont's plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia. Residents there have sued DuPont for polluting their drinking water with pfoa, and in March 2005, DuPont settled the case for $107 million. If an independent science panel finds links between pfoa and various health problems, DuPont will have to pay up to an additional $235 million to monitor the health of 70,000 people for years to come. Meanwhile, as part of the court order, the company is supplying the entire population of one nearby town with bottled drinking water.

The epa's $16.5 million fine against DuPont for concealing evidence of health risks traces back to the same Parkersburg plant. According to the epa, workers were reporting health problems there for years, including birth defects in their children; as far back as 1981, DuPont scientists knew that pfoa could cross the placenta and thus contaminate fetuses. DuPont also knew that some of its workers' babies had been born with eye defects similar to those 3M had just then reported in rats exposed to pfoa. At that point, rather than risk finding more evidence, DuPont terminated its study and didn't report the troubling data to the epa as required by law. "Our interpretation of the reporting requirements differed from the agency's," the company explained in 2005.

Today, DuPont remains adamant that pfoa—whether in pots, pants, or drinking water—is no threat. The epa may say studies show unequivocally that in "laboratory animals exposed to high doses, pfoa causes liver cancer, reduced birth weight, immune suppression and developmental problems," but DuPont's website quotes Dr. Samuel M. Cohen of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who says, "We can be confident that pfoa does not pose a cancer risk to humans at the low levels found in the general population." But, notes Robert Bilott, one of the lead attorneys in the Parkersburg suit, "the general population isn't drinking it. And they have five parts per billion in their blood. Near the West Virginia plant, it's in the hundreds of parts per billion; and in the elderly and in children, several thousand parts per billion."

DuPont is hardly unique in trying to cast unflattering data as incomplete or uncertain. As epidemiologist David Michaels wrote in a 2005 essay in Scientific American titled "Doubt Is Their Product," many corporations have followed the tobacco (and more recently, global warming) model of insisting that the scientific jury is still out, "no matter how powerful the evidence." Michaels took his title from a 1969 memo written by an executive for cigarette maker Brown & Williamson: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public." Even the indoor tanning industry, notes Michaels, "has been hard at work disparaging studies that have linked ultraviolet exposure with skin cancer."

Chemical companies caught a break with the passage of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (which they helped write), a measure so weak it doesn't require industrial chemicals to be tested for toxicity. Only toxic effects, often found after a product has become ubiquitous in the environment and in people's bodies, must be reported—and even that rule, as DuPont discovered, can be broken with only a minor hit to profits.

In the case of pfoa, it was left to the epa to finally investigate the risk to public health. That assessment, begun in 2000, is expected to go on for years. If pfoa is determined to be a proven (not merely likely) carcinogen, says agency spokeswoman Enesta Jones, "this chemical could be banned." It would be one of the epa's very few outright bans since 1996, when it proscribed ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. DuPont was the world's biggest producer of those too.

For now, DuPont is subject only to the epa's voluntary "stewardship" program, under which it has agreed to reduce pfoa emissions from products and factories by 95 percent by 2010 and 100 percent by 2015. DuPont says it is likely to meet those deadlines: In February, the company announced it had found a new technology that reduces by 97 percent the pfoa used in making Teflon and other coatings, and it has vowed to "eliminate the need to make, buy or use pfoa by 2015."

"It's interesting how DuPont says they're going to eliminate the 'need' to make, buy, or use pfoa," says Rick Abraham, an environmental consultant for the United Steelworkers, which represents workers at DuPont's plants. "It's a self-imposed need. They need it to make money. Are they going to stockpile it, make as much as they can by 2015? Given DuPont's history, that's very possible. They need to make public a time frame for annual production and have it subject to third-party verification." DuPont spokesman Dan Turner responds, "We're going to eliminate it, period." As for time frames, he says, "I can't get into specifics. I can only say we're moving as quickly as the technology allows."

Meanwhile, DuPont has been applying a protective layer of PR to the problem. Last year, caught in a flurry of bad publicity about fines and lawsuits, the company took out full-page newspaper ads. One stated, "Teflon® Non-Stick Coating is Safe." And, as if to flip the bird at workers' complaints, it ran an ad in Working Woman showing a female factory worker and declaring: "DuPont employees use their skills and talents to make lives better, safer and healthier." This year, DuPont plans to advertise its pfoa-lowering measures only in trade publications, perhaps because it's tricky to boast of reduced pfoa while also maintaining that the chemical is harmless. "No one is better than DuPont at greenwashing," says Joe Drexler of the Steelworkers' DuPont Accountability Project.

Possibly. Recall DuPont's 1990 "Ode to Joy" commercial, in which seals clapped, penguins chirped, and whales leapt to honor DuPont for using double-hull tankers to "safeguard the environment." The seals evidently didn't realize that a law passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill required double-hull tankers. The penguins probably didn't connect the ice melting under their flippers with DuPont's chlorofluorocarbons either. The company fought against regulating them right up until they were banned.

It is in such ads that corporate fantasies and our individual ones meet and agree to ignore unpleasantries. Corporations lie to us, sure, but we make it easy for them with the little lies we tell ourselves. Especially when it comes to our everyday conveniences, it's easier to accept the company line that there is no risk than it is to accept that authorities won't necessarily protect us from risk. Jim Rowe, president of the union local at DuPont's Chambers Works plants in New Jersey, told me that despite the science about birth defects among DuPont employees, many of his coworkers have convinced themselves that there's nothing to worry about: "When we took blood tests and interviewed them, they said they were told 'pfoa's not a problem—it's even in polar bears.'" Precisely. And even if DuPont (and companies that make pfoa in Europe and Asia) stopped producing and using the chemical tomorrow, the millions of pounds of it already on earth would remain in the environment and in our bodies "forever," says the ewg's Wiles. "By that we mean infinity."

Denial, avoidance, and magical thinking aren't new. Like Teflon, they're barriers that keep unpleasant things at bay, and like Teflon, they're entrenched deep inside us.

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