Baltimore Sun  [Printer-friendly version]
February 6, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Risk assessors study one chemical at a time
to determine the health effects. But new studies show almost all
children are now born with Teflon chemicals in their blood. What is
the effect of a particular chemical PLUS Teflon? No one knows. But
risk assessors give an answer anyway, by pretending that the Teflon
isn't there. This is the opposite of a precautionary approach. Is it

By Tom Pelton

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital drew blood from the umbilical
cords of 300 newborns and discovered something that would be deeply
unnerving to many parents:

Ninety-nine percent of the babies were born with trace levels of an
industrial chemical -- suspected as a possible cancer-causing agent -
that is used in the manufacture of Teflon pans, computer chips, cell
phones and dozens of other consumer products.

Now Dr. Lynn Goldman, Rolf Halden and their colleagues at the Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are working with other
scientists to determine whether the toxic chemical has harmed the
infants, possibly by interfering with their thyroid glands and hormone

Previous studies, some funded by industry, have found
perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in the bloodstream of most Americans.
But the Hopkins study, supported by the federal and state governments,
is the largest independent research project to examine the compound's
effects on newborns, who may be more vulnerable to endocrine-
disrupting chemicals.

"It's very clear that PFOA is being released into the environment, and
it's pretty much ubiquitous," Goldman said. "But we don't know if it's
toxic to people at these levels."

DuPont, which manufactures Teflon and has used the chemical for more
than 50 years, says there is no evidence that PFOA is harmful to

"The chemical does have an effect on animals that are fed high doses
of it. But animals respond differently to PFOA than people, and there
is no evidence that there are any health effects in people," said
David Boothe, a DuPont manager.

The Hopkins study comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is
working with industry to try to reduce PFOA emissions into the

The EPA announced last month that DuPont has voluntarily agreed to
reduce its use of the chemical, although not eliminate it, and take
more steps to halt emissions from its plants. In December, the company
agreed to pay a $10.25 million civil penalty -- the largest ever
levied by the EPA -- for withholding information about the potential
health and environmental impacts of the compound.

An EPA scientific advisory panel released a draft report in the spring
that said the chemical has caused tumors when fed to rats and is a
"likely carcinogen in humans." But the same panel said last week that
more research needs to be completed before the EPA concludes whether
PFOA causes cancer.

"It's a mystery right now," said Dr. Frank Witter, medical director of
labor and delivery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a
partner in the research. "At some point, with more research, we may be
able to say something more than 'it's just there." But we have not
finished that analysis yet."

PFOA is a highly durable, man-made chemical used since the 1950s in
the manufacture of Teflon nonstick pans, rain-repellent clothing,
aerospace equipment, computer chips, cables, automobile fuel hoses and
numerous other products.

"We make a lot of chemicals that are extremely persistent, and we
mass-produce them, but we never consider the life cycles of these
chemicals," Halden said. "It's kind of a tragedy. In some instances,
it takes years or decades before we learn of their toxicity" to

The research project at Hopkins began in late 2004. Over five months,
Goldman and her colleagues collected blood samples from the umbilical
cords of 300 newborns. The researchers used an instrument called a
liquid chromatography mass spectrometer to analyze the blood, and they
found that 298 of the samples contained PFOA, Goldman said.

Now the scientists are working with other researchers at the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a commercial lab to
further scrutinize the samples and find out whether the babies'
thyroid hormone levels are normal, Halden said. The researchers are
also comparing PFOA levels to the birth weight of the babies, and
looking at whether they were born full term. The study should be
finished in a few months and then will be offered for publication in a
scientific journal, Halden said.

It's not clear how PFOA gets into the environment and, eventually,
into people's bloodstream. The chemical can be found in many places
around the planet and has even been detected in polar bears.

Researchers with the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, a
watchdog organization, believe the chemical may be released through
the breakdown of fast-food packaging and stain-proof carpets,
furniture and clothes, ending up in food, house dust, air and drinking

But Susan Hazen, an EPA acting assistant administrator, said this is
speculation. "We have no evidence at this time that routine use of
consumer products is a source of exposure," Hazen said.

DuPont agreed last year to pay a settlement of more than $100 million
after residents living near a company Teflon plant in Parkersburg,
W.Va., filed a class action suit claiming that PFOA escaped from the
factory and contaminated local waters.

Boothe, the DuPont manager, said PFOA clearly had leaked from the
Parkersburg plant. But he said there are probably "quite a few" other
sources of the chemical's escape into the environment.

He said DuPont is working hard to stop all leakage of the chemical
from factories. The firm has installed water discharge filters and air
pollution control equipment at the Parkersburg plant and two others in
Fayetteville, N.C., and Deepwater, N.J.

"The EPA is working with the industry to find out what the sources of
exposure are," Boothe said.

Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental
Working Group, is among critics who say PFOA is dangerous and should
be banned. It is disturbing, she said, that the Hopkins researchers
have found the chemical in newborns.

"The fact that PFOA can cross the placenta from the mother to child is
very troubling, given that this is a chemical that is broadly toxic
and linked to birth defects in lab animals," she said. "The time in
the womb is a time of particular vulnerability to environmental

Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun