A recently published study revealed children living near DuPont’s plant in West Virginia are exposed to much higher concentrations of an industrial chemical than are their mothers. Children under five, who are exposed from drinking water as well as their mothers’ breast milk, had 44 percent more of the chemical in their blood than their mothers. The study was undertaken by a court-approved panel of three scientists who have spent seven years trying to determine whether the DuPont chemical is making people sick in the Mid-Ohio Valley.
The chemical is perfluorooctanoate, (PFOA), also known as C8, which is used in the manufacture of Teflon nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, food packaging and other products. Nearly everyone worldwide has traces of perfluorinated chemicals in their bodies. But folks near the DuPont plant have extraordinary levels of PFOA – about seven times more than the U.S. average – because the compound, used at the plant since 1951, has contaminated drinking water supplies.
The scientists studied 4,943 child-mother pairs who drank water for at least one year in communities near the plant where water wells were known to contain PFOA. “Children seemed to concentrate the chemical more than their mothers up to about age 12. This is probably due to exposure via drinking water as well as exposure in utero and via breast milk,” the team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine wrote in the article, published online recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The lead author was Tony Fletcher, who serves on the court-approved panel.
For a related chemical called PFOS, blood concentrations were 42 percent higher in children than their mothers, and it persisted until the children were 19. The new finding about children and their mothers comes at the same time that other scientists, studying children in the North Atlantic’s Faroe Islands, linked perfluorinated compounds to reduced effectiveness of childhood vaccinations. That is a possible sign that the chemical suppresses the immune system.
Environmental health scientists say that fetuses, infants and young children are the most vulnerable to the toxic effects of industrial chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS because they might interfere with development of their brains, reproductive tracts, immune systems and hormones. The panel of scientists was created as part of a settlement after residents from West Virginia and Ohio communities filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont in 2001, alleging health damage from contaminated water.
The panel is scheduled to reach a conclusion in July about the probability of health effects from PFOA exposure. Under a settlement between DuPont and the Plaintiffs, if the scientists conclude that a “probable link” exists between the chemical and any diseases, DuPont will fund a medical monitoring program for the residents. In previous research in the communities, the scientists have found associations between PFOA exposure and markers that suggest potential liver disease, changes in children’s thyroid hormones and increased risk of kidney cancer deaths. In December 2011, the panel also reported “a probable link between C8 (PFOA) and pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia.” The panel found no link to birth defects, preterm births, low birth weight or pregnancy loss.
The chemical is ubiquitous and long-lasting in the environment, which led to an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and DuPont and other manufacturers to eliminate emissions by 2015. DuPont paid a $10.25 million fine in 2005 for violating federal environmental statutes, which is the largest civil administrative penalty on record for the EPA, along with more than $6 million for environmental studies. The EPA accused the company of hiding information on public health threats.
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