The denial, issued by Fortis Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin – now known as Assurant Health – dated April 30, 2005 reads, “We regret that we are unable to offer the coverage you requested, based on HISTORY OF TOXIC CHEMICALS/ ENVIRONMENT as reported by HEALTH HISTORY INTERVIEW.” A second letter dated June 18, 2005 reads, “we are unable to further consider coverage on any basis because: CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION.”
“I went to my doctor and he said I was fine and there were no problems in my medical records” states Guinther. “We are hoping the insurance commissioner for the state of Ohio will address this,” says R. Edison Hill of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler, P.L.L.C., one of three law firms representing the thousands of people who recently sued DuPont for polluting their tap water. In 2001, residents living and working around a Teflon-producing plant and landfill at the Ohio-West Virginia border filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont for withholding information about the contamination of their water, air, and bodies by a controversial chemical produced by the chemical maker. C-8 or PFOA, according to DuPont, is “an essential processing aid used to make fluoropolymers,” including Teflon – the non_stick coating found in much of the world’s cookware, but also found in fabrics, rugs, stain repellants, cosmetics and food packaging. It has been the subject of health concerns for years in the communities around DuPont’s Washington Works Plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
C-8 was originally manufactured by the 3M Company, but in 2002 3M voluntarily stopped all production of C-8 because of concerns about its toxicity. DuPont has since manufactured its own C-8. It is considered “persistent” in the body and the environment – it accumulates over time and never breaks down. With the exception of secret tests conducted by DuPont itself, so far no official direct correlation between C-8 and human health has been studied, but recently the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board issued a draft risk assessment report that ruled the compound is a “likely human carcinogen” and poses a “risk of developmental and other adverse effects.” Other research in lab animals shows cancer of the liver, pancreas, breasts, intestines and testicles, as well as various types of developmental deformities that may occur with C-8 exposure. Plaintiffs in the suit claim C-8 has spread across the atmosphere through air emissions coming from the DuPont plant and it has contamination water sources – called a “froth covered creek” by one resident whose 260 cattle mysteriously died – including private wells and six public water districts Extremely high levels of C-8 have also been found in the bloodstream of area residents. Robert Griffith, general manager of the Little Hocking Water Association, has told his 12,000 water customers to “drink at your own risk.”
The class-action case was settled in 2004 and DuPont is expected to pay out in excess of $300 million when all is said and done – an amount some residents call “just a slap on the wrist.”
As part of the settlement, as many as 80,000 residents will take part in what Hill refers to as “one of the most grandiose epidemiological studies in history.” The “C-8 Health Project,” as it is being called, will cost DuPont $70 million and in the end will determine how many people have been contaminated, to what extent, and if there is a definitive link between cancer, birth defects, or any other human health threats.
Only residents who have been drinking the contaminated water for at least one year before December 2004 qualify. Residents are being paid $400 each to fill out a full medical history questionnaire and give blood to be tested for C-8 contamination. Local residents, extremely concerned and very angry, are demanding answers. Melinda McDowell, of Vincent, Ohio. raised her two sons on the contaminated water. One son has a leg bone deformity and has to visit the International Center for Limb Lengthening in Baltimore to have his thigh bone “broken and stretched.” McDowell says it is an extremely painful procedure for her son, now 12, who needs to have it stretched again as he grows.
As for the study, she says: “I have a problem with the name C-8 Health Project. It should be called the C-8 Toxicity Study. DuPont pretends to be our friend but they’re still denying what they’ve done. They’ve never volunteered any information. They’ve lied to the population and their own people that work there, and they’re making lots of money from Teflon.” She claims bizarre health complaints, cancer rates and births defects are “high here” and says, “I think that will show up in the study.”
Assurant Health did not perform any bloodwork on Guinther – she simply volunteered the fact that she was part of the C-8 Health Project when applying for insurance back in the spring of last year. When asked if she had been exposed to any toxic chemicals, she answered yes to what Hill characterizes as “a confusing and ambiguous insurance questionnaire.” He adds, “It is not a fair question, as we’ve all been exposed to toxic chemicals, even second-hand smoke.’ “With loaded questions such as that,” he wonders, “where in the United States would you qualify for insurance?” He is concerned that this denial of health insurance “may be construed wrongly as to dissuade people from participating in the C-8 study.”
Guinther, a 30-year resident of Vincent, Ohio and a recent divorcee Whose COBRA insurance was about to lapse, set out to get a new health insurance policy with Assurant Health. Instead, she received an insurance coverage denial letter in April of 2005. She received her C-8 blood results from the study three months later. While studies suggest most people’s bodies have an acceptable C-8 safe level – if there is such a level – of about 5 parts per billion (that’s billion), Guinther’s C-8 levels were a daunting 915. She has never worked at the DuPont plant. She still does not have health insurance coverage.
Phil Chang, Media spokesperson for Assurant Health, refused to offer any explanation for the denial. His statement: “Our hands are tied. We can’t make a statement.”
Nevertheless, DuPont “remains confident that society is not being exposed to health or environmental risks from potential exposure to PFOA (C-8)” and “PFOA has been wrongfully represented as a health risk.” The company also contends that the “compound is safe for all segments of the population, including women of childbearing age and young girls.”
The class-action suit court proceedings, however, tell a much different story. Subpoenaed company records dating as far back as 1961 disclosed DuPont executives were warned by their own scientists to keep PFOA/ C-8- away from human contact. In the 1980’s, DuPont discovered a female employee had passed these chemicals on to her developing fetus. In 1981, two pregnancies being tracked by DuPont medical staff bore children with birth defects of the eyes and face – defects comparable to those found in newborn rats that had also been exposed to PFOA. And company documents from 1984 revealed DuPont officials knew the tap water in Lubeck, West Virginia and Little Hocking, Ohio –communities around the DuPont plant and landfill – was contaminated with the dangerous C-8 chemical. Despite the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (a federal law requiring companies to disclose evidence of any risks a chemical may pose) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act involving handling of hazardous materials to avoid adversely affect the environment, DuPont failed to report any of this to the local communities, the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) or any governmental agency. “It’s very scary,” said one resident. “They have not come clean on any of this.”
Even more alarming, according to the Charleston Gazette, records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act show that DuPont was found to have had its attorneys review, edit, approve, and even block governmental press releases about to be issued by the state environmental regulators of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that warned residents of PFOA/ C-8 air, soil, and water contamination. Corroborators “excised that from every news release that I ever recall dealing with,” said a former DEP communications official in a sworn statement. Internal DuPont e-mail – subpoenaed from DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly’s Blackberry, no less – further highlighted the company’s concern over public knowledge of damaging information: “Noose tightening on my favorite case … that would be the … material 3M sells us … that we poop to the river and into drinking water along the Ohio river.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research organization named “one of Washington’s ten most effective watchdog organizations,” released a series of “body burden” studies gauging the amount of industrial chemicals, pesticides, and pollutants found both in adults and in umbilical cord blood. In 2003, they detected 167 man-made chemicals in adults, with 62 associated with damage to the brain and nervous system, and more than 50 known to cause human and animal cancers. In 2005 they released the results of their next body burden study – the first publicly released study of its kind – using umbilical cord blood supplied by the American Red Cross. The samples revealed 287 man-made chemicals present in the blood and detected “180 chemicals known to cause cancer in adults, 217 that are linked to brain and nervous system damage, and 208 that have been shown to affect fetal or child development in animal tests. For 209 of the contaminants, this was the first time researchers had identified the chemicals in newborn blood.” PFOA or C-8 was one of those chemicals. It is in the blood of practically every American adult and child, including babies in utero.
In a phone interview, Catherine Andriadis, media spokesperson for DuPont, said of EWG’s studies, “that’s their perspective” and “they have mischaracterized” much of the information. Interestingly enough, according to the EWG, DuPont, even with its multi-million dollar advertising, PR, and legal budgets, has never once demanded a retraction from the EWG, never demanded it change the facts on its website, and the EWG has never been told where exactly DuPont thinks they are wrong or what they have “mischaracterized.” In fact, as Lauren Sucher, director of public affairs for the Environmental Working Group, points out, “At DuPont’s April 27, 2005 shareholders’ meeting, they admitted to having spent more money on attorneys, lobbyists, public relations, and experts associated with defending their toxic Teflon chemicals than they did settling the class action lawsuit in West Virginia.”
Additionally, the EPA has utilized much of the information from the EWG to bring criminal charges against DuPont for multiple failures to report violations and illegally misrepresenting and withholding information concerning the magnitude of human threat of its product in an attempt to continue to sell Teflon and make a profit. The EPA alleges DuPont has been withholding this information for more than 20 years.
“This development gives some hope that DuPont will be held accountable for its contamination of virtually every American’s bloodstream with this toxic Teflon chemical,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “A federal criminal probe should not be required to find out what a company knew and when it knew it regarding a product’s contamination of people and the environment. It’s a dramatic example of why we need a complete overhaul of the regulatory system for this industry.”
Many residents agree and hope DuPont will clean up its act, stop manufacturing C-8 altogether, and comply with the company’s “commitment to environmental stewardship” to “operate under the highest standards of ethical behavior and environmental responsibility,” as they state in their press releases. It’s a commitment one Ohio resident calls “a bunch of baloney.”
Vol 25 Issue 3 Page 38