Hey Georgian Life readers, have you heard of PFOA? The acronym PFOA stands for perfluorooctanoic acid, a man-made chemical used in the production of fluoropolymers belonging to a class of chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFOA is used to make products that resist sticking, heat, and water; the most famous product is Teflon, used in non-stick cookware. Recently, PFOA has emerged as a carcinogen and toxicant to the liver.

PFOA has been manufactured and in commercial use since the early 1940s. Originally made by 3M, in 1951, DuPont Chemicals purchased PFOA for use in the manufacturing of Teflon and referred to the material as C8. Due to widespread applications, by 1976, PFOA use spread across the consumer market for many products, including carpeting, upholstery, apparel, outdoor clothing, floor wax, textiles, fire fighting foam, and sealants. 

By the early 1970s, fluoropolymers from PFOA exposure could be detected in the serum of consumers. Nearly 30 years later, in 1999, the environmental protection agency (EPA) ordered companies to examine the effects of PFOA and PFOS after receiving data on global distribution and human toxicity. At this time, PFOA and precursors from manufacturing were added to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) list of toxic substances. 

In 2000, lawyer Robert Bilott, a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, won a court order forcing DuPont to share all documentation related to PFOA. In total, 110,000 files were submitted, consisting of confidential studies and reports conducted by DuPont scientists. Bilott learned that DuPont had been conducting secret medical studies on PFOA for more than four decades. As early as 1961, DuPont was aware that mice fed with PFOA developed hepatomegaly, an enlarged liver suggestive of liver disease. The documentation exposed that by 1993, DuPont understood that PFOA caused testicular, pancreatic, and liver tumours in lab animals. However, PFOA-manufactured products earned DuPont $1 billion in annual profit, so production continued.

DuPont had produced PFOA for over 50 years at chemical plants in Washington, West Virginia and Fayetteville, North Carolina. PFOA had received attention due to litigation from the contaminated community in Fayetteville. In 2001, area residents sued DuPont, claiming PFOA was exposing their community to an increased risk of illness. In 2004, an externally performed risk assessment reported that over 1.7 million pounds of C8 had been dumped, poured, and released into the environment from Dupont’s plants between 1951 and 2003. 

In 2012, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta established that DuPont plant workers who were exposed to high levels of PFOA were at three times the risk of dying of mesothelioma or chronic kidney disease, and roughly twice the risk of dying of diabetes mellitus compared to other DuPont workers. In 2014, the EPA announced the toxicity and bioaccumulation of PFOA and PFOS pose potential adverse effects on human health and the environment. 

As a result of the class-action lawsuit brought on by Taft Stettinius & Hollister and the community settlement with DuPont, three epidemiologists conducted studies on the population surrounding the Fayetteville chemical plant. The studies established a correlation between high PFOA exposure and six health outcomes: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, hypercholesterolemia, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. In 2016, the EPA issued a lifetime health advisory that exposure to PFOA may cause testicular and kidney cancer.

By 2015, more than three thousand plaintiffs had filed personal-injury lawsuits against DuPont. In 2017, DuPont reached a $670 million cash settlement related to 3,550 personal-injury lawsuits tied to PFOA contamination of drinking water in Parkersburg, West Virginia, near the Washington plant. DuPont denied any wrongdoing.

Today, PFOA contaminates every continent. PFOA has been detected in the blood of 98% of the US population. Health Canada reports low concentrations of PFOA are found in the blood of 99% of Canadians. PFOA is resistant to degradation by natural processes such as metabolism or biodegradation, enabling it to remain in the body indefinitely. PFOA has been detected in the Pacific Ocean and is present in numerous mammals, fish, and birds. Food, drinking water, air, and dust are implicated as the major sources of PFOA exposure. 

In 2016, Canada prohibited the use of PFOS. However, while PFOA and PFOS have been largely phased out of use, these chemicals are only two of the more than 3,000 related compounds still used in many consumer goods, including cookware. No proven risks to humans have been established using cookware coated with Teflon to date. For his work in the exposure of the contamination, lawyer Robert Bilott has received several awards, and his battle with DuPont is featured in two films, ‘The Devil We Know’ released in 2018, and ‘Dark Waters’ released in 2019.

Submitted by: Dr. Oliver Kent, Cancer researcher and Senior Scientist at adMare BioInnovations.  

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