VIENNA -- A panel of scientists has found there is a "probable link" between exposure to a processing aid chemical that DuPont uses and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
The C8 Science Panel was selected in 2005 to determine whether such a link exists between the chemical C8, also known as perfluorooctanic acid or PFOA, and any human disease as part of a class action settlement of a lawsuit involving releases of C8 from DuPont's Washington Works in Wood County.
According to DuPont's website, the chemical has been used by industry for many years as a processing aid in the manufacture of some fluoropolymers. These fluoropolymers often possess "unique properties," including heat and chemical resistance, and are used to make Teflon and other non-stick products.
On Monday, the panel issued its first series of assessments as to whether there is a probable link between C8 exposure and health problems. All other probable link outcomes, it said, will be issued by the end of July 2012.
The panel's most notable finding showed a probable link between exposure to the chemical and elevated blood pressure in pregnancy, or preeclampsia.
The scientists had conducted a series of studies of pregnancies among women who were enrolled in the C8 Health Project or were living in the Mid-Ohio Valley in areas with elevated C8 exposure.
Three of the four analyses of the participants showed small elevations in risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension among women with the highest exposure, the panel found.
"While the evidence was not completely consistent across studies, and while risk did not always increase progressively as PFOA levels increased, the Science Panel believes the evidence is strong enough to conclude there is a probable link between C8 exposure and the risk of PIH," it said Monday.
Among its other findings, the panel said a probable link did not exist between C8 exposure and the risk of pregnancy loss, either miscarriage or stillbirth. It also did not find a link between exposure to the chemical and preterm or low birth weight infants, or birth defects.
Also Monday, the panel released a status report on the association of PFOA and adult thyroid disease in the Mid-Ohio Valley.
According to the report, 3,600 cases of thyroid disease were reported in about 33,000 people.
The scientists concluded that data shows a "positive association" between cumulative blood levels of PFOA and thyroid disease occurrence.
Also Monday, the panel shared results from its short-term follow-up study.
Nearly 800 participants in the C8 Health Project were invited back and provided further blood samples in 2010, almost four years since the first survey. In that time, serum levels of the chemical for those people fell by about half, the panel explained.
In particular, the scientists looked at the relationship between cholesterol and changes in C8 levels.
"Cholesterol did not change much overall but the change was found to be correlated with the change in C8," it said. "The more the fall in C8, the more the drop in cholesterol, for LDL cholesterol in particular."
Elevated LDL cholesterol levels indicate a risk for cardiovascular disease.
In July, the panel had found that former DuPont plant workers who were exposed to C8 had higher death rates from kidney cancer, various kidney diseases and mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
A study on liver function also had showed one of three enzyme markers was elevated, indicating some damage to the organ. However, the panel had warned against linking the finding to C8 exposure.
A settlement was reached with DuPont in the original class action lawsuit, Leach v. E. I. DuPont, in February 2005.
That settlement provided for payment of $70 million for the health project. With interest, the actual budget exceeded $71 million.
The settlement also mandated that DuPont pay for the installation of state-of-the-art water treatment technology for the six identified water districts to clean C8 in the water supply to the lowest practicable levels.
Water in all six affected districts is now filtered to a level where C8 is nearly non-detectable, said Harry Deitzler of Charleston law firm Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee and Deitzler PLLC. The firm is one of three designated as lead class counsel representing the people in the six districts who consumed contaminated water.
Also as a result of the settlement, DuPont is paying almost $20 million to fund the panel's health study.
If the panel determines that there is a "probable link" between the chemical and health problems, the company must make up to $235 million available for the medical monitoring of class members.
Additionally, all personal injury claims of affected people in the class are preserved if the determination is made by the panel that there is a probable link between C8 exposure and various diseases.
Deitzler said the panel's findings Monday confirmed his law firm's original concerns.
"The findings announced by the panel are not surprising based on the current state of scientific literature and studies of health effects associated with exposure to PFOA," he said.
"We are pleased that our class members and the community now have some initial answers to their concerns about whether they are at risk for adverse reproductive health effects as a result of their exposure to PFOA."
Now that at least one link has been verified, Deitzler said his firm will begin working with DuPont to implement the medical monitoring phase, as required by the settlement agreement.
However, the company, which plans to stop making and using C8 by 2015, said in a statement it doesn't believe the chemical causes pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Deitzler said he was shocked to hear the company's response to the findings.
"Here, DuPont is issuing press releases basically dissing the science panel's findings," he said. "This is after DuPont made a big deal of pointing out how it wanted a fair scientific resolution of this question at our settlement conference more than five years ago.
"DuPont helped pick the panel about which they are now complaining."
In fact, both sides had a say in who was selected to serve on the panel. And each side had veto power, Deitzler explained.
The panel is made up of three scientists from universities in London, Atlanta and Providence, R.I. They include Dr. Tony Fletcher, Dr. Kyle Steenland and Dr. David Savitz.
Fletcher is a senior researcher and lecturer at the Department of Social and Environmental Health Research in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which he joined in 1992. The LSHTM, a college in the University of London, is an internationally recognized center of excellence in research in public health, and is one of the highest-rated public health research institutions in Britain.
Steenland is an environmental and occupational epidemiologist. He is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health at Emory University, where he arrived in 2002. He previously worked for 20 years at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati.
Savitz is currently a professor of Community Health, Epidemiology Section, and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brown University. He was an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and moved to the University of North Carolina School of Public Health in 1985.
"Now that the panel has reported some of its findings and found a probable link, DuPont is saying they're wrong," Deitzler said. "I think that's a little disingenuous."
He added, "We might not like the fact they didn't correlate birth defects with exposure to C8, but we have to accept it because we chose these people. We believe they are qualified to make that assessment."