March 13, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

My experiences tell me that journalists play a critical role in public health improvements; my evidence is anecdotal, but my examples continue to mount.  Take Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette and his coverage of the toxic substance ammonium perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8.  It’s the chemical used to make Teflon non-stick surfaces.  Recently, Ward wrote about a mortality analysis of workers in a 3M facility in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.  What’s noteworthy about Ward’s story is not so much the study’s findings, but rather, that he does the yeoman’s work to monitor the EPA’s TSCA 8(e) docket.  What do you know—something interesting was submitted by 3M in late February 2008: “Mortality of Employees of an Ammonium Perfluorooctanoate Production Facility.”

Recall that in May 2005, DuPont agreed to pay a multi-million dollar penalty and settle a case with EPA for its failure to report adverse health effects information about PFOA, as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act.  (Read a case study about PFOA.)  Now, attorneys working for DuPont, 3M and other manufacturers of PFOA are on high-alert (I suspect) about submitting data to EPA.  That’s why I commend Ward’s routine monitoring of what is submitted to the PFOA docket.  It’s a service to the principle of right-to-know and to public health. 

As we know, a mortality analysis such as the one prepared about the 3M Cottage Grove, Minnesota workers might some day be published in a scientific journal.  Or maybe not.  Given the potential magnitude of worker, community and environmental exposure to PFOA, it’s satifsying to know that EPA scientists have access to this information, and, thanks to Ken Ward, the rest of us know they do.  

There’s a public health benefit of “right-to-know” laws and the Freedom of Information Act.  We should not take these protections for granted.  My hats off to reporters and researchers who dig through records tucked away in federal agency dockets and let the rest of us know about them.  After DuPont’s violations of the TSCA reporting requirements, the system seems to be working for perfluorooctanoate sulfonate, perfluorooctanoate acid and related compounds.  But, it’s a small, very small victory. 

Consider this: there are nearly 100,000 industrial chemicals manufactured in or imported into the U.S., and no tough EPA stick being used to ensure that they report health effects data as required under TSCA. 

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