Air Pollution Harms Young Lungs / A Legal Settlement Over a Chemical Used to Make Teflon
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Doug Johnson. This week: an award-winning supercomputer, and a new study of air pollution and children's lungs.
But first, a report on the dispute over a chemical used to make Teflon.
Teflon is a kind of plastic. It is extremely smooth. It can be found on many products, from industrial machines to weather-resistant clothing. One of the most common uses for Teflon is to protect cooking surfaces like pans. It keeps food from sticking.
A researcher at the American chemical company DuPont invented Teflon, by accident, in nineteen thirty-eight. Atoms of carbon and fluorine combined to form a very strong molecule. The result is a substance that does not react with other materials chemically or electrically. In fact, most materials just slide off Teflon.
But DuPont faces questions about the safety of a chemical used to make Teflon. It is known as P.F.O.A or C-eight. The full name is perfluorooctanoic acid. This chemical is used like a soap. P.F.O.A. has been found in drinking water supplies in communities near a Teflon factory in West Virginia.
In early September, DuPont agreed to settle a legal case brought by people in the area around Parkersburg, West Virginia. As many as sixty thousand people are represented in the class action lawsuit.
In a statement, DuPont said that settling this lawsuit does not suggest "any admission of liability" on the part of the company. It said the action helps both parties "by taking reasonable steps based on science and, at the same time, contributing to the community."
The case had been set to go to a trial in October.
In the proposed settlement, DuPont agreed to eighty-five million dollars in payments and other spending. It also agreed to pay legal costs of almost twenty-three million dollars. And it agreed to provide water treatment operations in affected communities in West Virginia and Ohio.
The settlement plan also calls for independent experts to study the effects of the chemical. If the experts find that P.F.O.A. harms people, DuPont could have to pay up to two hundred thirty-five million dollars. This would go to medical studies and health care for victims. A concern expressed about P.F.O.A. is the possibility that it may cause birth disorders. The company disputes this.
DuPont agreed to the settlement even though P.F.O.A. is not listed as a substance that the government considers dangerous. The company says it obeyed all laws about reporting possible risks from chemicals.
But the United States Environmental Protection Agency disagrees. In July the E.P.A. brought an administrative action against DuPont. The agency says that in nineteen eighty-one DuPont observed P.F.O.A. in blood taken from pregnant workers at its factory in West Virginia. In at least one case, the chemical was in the fetus as well. The E.P.A. says DuPont also found the chemical in public water supplies as early as the mid-nineteen eighties.
The agency says DuPont violated two government rules. These require companies to report any serious risks to human health or the environment from a chemical. The agency could fine DuPont at least twenty-five thousand dollars for each day that it failed to report the information. The accusations cover a period of twenty years. So the fines could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
DuPont says it fully reported all the information that it was supposed to report. The company says it "remains confident that P.F.O.A. is safe." It says fifty years of experience and studies support this position.
Teflon and similar non-stick materials are called fluoropolymers. The Environmental Protection Agency noted last year that P.F.O.A. is used to make such materials. But it said, "the finished products themselves are not expected to contain P.F.O.A."
A study by a competitor of DuPont, Three-M, has shown that the chemical is found in the blood of ninety percent of Americans. How is this happening? The E.P.A. says direct releases from industry may not be the only way, since a limited number of places produce P.F.O.A. It says the answer is not known.
The agency has not decided if there is an unreasonable risk to the public from this chemical. But it says it does not believe there is any reason for people to stop using any products.
A study suggests that dirty air can reduce lung development. Researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles published their work in the New England Journal of Medicine.
About one thousand seven hundred children from different communities in Southern California took part in the study. The scientists tested the children every year for eight years, starting at age ten. They say this is the longest study ever done on air pollution and the health of children.
The scientists found that children who lived in areas with the dirtiest air were five times more likely to grow up with weak lungs. Many were using less than eighty percent of normal lung strength to breathe.
The damage from dirty air was as bad as that found in children with parents who smoke. Children with reduced lung power may suffer more severe effects from a common cold, for example.
But the researchers express greater concerns about long-term effects. They say adults normally begin to lose one percent of their lung power each year after age twenty. The doctors note that weak lung activity is the second leading cause of early deaths among adults. The first is smoking.
By the time people are eighteen, their lungs are fully developed, or close to it. The doctors say it is impossible to recover from any damage.
Researchers say they are still not sure how air pollution affects lung development. They believe that pollution affects the tiny air spaces where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.
Arden Pope is an economics professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Professor Pope wrote a commentary about the study. He noted that air quality in Southern California has improved since the study began in the early nineteen-nineties. Clean-air laws have reduced pollution from vehicles, industry and other causes.
But dirty air is still a problem in areas of California and other places. Professor Pope says continued efforts to improve air quality are likely to provide additional improvements in health.
People who travel in Virginia, in the eastern United States, often visit places that are famous from American history. But now people can visit a place where university scientists are at work on the future.
Virginia Tech in Blacksburg is offering tours for the public to see its supercomputer. The machine was built last year from more than one thousand personal computers. It is one of the most powerful computers in the world.
This past June, leaders from the computer industry honored Virginia Tech for best use of information technology in the world of science. The supercomputer project was chosen from more than two hundred fifty entries by businesses, companies and other universities in twenty-six countries. The award was presented at the two thousand-four Computerworld Honors Program in Washington, D.C.
Next week, learn how a group of people built the computer in three months with parts that anyone can buy. And we'll tell you about some of the scientific goals for this powerful machine called System X.
You can also learn more about the supercomputer, and sign up for a tour if you are ever in Blacksburg, at the Virginia Tech Web site. The address is vt.edu.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Brian Kim, Mario Ritter and Paul Thompson. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. If you would like to find any of our programs online, go to voaspecialenglish.com. And if you would like to e-mail us a question or comments, write to [email protected] This is Doug Johnson. And this is Sarah Long. Join was again next week for more news about science, in Special English on the Voice of America.