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Grantee Presents Prize-Winning Environmental Justice Research

By Eddy Ball
September 2008

Emmett recalled that industrial, legal and media representatives were inconvenienced by having to travel to the community to learn the results of the study. “I think that [community first communication] was extremely important to the community.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

O’Fallon, above, manages an NIEHS grant portfolio made up of projects, like Emmett’s, designed to empower victims of environmental injustice. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ken Korach, Ph.D.
The possible effects of PFOA on reproduction drew basic scientists, such as Principal Investigator Ken Korach, Ph.D., above, to the lecture. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ron Melnick, Ph.D.
National Toxicology Program researcher Ron Melnick, Ph.D., commented on evidence of PFOA’s effects on the early growth development of children of mothers with elevated levels. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Edward Emmett, M.D., spoke to an audience of NIEHS and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists gathered in Rodbell Auditorium on July 24. Hosted by NIEHS Program Analyst Liam O’Fallon, Emmett’s talk on “Perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) from Teflon Manufacture: Studies of Community Exposure, Potential Risks and Effects of Intervention” was part of the NIEHS Frontiers of Environmental Sciences Lecture Series.

Emmett is a professor in the University of Pennsylvania (UP) School of Medicine, deputy director of the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology and director of the Community Outreach and Education Core. Emmett reported on the studies he and colleagues conducted on the effects of PFOA, a persistent and ubiquitous compound also known as C8, in water provided by the Little Hocking Water Authority (LHWA) in southeastern Ohio — and their innovative protocol for disseminating results to affected residents and impacting public health practice and policy in the area.

Emmett began his talk with photos of the Ohio River, the Dupont Teflon-producing plant in West Virginia that is the source of PFOA and, just across the river from the plant, the intake for drinking water distributed by LHWA to homes in Ohio as far as 20 miles away. “Community concern really started in 2001,” he explained, “when PFOA was found in production wells of the Little Hocking Water Association at concentrations between 0.8 and 7.8 parts per billion.”

As Emmett explained, with NIEHS funding to correct an “information discrepancy…, [the researchers] set about creating an environmental justice partnership [made up of] an environmental scientist, a local health care provider and the community association… to make sure the right questions were being asked and to empower those affected by providing the information necessary for informed action.”

In a random stratified sampling of groups with differing patterns of air exposure to PFOA, the investigators determined that the source was indeed water and that levels in humans varied depending on the source of the water. They also found that the median PFOA in LHWA customers averaged 386 ppb compared to a level of 5 ppb in the general population and approached levels found in production workers, with levels highest in the very young and the very old.

Even though the team found no association between serum PFOA and biomarkers or an increase in liver or thyroid disease, the team prepared a set of recommendations for consumers, industry and regulators. They disseminated the results of the study and their recommendations through a protocol that marked a paradigm shift in communication of research findings by notifying individuals in the study and the community first through personal letters, consultation, public meetings, a web site and a newsletter. Only after the people affected understood the results were the scientific community and the media informed in such a way that the partnership controlled the message.

This empowerment model proved to be very successful. It convinced Dupont on the afternoon that results were released to offer free bottled water to affected households and led eventually to construction of a new treatment plant. According to results of a follow-up study of the affected population, 78.6 percent accepted Dupont’s offer of bottle water, 95 percent made some change in water supply, and there was a 26 percent reduction in PFOA levels.

Several published studies emerged from the investigators’ work, along with a first prize at the EPA Science Fair in 2000, and the publications won the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Authorship Award for the year. In May of this year, Emmett and Decatur Community Association Community Coordinator Ellen Mumma accepted the Community-Campus Partnerships for Health Award for 2008.

The research also inspired a chapter in Callie Lyons’ provocatively titled 2007 book,Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof, and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8. So far at least two states, New Jersey and Minnesota, have used the team’s research as the basis of safe water standards.

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