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C8 dispute leaves citizens confused

By Tom Hrach,

Citizens who live near the DuPont Washington Works plant are caught in the middle of a scientific dispute about how much of a chemical used at the plant is dangerous to their health.

On one side is a law firm involved in a class action lawsuit against the company that says recent information shows that people who live near the plant are at a significantly greater health risk from the chemical than people who work at the plant.

The law firm issued a letter in early February to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio EPA outlining its concerns.

On the other side is DuPont officials who say the concerns are misleading and not factual. The company was so concerned about the allegation that it issued a statement from the plant manager saying the information is based on a theoretical model and has not been tested.

It leaves citizens wondering what is the truth.

"It's a chemical. It doesn't belong in there, but I would not imagine that anyone from the company would lie to us about it," said Eugene Harlow, 79, of Cutler, a customer of the Little Hocking Water Association, who said he now buys bottled water. "But we don't know what to believe."

The chemical, with a trade name of C8, has been an issue for citizens of Little Hocking, Belpre, Parkersburg and other area water systems since the summer of 2001 when the lawsuit was first filed.

Investigations show the chemical is present in the water systems, but because it is an unregulated chemical, not much is known about the health risks of consuming water with C8.

The latest information comes from Robert Bilott, a lawyer with a Cincinnati law firm representing citizens in the class action lawsuit. As part of the firm's research into the case, it claims DuPont scientists came up with a model that shows that people who drink water with C8 are more than twice as likely to have the chemical in their blood than even people who work at the plant.

Employees at the plant who work with the chemical are also monitored. Those employees showed levels of the chemical greater than a certain amount were to take precautions such as drinking bottled water, medical monitoring and wearing protective equipment. But no such preventive measures were ever issued for citizens who drink water with the chemical in it, said the Feb. 3 letter from Bilott.

The letter asks the U.S. and Ohio EPAs to take action on these concerns because West Virginia environmental officials have taken no steps to find out how much of the chemical in a human's bloodstream is harmful.

The DuPont response says the information is based on a model, and that it has not been scientifically tested. The company says employees exposed to the chemical for many years have not shown ill health effects, and that the model overestimates the amount of the chemical that is in citizens' blood.

"The idea that DuPont would ever knowingly put the people in the communities in which we operate in harm's way is preposterous and contrary to the culture of DuPont, which puts safety first always," said Paul Bossert, plant manager, in the March 6 statement. "We have every confidence that our operation at Washington Works is safe for our employees and our neighbors in the community."

Dawn Jackson, spokeswoman for the company, said she is encouraging citizens to find out as much as they can about the situation before assuming there is a concern. The company has taken steps to inform the public about the chemical with a Web site, and she said the company is concerned that misinformation is concerning the public.

"I know there is a lot for people to sift through. But we are encouraging people to do that," Jackson said. "That information was only a model. It was a draft report. At this time, there is no scientific data to back it up."

Also caught in the middle are water company officials, who are concerned about the chemical but don't know what is in the best interest of customers.

"We are following this particular issue. We are not involved directly, but we, of course, are very interested in all this information," said Robert Griffin, general manager of Little Hocking Water.


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