Why C8 in your blood is worrisome

Story highlights

  • The chemical C8 has been found to be linked to diseases according to class action lawsuit
  • Sharon Lerner: The EPA should set an official drinking water standard for C8 to reduce our risks

Sharon Lerner is a journalist and author whose focus is on the environment and issues affecting families. She wrote a series of articles about the chemical C8 for The Intercept in partnership with The Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter: @fastlerner. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Jodie Boylen developed kidney cancer in 2013.

A lawyer who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia, Boylen had felt sick for months before her doctor noticed a dark mark on her liver scan, which turned out to be a malignant tumor.
Jeromy Darling was diagnosed with testicular cancer back in 1998 after he went to the doctor to check up on what he thought was a minor injury. The treatment involved two surgeries that left Darling with a big scar, impaired fertility and, because he was uninsured at the time, credit problems that persist to this day.
    Ken Wamsley wound up with a bowel condition called ulcerative colitis, which causes sudden bouts of diarrhea and sometimes leads to rectal cancer, as it did in his case.
    Sharon Lerner
    Though they all had different conditions, Wamsley, Darling and Boylen all believe they were harmed by the same chemical: C8. They are among the 3,500 or so people who lived or worked near a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and are suing the company over exposure to the chemical.
    The first lawsuit, filed on behalf of a woman named Carla Bartlett, comes to trial this week in Columbus, Ohio.
    Used for decades to make Teflon and other stain- and water-resistant products, C8 -- which is also known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA -- seeped into the water around the DuPont plant in West Virginia and into local drinking water. Bartlett, who developed kidney cancer, lived just a few miles down the Ohio River from the plant. For years, Boylen lived barely a mile away from the plant, while Wamsley worked directly with C8 at a lab within the facility.
    But it turns out, you don't need to live near the West Virginia plant to be exposed to C8, which is one of the reasons the trials over this unregulated chemical have implications for all of us.
    While it didn't exist a century ago, this man-made compound is in 99.7% of Americans' blood, according to a 2007 analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control. The chemical has also been found in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood. And scientists have detected C8 in many wild animals, including Loggerhead sea turtles, walruses and arctic birds.
    It's too late to fully remove C8 from all the bodies of water and human bloodstreams it now pollutes. As far as scientists can determine, C8 never breaks down -- and is expected to remain on the planet well after humans are gone from it.
    Perhaps most worrisome, we know from the settlement of the class action suit that spawned the current crop of cases, that this widespread chemical is also dangerous. In 2004, attorneys representing more than 80,000 people who drank C8-contaminated water near the plant settled with DuPont's lawyers. But in an unusual move, plaintiffs' attorneys decided to use a portion of the money to fund a health study to determine whether exposure to C8 had actually harmed people.
    After collecting blood samples and medical questionnaires from the people living and working near the plant, and analyzing that data and other published studies, scientists approved by lawyers on both sides of the cases concluded that C8 was "more likely than not" linked to six diseases: ulcerative colitis; high cholesterol; pregnancy-induced hypertension; thyroid disease; testicular cancer; and kidney cancer.
    With the trials underway, the courts have begun the process of deciding whether DuPont should be held responsible for the 3,500 people who are now suing after developing these diseases. But what about everyone else who has been exposed to C8 at dangerous levels?
    While some of Americans' exposure to the chemical seems to come from consumer products, such as stain resistant coatings for carpeting and floors, C8 is also now in many drinking water systems far from the DuPont plant. Results from testing by the Environmental Protection Agency in June of 2014 found C8 in 94 drinking water systems that serve a total of 6.5 million Americans. (Some of these findings were at levels below .05 part per billion, the threshold for inclusion in the class action suit against DuPont. But some of them are considerably higher and all fall within a range that at least one recent study found to be harmful.
    There is some good news about C8: DuPont and the seven other companies that made or used the chemical have all stopped doing so as of this year. And the EPA now requires testing for the contaminant.
    But the EPA, which is specifically tasked with protecting the public by reducing our exposure to commercial chemicals, still hasn't set an official drinking water standard for C8. This would not only help people interpret the results of the testing, it would give people who have been exposed to the chemical at dangerous levels what Wamsley, Darling and Boylen now have -- a chance to hold the companies who put C8 into the water accountable.