United Steelworkers to Paper Companies: Beware of Zonyl

Citing its "duty to protect the health and safety of the workers our union represents," the president of the nation's largest industrial union has sent a letter to the CEOs of 200 major paper companies to alert them to what the union asserts are the potential health risks associated with zonyl, a chemical produced by DuPont.

The letter from Boyd Young, president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union before the union merged with the United Steelworkers of America, expresses Young's concern that "PACE members may not be getting sufficient information about zonyl and that DuPont may not have fully informed employers about the potential harmful effects."

"Zonyl is linked to serious health risks, including birth defects, cancer, developmental problems and high cholesterol, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke," Young says in the letter.

Zonyl, according to the union, is a fluorinated telomer that breaks down into perfluorooctanoic acid -- also known as PFOA or C-8 -- a synthetic chemical used in making non-stick Teflon cookware and hundreds of other products. PFOA currently is under intensive review by EPA, which in January noted that PFOA has been detected in "very low levels" in the environment and in the blood of the general U.S. population and that studies indicated the chemical "can cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals."

The union -- now known as the United Steelworkers (USW) -- believes zonyl is used widely in the paper industry in items such as linerboard, folding cartons, bags, fast food wrappers, trays and pet food liners and also used in Stainmaster for carpet and fabrics. Fluorinated telomers are a type of small polymer used to repel grease, oil and liquids.

While USW says the extent of zonyl's use in the paper industry remains unknown, it announced plans to conduct a preliminary survey among 1,200 local union officials to collect initial information on the prevalence of zonyl's use and how workers are exposed to it.

"It is our duty to protect the health and safety of the workers our union represents," Young said.

Initial responses to the survey indicate zonyl often is mixed with other chemicals before being applied to pulp or paper products, such as food packaging, according to the union. Workers who interact with the mixture are potentially exposed through significant airborne and skin contact, the union contends.

Health Effects of PFOA Exposure Still Not Known

Dr. Timothy Kropp, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, points to recent EPA findings that "Teflon chemicals used in food packaging and other paper products" may be ubiquitous in the bloodstream of the general population and asserts that workers may have even higher exposure levels.

Studies have found that workers exposed to PFOA are at increased risk for stroke, leukemia and prostate cancer, according to Kropp.

EPA, however, says the chemical's effects on humans are not known, nor does the EPA "have a full understanding of how people are exposed to PFOA," which the agency says is not found in the finished products it is used to make.

The EPA, which has been studying the potential health risks of PFOA and similar fluorochemicals since 2000, issued a draft assessment of the potential risks of PFOA on Jan. 12. The agency asked a panel of scientific experts to review the draft assessment to "ensure the most rigorous science is used in the agency's ongoing evaluation of PFOA." EPA in January said that the panel's conclusions were expected to be released in several months.

The draft risk assessment includes an analysis of how PFOA causes liver tumors in rats, according to EPA. The agency, though, says the draft does not provide any new conclusions regarding PFOA exposure and potential health concerns for humans.

After the draft assessment was released in January, Environmental Working Group assailed the document as being tilted in DuPont's favor because it allegedly ignored "scientific studies pointing to increased risks for heart attack, stroke, breast cancer, testicular cancer and numerous other health harms."

DuPont: Consumer Items Not a Source of PFOA

DuPont claims products containing PFOA are safe for consumer use. The Wilmington, Del.-based company on April 20 said that an independent, peer-reviewed study sponsored by DuPont concludes, "the use of consumer articles with DuPont materials would not result in quantifiable exposure to [PFOA]."

The study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology, was conducted by Environ, an independent research firm, DuPont says.

"Cookware coated with Teflon underwent rigorous scientific testing designed to see if any PFOA could be detected under exaggerated or extreme cooking conditions, and none was found," said Dr. Jay Murray, a board-certified toxicologist and one of the three experts who provided peer consultation on the DuPont study.

In early January, DuPont said that an "initial-phase" health study of more than 1,000 workers at its Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, W.Va., showed no connection between PFOA blood levels and liver problems, blood counts, prostate cancer, leukemia or multiple myeloma.

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