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Hidden health hazards of CFCs.

Pacific Southwest Airlines (P.S.A.) Flight 350 was high above California en route to San Diego when the pilot, Capt. Richard O'Harren, detected an odorless vapor spewing into his face. A system that normally beaded rain on the windshield had failed, filling the cockpit with what was later described as a "CFC cocktail!' Fearing for the plane's safety, O'Harren and his first officer, William Mulcaha, snapped on their oxygen masks and landed at their destination without further incident, but not before P.S.A. officials had assured them by radio that the rain-repellent chemicals were "nontoxic and harmless:'

They were hardly that, as was already well known when the incident occurred in late 1984. CFCS, or chlorofluorocarbons, not only accelerate ozone depletion but pose a variety of serious health hazards, from fatal heart arrhythmia to lung disease to memory loss and psychomotor impairment. Indeed, the canister feeding Flight 350's leaky repellent system bore the warning: "Overexposure Can Cause Central Nervous System Depression, Anesthesia and Cardiac Sensitization!'The same caution still appears on similar canisters installed on 6,000 to 10,000 other commercial jets, but few pilots notice the admonition since it is hidden from view under their seats or on the rear wall of the cockpit.

The warning's lack of visibility typifies how corporate America has been able to insist for years that CFCs are safe, despite evidence dating back to 1937 that they are significant toxins. After the Environmental Protection Agency banned CFC use in aerosol spray cans in 1978 because the compounds were destroying the ozone layer, companies began scheming with the Reagan E.P.A. to derail further CFC regulation. As a result, during the 1980s chemical and electronics engineers were able to cook up some 200 new manufacturing uses for CFC-113, the particularly versatile product used in the rain repellent and even more widely in Silicon Valley, where electronics firms sprayed or bathed almost everything that goes into a computer in their "solvent of choice."

Were it not for O'Harren, we still might not know the length to which some companies-notably Du Pont and AlliedSignal-went to hide the fact that their CFC products were not exactly benign. Soon after O'Harren was misted with the rain repellent he developed chronic nosebleeds and hypertension. After a required airline physical, a Federal Aviation Administration doctor declared the pilot, then a veteran of eighteen years in the air, medically ineligible to fly, whereupon he lost his license and his job for fourteen months. With San Diego lawyer Lance Schaeffer, O'Harren brought a personal injury and damages claim against Du Pont, AlliedSignal, P.S.A. (now USAir), Boeing and others responsible for manufacturing and employing the repellent. Last Labor Day weekend, in San Diego County Superior Court, a jury awarded O'Harren $454,000 in compensatory damages and the following day assessed USAir $2 million for its negligence. For example, when O'Harren attempted to get the cockpit hazard acknowledged and corrected, P.S.A. refused to warn other pilots. The jury also found against Du Pont for more than $111,000 for failing, in Schaeffer's words, "to warn adequately of CFC's dangers:'

The O'Harren trial revealed that Du Pont and AlliedSignal had amassed sufficient evidence that they should have suspected at least nine years ago that their widely used CFC-113 solvent caused rare tumors and fatal lung infections in rats. Yet they failed to warn thousands of unprotected workers nationwide, especially in Silicon Valley. The National Occupational Hazard Survey estimates that, in all, 300,000 workers may have been exposed to CFC-113. Air samples taken and analyzed in 1989 by the Rowland Laboratories at the University of California, Irvine, showed the valley had the highest amount of CFC-113 molecules ever recorded. The two companies also failed to warn the E.P.A. and the United Nations Environmental Program, as well as scientists and consumers. To this day, Silicon Valley electronics industry leaders proclaim CFC-113 safe and nontoxic.

The trial produced evidence that our body cells and tissue can metabolize CFC-113, breaking it down into toxic and carcinogenic compounds. The nearly 3,000 pages of scientific memos and tables of raw data subpoenaed from Du Pont's Haskell Laboratories included the results of toxicity testing of CFC-113 on the rats. Du Pont and Allied-Signal conducted the test over a two-year period beginning in 1980 but published the results only as "highly sanitized" summaries, maintains Dr. Earl Ettienne, a cellular and molecular biologist who testified as an expert witness for O'Harren.

Ettienne, who has held faculty and research positions at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lawrence Berkeley Labs, reviewed virtually every study conducted on CFC-113. He was not surprised by the Haskell Laboratories findings. "The tests as well as subsequent independent reports indicated that CFC-113 was immunosuppressive and biotransformed [by the body] into carcinogenic and nephro[kidneyl-toxic compounds:' Ettienne said in an interview from his Mill Valley, California, office.

Du Pont designed the two-year experiment to test for nonlethal toxicity and carcinogenicity. In fact, it yielded lethal results. There was a "massive death of exposed animals possibly resulting from an immunosuppressant action correlated with an ineradicable lung infection," says Ettienne. A tuberculosislike bug known as corynebacterium killed rat after rat despite multiple and prolonged antibiotic treatments known to be effective against this bacterial strain. In the end, 438 rats, more than half the sample, died. Of those, 129 died from the lung infection, the rest of causes Du Pont failed to disclose. The rats were selected for longevity and exposed to "non-lethal" doses of CFC-113, ranging up to 19,000 parts per million. But based on a recent government report, the lab's high kill rates aren't surprising, because the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health acknowledges that 4,500 parts per million are immediately dangerous to human life. Du Pont failed to attribute any rat deaths to CFC-113 exposure, even though the lung infections occurred first in medium- and high-exposure groups, and even though CFC-113 had an occupational-illness profile as an upper respiratory tract irritant at the time of the experiment.

Ettienne told me he was shocked by Du Pont and AlliedSignal's brazenness. In a scientific summary published six years after their experiments, company chemists wrote that "observations of appearance and behavior, mortality, and clinical laboratory measurements were unremarkable during the 24-month exposure period....Microscopic examination of tissues from rats examined....revealed no evidence of compound-related toxicity or carcinogeneity." In fact, the evidence shows that Du Pont simply failed to analyze, clinically and completely, the large number of rats that died in the experiments.

Ettienne adds that Du Pont found but neglected to publicize statistically significant changes in white blood cells, platelets and fluoride and glucose levels in urine (fluoride is represented by the "F" in CFC). Higher fluoride in rats chronically exposed to CFC-113 indicates that the compound has broken down into even more toxic substances, says Ettienne, including two (CFC-122 and CFC-123) that federal agencies describe as carcinogenic. "Du Pont failed to completely report" these results, according to Ettienne, even when the E.P.A. expressed interest in the data in 1983. "The scientific community should be encouraged to review Du Pont's raw data in their entirety," he says.

That is not likely to happen soon. Du Pont has so far succeeded in stalling a court order to release all the scientific data collected in the case. Schaeffer, O'Harren's lawyer, says such protection is extraordinary, and he opposed Du Pont's legal effort to retrieve the data (uncopied) or to have it destroyed. (USAir is playing the secrecy game too, maintaining that O'Harren cannot share his story with the world without its express permission, as stipulated by the airline's contract with the pilots' union. USAir has made it clear to the pilot that if he talks he is out of a job.)

While researching this article, I gained access to the 1,666 page Haskell Laboratories report. I found it in the E.P.A.'s toxic substances database bearing the warning, "Company Sanitized:' According to this document, which is not available to the general public, Du Pont revised its summary of the experiment in 1985 before quietly submitting it to the E.P.A. I asked Cathy Andriadis, of Du Pont's External Affairs department, why it insists on court protection for data that are available to the E.P.A.; why it buried the tumor incidence tables that begin on page 1,634, where they appear suddenly after 288 pages of unrelated tables; why the tumor data are not clearly referenced elsewhere in the document or listed in the table of contents; and why Du Pont chose to understate the tumors linked to CFC-113 exposure. Du Pont provided confusing answers. Two days after the O'Harren verdict, Kathy Forte, another spokesperson for External Affairs, read the following prepared statement: "We continue to believe the case is without merit and we are considering an appeal:' As of press time, they had yet to file one.

A mandatory gradual phase-out of the use of CFCs has at last begun, the result of last year's amendments to the Montreal Protocol Treaty and the Clean Air Act. This new regulatory pressure has prompted a few large electronics firms to cut down on CFC use, and others are planning to do so. I.B.M., for example, has returned to the soap-and-water technique it used in the 1970s before investing in CFCS. But most electronics firms continue to use CFC-113 and won't be required to phase CFCs out completely until the year 2000. Meanwhile, a whole new round of experiments is being conducted by Du Pont and Allied-Signal to find new, "safer" solvents, and a consortium of the world's largest chemical corporations is betting billions of dollars on the outcome. The new experiments are to decide the workplace safety of hydrochlorofluorocarbons HCFCS) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). In short, the companies that pushed CFCs on an unsuspecting public for years are now seeking to do the same with potentially even more hazardous chemicals, and with the cooperation of the E.P.A.

An analysis of the agency's database of CFC-113 toxicity studies indicates that Du Pont alone supplied nearly 70 percent of those used to determine E.P.A. regulatory policy and to prepare E.P.A. technical evaluations. When I asked Reva Rubenstein, of the E.P.A.'s Office of Atmospheric and Indoor Programs, if she was comfortable with this arrangement, she answered, "We have confidence in the industry's data." Du Pont and Allied-Signal are members of the Program for Alternative Fluorocarbon Toxicity Testing (PAFT), an organization controlled by international CFC-producing firms whose chemists are conducting toxicity tests on CFC-related substitutes. In a press release, PAF-R claims that "preliminary results of toxicity tests" were sending "a favorable signal to continue research and development" of HCFCs and HFCS, and it maintains that "the [preliminary] results suggest that HCFC-123, HFC-134a and HCFC 141b should show no adverse effects in carcinogen tests to be completed in 1992 or 1993."

Karla Perri, of the E.P.A.'s Office of Air and Radiation, says Du Pont and other industry tests form the basis for the E.P.A:s technical evaluations of HCFCs and HFCS. Congress uses the E.P.A:s technical evaluations to make laws such as the recent Clean Air Act amendments; the United Nations Environmental Program and the Montreal Protocol group use E.P.A. evaluations to guide the international process of phasing out ozone-depleting substances and phasing in substitutes. All of these bodies recently adopted guidelines allowing firms to phase in HCFCs during the early twenty-first century despite protest by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups. Recent reviews of the scientific literature by Greenpeace suggest that HCFCs could adversely affect climate and deplete ozone. Moreover, even an E.P.A. publication released in January of last year noted that of all the HCFC substitutes under development, "the largest contributors of [ozone-depleting] chlorine would be HCFC-141b and HCFC-22:' In fact, the E.P.A. has concluded that "to return chlorine to pre-Antarctic ozone levels, a phaseout of the HCFCs would also be necessary." HCFCs and HFCs are also greenhouse gases that would contribute to global warming.

Du Pont's HCFCs could prove even more toxic than CFC-113. According to O'Harren trial expert Ettienne, the chemical instability that makes HCFCs less harmful to ozone also makes them more dangerous to workers because they are more easily metabolized. In March of last year, the E.P.A. warned that two of the CFC substitutes "may be hazardous to human health." According to an E.P.A. statement based on ten-year-old data, HCFC-133a produced cancer in rats and HCFC-132b damaged liver tissue. The current industry-run HCFC experiments did not yield this awkward news, according to an E.P.A. spokesperson.

The E.P.A. is already concerned about the workplace dangers of HCFCs and HFCS. In a special report issued last November, the E.P.A. wrote that "compared to the CFCs ... the HCFCs and HFCs exhibit a greater potential for systemic effects:' The E.P.A. "urge[s] all companies and workers involved with the production and use of CFC substitutes to take reasonable efforts to ensure that exposures to these chemicals are controlled while additional data are being developed:' The report continued, "The results of these preliminary analyses [from the chemical industry] indicate that HFCs and HCFCs can be used in a manner safe to workers, consumers, and the general population, given appropriate technological changes and exposure control practices in some applications"' but the E.P.A. stressed the "interim" nature of its assessment. Nevertheless, it constitutes a go-ahead to the industry.

"Du Pont and Allied-Signal are jumping the gun:' says Erik Johnson, of Greenpeace's Atmosphere and Energy Campaign. The world's largest CFC producers, Du Pont and Allied-Signal have already committed in excess of $1.25 billion for this decade in the evolving CFC substitute market that includes HCFCs and HFCS. Last June Du Pont announced it would design four new plants to produce HFCS. After evaluating alternatives to CFC-113 for use by military contractors, an agency for the Pentagon has provisionally approved HCFCs. Yet as Johnson points out, extensive review has turned up "a variety of safe non-CFC alternatives for every major [CFC] application:' Among them are solar-powered refrigerators that are cooled by the mineral zeolite, ultrasonic nozzles that eliminate the need for solvents in the manufacture of electronics or, as at I.B.M., just plain soap and water.

The proposition that corporate science is bad science is not new. But the supporting evidence often comes too late. The O'Harren trial showed conclusively that Du Pont engaged in and covered up dubious scientific procedures that may have jeopardized the health of hundreds of thousands of workers. Now Du Pont and its industry kin are seeking to repeat the scenario, to force again a critical chemical choice without benefit of a thorough and public debate. Both the health of our workers and the viability of the planet's radiation shield may depend on what happens next.
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Title Annotation:chlorofluorocarbons
Author:Hayes, R. Dennis
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 4, 1991
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