The Teflon Controversy: DuPont, Teflon, and the Courts

The Teflon Controversy: DuPont, Teflon, and the Courts

by Monica Sanders, December 2009

Nothing sticks to Teflon, right? Maybe not. A class action lawsuit against Teflon's creator, DuPont, just might stick to the company and its products for years to come. People in eight states, including fourteen families in Florida, claim DuPont failed to alert consumers to the possible dangers of Teflon. And legal troubles don't end there. Last month, the Department of Justice subpoenaed a grand jury to look into claims that DuPont hid findings about Teflon-associated problems and possibly violated EPA rules.

At the center of Teflon's troubles is the chemical PFOA or C-8 which gives Teflon its priceless non-stick quality. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency received study results showing the chemicals are "likely" to cause cancer in humans and animals. According to the study results, PFOA breaks down into toxins when it is heated to more than 680 degrees and is not safe for conventional use.

Two large Florida law firms are spearheading the suit which is based on the accusation that DuPont knew for decades that Teflon was unsafe and hid the information. Attorneys point to the Department of Justice inquiry, which focuses on a 1981 study in which the company tested, on its own employees, the effects of a component of Teflon. The findings were not disclosed.

Miami's Kluger, Peretz, Kaplan and Berlin and Fort Lauderdale's Oppenheim Pilesky are asking for damages on behalf of their clients. Additionally, they want DuPont to put warning labels on its cookware and create medical funds for people who may be harmed by using Teflon products. They also want the company to pay for independent research into the effects of Teflon and its by-products.

The timing of the class action suit is favorable for the plaintiffs. This year, DuPont began paying for medical testing and health monitoring for tens of thousands of people in West Virginia and Ohio. Residents in several communities discovered that the company allowed PFOA to leak into the water supply and exposed them to contamination. DuPont also set aside $15 million to deal with EPA complaints related to charges it violated regulations from 1981 to 2001.

DuPont is fighting the class action lawsuit. A spokesman for the company says Teflon is made using PFOA, but does not contain it. He also noted that while Teflon does release toxic gases when superheated, people would never heat it more than 600 degrees since nothing would be edible after being exposed to such high heat. The company says its products are made for kitchen use only and are safe.

How DuPont responds to this class action suit could make or break its future. The triple threat of legal problems DuPont is facing are all interrelated Until each affected citizen in Ohio and West Virginia gets a clean bill of health, lawyers for both the class action suit and the Department of Justice will keep using this case to help prove their claims.

It could be years before all three are wrapped up. If the class action succeeds, DuPont will face more payouts. Depending on what happens with the criminal investigation, punitive damages may be in the company's future and in that case, DuPont will face a public relations nightmare. Losing the suit would mark the beginning of a long battle convincing consumers to buy enough products to keep the two-billion dollar a year business afloat.

The outcome of the cases has direct consequences for consumers. A ruling against the plaintiffs could shut the door on any future suits or payments, so that anyone currently harmed but not part of the suit won't have the option to seek recourse against the company. On the other hand, any outcome favoring DuPont's alleged actions sends a message that it's acceptable to withhold whatever information from the public as a corporation sees fit. However DuPont's legal action is resolved, the implications will be far-reaching for both sides of the Teflon controversy.