When Good Science is Bad Politics

A troublesome family of synthetic chemicals called PFCs—many of them produced in Minnesota—is turning up in the bodies of people and animals worldwide. So why did the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency force its leading PFC researcher, Dr. F

Dr. Ron Melnick, a toxicologist who served on the panel, says the recommendation was based mainly on studies in rats showing that PFOA exposure caused tumors in "multiple sites." That was not the only aspect of the PFOA studies that caused panel members concern. According to Melnick, other studies showed that rats exposed to PFOA in utero suffered from decreased body weight, as well as abnormal hormonal function. If those manifestations extend to humans, that is bad news indeed. "One of the biggest issues is the persistence of this chemical. It stays in the body for years and it seems to be in just about everybody," Melnick explains. "The fact that it is so persistent, and that it transfers from mother to fetus, raises significant concerns." For that reason, he says, the EPA is now embarking on large-scale epidemiological studies of Dupont employees in West Virginia.

James Kelly, a health assessor with the Minnesota Department of Health who has worked on the PFC issue, cautions that the EPA panel's recommendation may not be as scary as it sounds. "The press picks up on this term 'likely human carcinogen' and to the layman, that means, 'If I'm exposed to this, I'm likely to get cancer,'" Kelly offers. That, he says, is not the case. He points out that industry-sponsored epidemiological studies of workers exposed to PFCs at high levels have yet to produce the sort of smoking-gun evidence that you would expect to see if PFCs were extremely toxic. And what of the results of laboratory studies with rats and other animals? Extrapolating from animal studies, Kelly responds, is at best a problematic undertaking: "We're not giant rats. We're different than these animals they use in these studies." In the interest of precaution, Kelly adds, the Department of Health has established some very "conservative values" for safe levels of PFCs in drinking water.

"The risks we're talking about are pretty low," Kelly says. "We establish our drinking water values on the assumption that if 100,000 people were to drink two liters a day for 70 years, we wouldn't expect more than one of them to experience an adverse health impact. If the EPA would come out with more advice tomorrow, we'd be very interested." For PFOA, the department's limit is seven parts per billion; for PFOS, one part per billion. In communities where the PFC levels have exceeded those thresholds—in Oakdale, near the site of a former 3M dump; and Lake Elmo, where 3M also disposed of PFC-laden wastes—residents have been given carbon filtration systems or supplied with bottled water.

Is Kelly wrong about the potential hazards of PFC exposure? With so much of the basic research yet to be completed, it's hard to know. But in Fardin Oliaei's view, the Department of Health standards fail to account for the most vulnerable routes of exposure—mother to child. And, she adds, drinking water is hardly the only medium of exposure. Given the global dispersal of PFCs, it is evident that the compounds are moving not just through water, but through the air, the soil, and the food chain. How they are moving—and how they are affecting the living things with which they come into contact—remains a source of considerable mystery.

W   ITH HER ATHLETIC BUILD, stylish short-cropped hair, and upright bearing, Oliaei looks younger than her 51 years. A native of Tehran, she speaks with a heavy accent. Occasionally, you can almost see her translating in her head as she reaches for an appropriate idiom. The language hurdle aside, she can be disarmingly frank, especially when discussing someone she disrespects. She bitterly describes one former colleague as "a beast, the most corrupted person at the agency." She is no less blunt in her critique of the MPCA, where she spent the bulk of her career. "You know where the money in this agency goes?" she asks. "Making second-class citizens of staff and scientists."

Oliaei grew up in a family where educational accomplishment was highly prized. Her late father, Aliakbar, owned a profitable construction business. A self-taught man, Aliakbar had a special enthusiasm for orchids and exotic plants. He also had a philanthropic streak and told Fardin that he dreamed of building a hospital for the poor where all seven of his children could practice medicine. Aliakbar did contribute to construction of a hospital in northern Iran, Oliaei says, but neither she nor her six siblings ever worked there. All of Aliakbar's offspring did go on to distinguish themselves in various academic pursuits, however, ranging from law to neurosurgery to engineering. Oliaei obtained a bachelor's degree in chemistry at National University in Tehran in the mid-1970s, just before the Iranian revolution. After that, she moved to the U.S., where she enrolled at Western Michigan University and earned a master's in biology.

For her Ph.D. in environmental sciences, Oliaei wanted to attend a more prestigious school than Western Michigan—maybe the University of Michigan or Michigan State. But by that time, the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy had created a much less hospitable climate for Iranian students. Some schools, she remembers, refused to accept her application. "I wanted to go back home, use my degree to do something," Oliaei says. "My father called me and said, 'You haven't been here since the revolution. Iran is not the place for a woman right now. Stay there and continue your Ph.D.'" So Oliaei remained at Western Michigan and completed her doctorate.

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