Deceptive and manipulative public relations strategies are the standard approach of the chemical industry. People may believe chemical companies would strive to create chemicals that are as harmless as possible, and to provide strict safety instructions for use when they're not, but history has shown that this isn't the case.
Instead, the industry promotes chemicals as harmless even when they are well aware of the risks.
What's worse, companies have been repeatedly found to have lied to federal and local regulators, consumers, and even their own employees about the toxicity of various chemicals.
They have also willfully ignored pollution problems caused by their activities. A classic example of this is the recent article I posted on the use of lead by the gasoline industry, which dumped millions of tons of lead into the environment over 80 years.
'Epic' Legal Battle Against DuPont Sheds Light on Deceptive Practices
DuPont is one such company, which has recently seen a slew of negative press following the filing of thousands of personal injury claims in what The Intercept1calls "an epic legal battle" against the company — a battle that has been waged for the last 15 years, with little media coverage.
According to The Intercept:
"Concerns about the safety of Teflon, C8, and other long-chain perfluorinated chemicals first came to wide public attention more than a decade ago, but the story of DuPont's long involvement with C8 has never been fully told...
[A] long trail of documents has emerged that casts new light on C8, DuPont, and the fitful attempts of the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with a threat to public health.
This story is based on many of those documents, which until they were entered into evidence for these trials had been hidden away in DuPont's files.
Among them are write-ups of experiments on rats, dogs, and rabbits showing that C8 was associated with a wide range of health problems that sometimes killed the lab animals."
DuPont's Toxic Legacy: PFOAs
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, also known as C8), was an essential ingredient in DuPont's non-stick cookware for decades.
The chemical is also used in hundreds of other non-stick and stain-resistant products, from microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers to waterproof clothing and soil-repellant carpet and furniture treatments.
It's also found in flame retardant chemicals, and hence items treated with flame retardants, which run the gamut from children's items to furniture and electronics.
PFOA is a fluorinated chemical — it's the fluorine atoms that provide that hallmark slipperiness. I first became aware of the dangers of fluoride-impregnated non-stick coatings back in 2001, and have warned about using such products ever since.
According to the CDC's "Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,"2 published in 2009, 12 different perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) were detected in Americans, including PFOA.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR):3
"Once in your body, perfluoroalkyls tend to remain unchanged for long periods of time. The most commonly used perfluoroalkyls (PFOA and PFOS) stay in the body for many years. It takes approximately four years for the level in the body to go down by half, even if no more is taken in."
While there's a dizzying array of chemical names in this group of chemicals, if an item is either non-stick, waterproof, or stain-resistant, it has some type of fluoride-impregnated coating that provides the slipperiness, and you can assume it can be problematic.
Internal Documents Suggest DuPont Hid Harms of PFOA
PFOA is now the subject of about 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, including 37 claims for wrongful death.
This legal process has uncovered hundreds of internal documents revealing that DuPont knew of the chemical's danger to the public and employees, probably as early as 1961, yet continued using it without warning of its risks.
In fact, 10 years ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards associated with PFOA. At the time, that fine was the largest the EPA had ever assessed, but it was still too small to act as a deterrent.
As noted in a report4 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) titled "Poisoned Legacy:"
"DuPont had long known that PFOA caused cancer, had poisoned drinking water in the mid-Ohio River Valley, and polluted the blood of people and animals worldwide. But it never told its workers, local officials and residents, state regulators, or the EPA."
In 2005, a panel of three scientists was convened as part of a settlement to determine the chemical's effects on people. After seven years of research, the results of which are detailed in more than three dozen peer-reviewed papers,5the C8 Science Panel linked PFOA to:
Its health effects were deemed to be widespread and occurred even at very low exposure levels. According to The Intercept, DuPont was aware of many of these risks, yet kept its knowledge secret — even from its own workers, who came into direct and prolonged contact with the chemical.
Confidential documents from 1980 show the company knew the lethal oral dose of C8 in rhesus monkeys was one ounce per 150 pounds. Tests had also demonstrated that the chemical was most toxic when inhaled, yet the risk to workers was deemed inconclusive.
"Another revelation about C8 makes all of this more disturbing and gives the upcoming trials… global significance: This deadly chemical that DuPont continued to use well after it knew it was linked to health problems is now practically everywhere.
A man-made compound that didn't exist a century ago, C8 is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans, according to a 2007 analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood.
A growing group of scientists have been tracking the chemical's spread through the environment, documenting its presence in a wide range of wildlife, including Loggerhead sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, harbor seals, polar bears, caribou, walruses, bald eagles, lions, tigers, and arctic birds.
Although DuPont no longer uses C8, fully removing the chemical from all the bodies of water and bloodstreams it pollutes is now impossible. And, because it is so chemically stable — in fact, as far as scientists can determine, it never breaks down — C8 is expected to remain on the planet well after humans are gone from it."
According to the article, if DuPont and the seven other chemical companies (including 3M) responsible for the global C8/PFOA pollution were actually forced to clean up their mess, the costs would be "astronomical."
PFOA Dubbed the 'Tobacco of the Chemical Industry'
Like tobacco, C8 litigation may forever change how people view these chemicals. In fact, PFOA is now being called the "tobacco of the chemical industry" because of the decades-long corporate cover-up of its health effects, the lawsuits pending, and how difficult it is to make companies accountable for producing disease-causing products, even after the evidence is clear.
In DuPont's case, they had animal evidence of harm – from liver toxicity and kidney damage to death – for decades, but the company did not alert regulators of a potential problem.
Then there were the company's workers, some of whom gave birth to babies with birth defects after working in the company's PFOA division. DuPont knew of the problems and was tracking its workers for such health effects, but again did not inform regulators of their findings. Worse still, when 3M submitted a troublesome rat study to the EPA suggesting harm, DuPont downplayed the findings and told the EPA they believed the study was flawed.
Knowing the Risks, DuPont Did Nothing to Curb Aerial Emissions
Sensitive viewers beware; this video contains graphic imagery of sick and dead animals.
While continuing to study the chemical's effects on its workers, DuPont was also tracking the chemical's spread into nearby waterways, as well as its emissions into the air through smokestacks. They knew the chemical was spreading widely into the environment and convened a meeting to discuss the issue, yet nothing much came out of it. According to The Intercept:7
"… [F]rom that point on, DuPont increased its use and emissions of the chemical… the plant put an estimated 19,000 pounds of C8 into the air in 1984, the year of the meeting. By 1999, the peak of its air emissions, the West Virginia plant put some 87,000 pounds of C8 into local air and water. That same year, the company emitted more than 25,000 pounds of the chemical into the air and water around its New Jersey plant...
Essentially, DuPont decided to double-down on C8, betting that somewhere down the line the company would somehow be able to 'eliminate all C8 emissions in a way yet to be developed that would not economically penalize the business'…
The executives, while conscious of probable future liability, did not act with great urgency about the potential legal predicament they faced. If they did decide to reduce emissions or stop using the chemical altogether, they still couldn't undo the years of damage already done. As the meeting summary noted, 'We are already liable for the past 32 years of operation.'"
DuPont Found Liable for Ohio Cancer Case
Since the mid-1960s, Teflon waste has been routinely disposed of in landfills. In the past, DuPont also got rid of the hazardous chemical by dumping barrels of it out at sea — which was actually legal at the time — and some 200 drums of the C8 were also dumped near the plant on the bank of the Ohio River. The latter is what resulted in some 3,500 lawsuits being filed against DuPont.
The first case to reach trial was that of an Ohio woman named Carla Bartlett, who claimed C8-contaminated tap water caused her to develop kidney cancer.8 The case went to trial in September. As reported by Bloomberg:9
"DuPont told their employees to wear gas masks and gloves while working with C-8, but 'no one tells Ms. Bartlett to wear gloves and a gas mask before she takes a shower,' Mike Papantonio, a lawyer for Bartlett, said to a jury and a packed Columbus, Ohio, courtroom in opening arguments... Damages would be borne by Chemours, the company spun off July 1 that continues the Teflon business and which had agreed to take on many of DuPont's legal obligations. Based on past settlements for personal injuries and wrongful deaths, that exposure could be about $498 million... Anything over $500 million might push Chemours into bankruptcy..."
On October 7, 2015 DuPont/Chemours was found liable for negligence in this case.10 After less than one day of deliberations, the jury awarded Bartlett a total of $1.6 million in damages: $1.1 million for negligence, and another $500,000 for emotional distress. The verdict is a sign of what's in store for DuPont as the remaining 3,500 pending cases move forward. As reported by The Intercept:11
"The presentation of historical documents was designed to convince the jury that the company acted irresponsibly... Bartlett's lawyers laid out a clear timeline that began in the 1950s, when DuPont first learned of the chemical's potential toxicity. By 1966, some DuPont employees realized that C8 was seeping into groundwater. By 1980, after the company instituted regular testing of its own employees, DuPont had evidence that C8 was present in workers' blood — and within two more years there was evidence that the contamination persisted in human tissues.
By 1984, according to testimony, DuPont's own testing had established that C8 had leaked into local drinking water. In 1989, DuPont knew that C8 caused testicular tumors in rats — and even classified C8 as a possible carcinogen. But rather than reporting these developments, Mike Papantonio told the jury, 'They hid this information from the public for at least 16 years.'"
PFOA Dangerous at Levels 1,300 Times Lower Than Recognized By EPA
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released a Teflon report12 suggesting that PFOA in drinking water may pose a significant threat not just in Ohio, but in many other areas as well. At least six million Americans across 27 states may be exposed to potentially dangerous levels of PFOA in the environment. The EWG also highlights recent research showing that PFOA is dangerous at levels 1,300 times lower than previously recognized by the EPA. According to the report:
"... [T]wo leading environmental health scientists have published research with alarming implications: PFOA contamination of drinking water is a much more serious threat to health, both in the mid-Ohio Valley and nationwide, than previously thought. Their research finds that even very tiny concentrations of PFOA – below the reporting limit required by EPA's
tests of public water supplies – are harmful. This means that EPA's health advisory level is hundreds or thousands of times too weak to fully protect human health with an adequate margin of safety."
Four Workers Die at DuPont Chemical Plant see original article
A fatal accident at a DuPont insecticide plant in Texas that claimed the lives of four employees is also raising important safety questions. As reported by Chemical and Engineering News13 on October 5, the Chemical Safety Board is calling for "an inherently safer design review for its processes using toxic chemicals." According to the report:
"A cascade of process errors and inadequate safeguards led to the deaths of four workers at a DuPont insecticide plant in La Porte, Texas, says an interim accident report by the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). The board released that report and a related safety video on Sept. 30. 'DuPont has long been regarded as a safety leader in the chemical industry,' CSB Chair Vanessa Allen Sutherland says, 'but this investigation has uncovered weaknesses or failures in DuPont's safety planning and procedures.'"
When Science Is No Longer a Marker of Truth…
The DuPont story that is now coming out is a fascinating, albeit disturbing, one. In the video above, Sharon Lerner, who wrote the three-part exposé in The Intercept,14 discusses the case at length. On a side note, DuPont's toxic legacy also includes leaded gasoline, a product that did tremendous harm to both human health and the environment for nearly 80 years before lead was finally removed from automotive fuel...
At the end of the day, this case is a stern reminder that science is NOT routinely used to help us make good, solid decisions. Instead, we're facing a world rife with problems caused by the very sciences that were supposed to keep us healthy, safe, and productive. In a sense, the fundamental role of science itself has been hijacked for selfish gain.
A retroactive perspective makes it crystal clear that the industry first creates its business objectives with little concern to health dangers, followed by the creation of "scientific evidence" that supports their established business model. When the science doesn't support the company's economic plans, it's swept under the rug, even if people are dying and the planet is becoming irreparably poisoned as a result.
Today we live in a world where chemical companies and biotech giants can easily buy and pay for their own research studies, as well as the lobbying to support whatever legislation they need passed in their favor. Conflicts of interest have become the norm within virtually all fields of science, which creates a completely unworkable – and dangerous – situation in the long run.
It's quite clear that we're heading toward more than one proverbial brick wall unless some dramatic changes are made. At present, tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals are used in the US, and most of them have not been tested for safety. This simply must change.