Poisoned Legacy

Ten Years Later, Chemical Safety and Justice for DuPont’s Teflon Victims Remain Elusive

May 1, 2015

Poisoned Legacy: Executive Summary

In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined chemical giant DuPont $16.5 million over its decades-long cover-up of the health hazards of a substance known as C8. One of a family of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs[1], C8 was a key ingredient in making Teflon, the non-stick, waterproof, stain-resistant “miracle of modern chemistry” used in thousands of household products.

Internal documents revealed DuPont had long known that C8, also known as PFOA, caused cancer, had poisoned drinking water in the mid-Ohio River Valley and polluted the blood of people and animals worldwide. But the company never told its workers, local officials and residents, state regulators or the EPA. After the truth came out, research by federal officials and public interest groups, including EWG, found that the blood of almost all Americans was contaminated with PFCs, which passed readily from mothers to unborn babies in the womb. In 2006 the EPA confirmed that PFOA is a likely human carcinogen.

The 2005 fine against DuPont remains the largest ever levied by the EPA. DuPont did not admit guilt but promised to phase out production and use of C8/PFOA by this year – 2015. Also in 2005, DuPont entered into a settlement valued at well over $300 million in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of approximately 70,000 people living near its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, W. Va., where it had long made and used C8 and dumped the waste in waterways and landfills. Under the terms of the settlement, DuPont promised to clean up water supplies, fund a panel of scientists to determine what diseases C8 caused and pay to monitor the health of affected residents for the rest of their lives.

The 2005 fine, settlement and phase-out were widely hailed as a public health victory and justice for the victims. But 10 years later, a new EWG investigation shows that it remains uncertain whether Americans are safe from the threat of PFCs and whether justice will be done for the victims. 

Production, use and importation of PFOA has ended in the United States, but in its place DuPont and other companies are using similar compounds that may not be much – if at all – safer. These next-generation PFCs are used in greaseproof food wrappers, waterproof clothing and other products. Few have been tested for safety, and the names, composition and health effects of most are hidden as trade secrets. With the new PFCs’ potential for harm, continued global production, the chemicals’ persistence in the environment and presence in drinking water in at least 29 states, we’re a long way from the day when PFCs will be no cause for concern.

In a just-published paper, 14 international scientists have sounded the alarm, calling for tighter controls on all PFCs lest the tragic history of C8 repeat itself. Writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, they likened the new PFCs (which they refer to as PFASs[2]) to the chemicals that replaced another group of fluorine-based substances found in the 1980s to be depleting Earth’s protective ozone layer. Although those chemicals were banned worldwide under a 1987 treaty, the scientists wrote, the alternatives are also harmful:

Global action through the Montreal Protocol successfully reduced the use of the highly persistent ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), thus allowing for the recovery of the ozone layer. However, many of the organofluorine replacements for CFCs are still of concern due to their high global warming potential. It is essential to learn from such past efforts and take measures at the international level to reduce the use of PFASs in products and prevent their replacement with fluorinated alternatives in order to avoid long-term harm to human health and the environment. (Blum et al 2014)

Even as the threat from the new generation of PFCs grows, DuPont is trying to skirt the consequences of its toxic irresponsibility.

  • The company has ducked a commitment to treat the water supply in Parkersburg, the largest affected water system in the mid-Ohio Valley, on the grounds that levels of C8 in the water were originally lower – by a tiny amount – than the 2005 settlement’s cleanup threshold. More recent tests found the chemical at levels above the threshold. (Jeffersonian 2006) DuPont has also fought the cleanup claims of another water district across the river in Little Hocking, Ohio. (U.S. District Court 2015a)
  • DuPont forced out a trusted local health services company that was initially hired to run the medical monitoring program in West Virginia and Ohio, replacing it with a New York law firm notorious for helping corporate polluters lowball their liability payouts. Invoices released by a local citizens’ group show the firm was paid $9 million through January 2015 but has paid out only about $50,000 to residents. (Saulton 2015)
  • In July 2015, DuPont will spin off its Specialty Chemicals unit, which made C8/PFOA and now makes the replacement chemicals for Teflon and other products, to a new corporation called Chemours. Securities and Exchange Commission filings indicate that this may transfer DuPont’s legal liability for damage from C8 to Chemours. This could shield DuPont from full liability and allow the smaller company to claim that it has insufficient assets to pay compensation for the damage done in the mid-Ohio Valley and other places where C8 was made or used. (U.S. District Court 2015b)
  • In September 2015, a trial is scheduled in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, consolidating personal injury claims against DuPont by more than 2,500 residents of the mid-Ohio Valley. In pre-trial maneuvering, DuPont tried to renege on a key promise it made in the 2005 settlement: that in the case of any resident who drank contaminated water and sued over a disease the science panel determined has a probable link to C8 exposure, DuPont would concede that C8 could cause the disease in that group of people. The trial judge ruled against DuPont, but the gambit showed that the company is still seeking to shortchange its victims. (U.S. District Court 2014)

Even as DuPont maneuvers to minimize its responsibility for letting a known hazardous compound contaminate the homes, water and bodies of all Americans, the public remains vulnerable to future disasters because of the gaping holes in the nation’s chemical safety net.

Under the broken 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, EPA has managed to limit or ban only five dangerous chemicals over nearly 40 years. (GAO 2013) The lack of teeth in the law allowed DuPont to phase out C8 over 10 years while the company continued to reap profits and prevented EPA from punishing DuPont more severely. Meanwhile the law has allowed DuPont and other companies to rush next-generation PFCs to market without first proving they’re safe.

Now the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of the chemical industry, and its allies in Congress are pushing a sham “reform” bill to replace the Toxic Substances Control Act. The industry-friendly “reforms” in the legislation drafted by the trade group (McCumber 2015) would continue to hobble EPA’s ability to protect the public from untested and unsafe chemicals and prevent states from taking more protective action on their own.

None of this is acceptable. DuPont must be held to its promises to clean up the mid-Ohio Valley and compensate those who were harmed. The EPA and governments worldwide must act swiftly to thoroughly assess and control the hazards of next-generation PFCs. Most importantly, Congress must learn from the tragedy of C8 and enact an effective chemical safety law that protects public health, not the industry’s profits.

[1] Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. Among scientists this more precise term and acronym are commonly used, but this report will use ‘PFCs,” as the chemicals have been known for most of their history. 

[2] The term PFCs refers to both per- and polyfluorinated chemicals in which all or many of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced by fluorine. In the environment, polyfluorinated chemicals can break down to perfluorinated chemicals.