The PFAS and the Furious
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2020
Reading time: 17 minutes
- But for the courageous work of attorney Rob Bilott, the world may have never known about the dangers of the fluorinated “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. Bilott’s book "EXPOSURE: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont" was recently issued in paperback.
- This essay is a deep dive into one of the most sinister corporate crimes in history, the toxic threat it poses today and what it means for the future of environmental and public health policy.
- Exposure begins with Bilott’s investigation of a polluted farm in West Virginia but ultimately uncovers a global environmental catastrophe. As public awareness has grown of the contamination and corporate coverup he exposed, so has public outrage that companies and politicians can no longer ignore.
Tennant Farm, December 1999, from DuPont Cattle Team Report
Rob Bilott’s Exposure is a real-life whodunit, a page-turning courtroom drama, a David-and-Goliath story of one man against an industrial colossus and a shocking exposé of America’s utterly broken environmental policy. You should also take this book personally – because the “exposure” of the title is yours.
You have a highly toxic industrial chemical in your blood that will circulate in your body for years. So does everyone you know and love. And there’s almost nothing you can do about it.
Seven years of independent scientific research, undertaken only because it was ordered by a federal judge, link this chemical in people to testicular and kidney cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol. The research included the largest epidemiological study ever of a toxic chemical.
Its findings were so damning that the court ordered the chemical’s manufacturer, DuPont, to pay for lifetime medical monitoring of 69,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio. These folks, including many loyal DuPont workers and their families, must spend the rest of their lives wondering if they will get sick from a chemical discovered in a DuPont lab accident.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99 percent of Americans have been contaminated with this chemical. It’s called PFOA – C8 as it was known inside DuPont – and for decades was used to make Teflon. Its close chemical cousin is PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, which is also found in almost all Americans. Your blood also almost certainly carries other chemicals in the notorious family of thousands of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, or PFAS.
Beginning in the early 2000s, 3M and DuPont were pressured by public outrage and federal authorities to stop PFAS pollution from their factories. Under threat of regulation, 3M “voluntarily” stopped making PFOS in 2003, and after cutting a deal with the Environmental Protection Agency, DuPont phased out production of PFOA by 2015. As a result, the levels of these “legacy” PFAS in Americans’ blood have dropped since 2002 – but they’re still there. And the level scientific and regulatory authorities consider safe has dropped even more.
The banned legacy chemicals have been replaced with other PFAS that appear to be just as toxic. We know much less about their contamination of people and the environment, or the harm they may cause. But with disturbing regularity, scientists discover other potential health effects of PFAS exposure.
To date: two additional cancers (liver and pancreatic), weakened childhood immunity, reduced vaccine effectiveness, low birth weight, endocrine disruption, elevated risk of autoimmune diseases and added weight gain in children (and in dieting adults). In women, PFAS appear to target the ovary. A review by scientists from my organization and Indiana University found that 26 individual PFAS display at least one key characteristic of known human carcinogens.
After decades of study, researchers have identified the most likely origins of your PFAS exposure: a complex interaction of social and biological phenomena called living in the modern world.
You have worn clothes that keep you dry, sat on furniture that sheds water and stains and set foot on carpet resistant to spills. You have been in a car or an airplane. You’ve cleaned or painted your house or polished something in it. You’ve found yourself in proximity to a television, a computer, a projector, a cell phone or other electronic device. You used hairspray or sunscreen or makeup. You waxed your skis. You watched with satisfaction as a cooked egg slid off a nonstick frying pan. PFAS slide off state and federal environmental laws and regulations with equal ease.
PFAS is in grease-proof food wrappings at the grocery and at fast food joints. People who eat a lot of popcorn from microwaved bags, especially women, have elevated levels of PFAS in their blood. Food exposure to PFAS remains a puzzle: Test results published to date, by the Food and Drug Administration, for instance, do not find much PFAS contamination of food. Even so, manufacturers have phased out some PFAS in food packaging – again, ”voluntarily,” after the FDA raised safety questions.
Speaking of eating, are you pretty good about flossing?
If you’re a firefighter, for decades, you’ve almost certainly pulled on ready gear permeated with PFAS, and you’ve definitely sprayed foam loaded with the stuff on fuel fires, real or practice. It got on your skin, in your lungs, and ran off into groundwater and surface waters nearby.
A generation ago, the notion of “global contaminants” was first applied to infamous compounds like DDT and PCBs. But unlike those chemicals, the rates at which PFAS break down in nature are better measured in geological than in human time frames. PFAS spread throughout the environment. Toxic PFAS chemicals now permeate the natural world as improvidently as they pollute our blood and economy.
They are found in edible fish from South Carolina and Ireland, killer whales and polar bears in Greenland, Great Bay shellfish, deer in Michigan, ducks in Australia, zooplankton in Italian lakes, shrimp in Holland and birds the world over. Adding to their image problems, eels seem to soak up these chemicals wherever they squirm, but charismatic fauna are hardly spared. They defile seal pups and penguins in the Antarctic. Scientists found PFAS in flamingos on the salt pans of Bonaire.
Are you a dog person? Cat person? It doesn’t really matter if your pet is anything like the ones that poop around Albany, N.Y. They have PFAS in them and lots of it, “at doses above the provisional minimum risk level recommended for humans.”
PFAS drift in the Arctic atmosphere. They showed up in 20 air samples collected during a crossing of the North Atlantic and Canadian Archipelago. PFAS waft in the breeze across Northwest Europe. When the German research vessel Polarstern cruised the Atlantic from Bremerhaven to Capetown, South Africa, scientists found PFAS in air samples grabbed throughout the voyage. PFAS showed up in the air in Finland. The air came from 57 children’s bedrooms, and 98 percent of samples had PFAS.
It rains PFAS in Japan, China, France and 18 U.S. states. PFAS is found in snow in the Arctic and in Western China. Scientists recently reported 11 types of PFAS, some for the first time, in seawater. They collected the samples from an Arctic icebreaker.
In Australia, PFAS contaminates rivers in the state of Victoria and their estuaries. Scientists in Brazil found PFAS in soil, leaves, coastal water and sediment and in every river water sample tested. PFAS were ubiquitous in surface water, groundwater and sediment in French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Réunion. Earlier this year, researchers reported PFAS contamination throughout the food web of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River in North and South Carolina – in water, bacteria, fungi, algae, biofilm, plants, insects, crayfish, mollusks and sport fish. The higher up the food chain, the greater the PFAS concentrations.
Given their pervasiveness, you may think PFAS exposure requires little more than drawing breath. It turns out breathing is not required. PFAS pass from mother to fetus throughout pregnancy. So if you or someone you know or love is expecting a child or grandchild, you can expect they’ll arrive pre-polluted with PFAS.
To the emissions, discharges and dumping of the Teflon and Scotchgard chemicals over decades by DuPont, 3M and other companies, add the PFAS from industrial facilities that made or make or use any of the hundreds of other toxic PFAS chemicals, including GenX, DuPont’s replacement for PFOA.
But if there is one aspect of the PFAS tragedy that has ignited public outrage, it is the widespread contamination of tap water.
In America, our drinking water supplies are contaminated with PFAS to an extent that science is just beginning to grasp. Researchers and regulators have only recently begun to test for the stuff in private and community water supplies. Wherever they look, it seems, they find it.
As test results come in, including tap water tests commissioned by EWG, my colleagues revise the running tabulation of detections found across the country on the PFAS contamination map. Our July 2020 update shows 2,230 contaminated sites in 49 states. We estimate that up to 110 million Americans, a third of our population, drink, cook and bathe with PFAS-contaminated tap water. And every edition of the map is out of date the instant we post it.
EWG scientists recently described the global cleanup challenge DuPont, 3M and other PFAS malefactors have foisted on the world. Simply put, none of our standard “cleanup” techniques promise to contain or destroy PFAS. PFAS “disposal” is really just another step in the contamination cycle.
My colleagues were too respectful of scientific propriety to use the term clusterfuck, but that’s the situation.
Their paper, in the journal Chemosphere, outlines the dismal prospects for managing any of the PFAS waste streams that now confront thousands of communities and hundreds of local governments in the U.S. Landfilled consumer products and other materials leach PFAS into ground and surface waters. Wastewater treatment can actually convert larger PFAS compounds into smaller, persistent, mobile and very toxic PFAS, and increase the measurable PFAS concentrations in the treated outflow. Incineration results in air pollution, even as it blows greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Chemical companies long ago pocketed billions in profits from PFOS and PFOA, but the chemicals persist, even as new versions enter commerce and, eventually, our water and our bodies. Maddeningly, taxpayers around the world, not chemical manufacturers, must pay scientists to scour the biosphere for PFAS molecules, foot the bill for puzzling out the astonishing range of diseases the chemicals may cause, and engineer what might someday be effective and affordable solutions to get PFAS out of our tap water and cleanse PFAS waste streams.
It seems inevitable now that the mind-numbing, globe-spanning dimensions of the PFAS calamity would have come to light. But there was nothing inevitable about it. The avalanche of PFAS facts and science that pop up now in the flash of a Google search might have remained hidden for another decade – maybe longer, plausibly forever.
The public might yet know next to nothing about the PFAS in our blood, our babies, our water, our wildlife or the products we use every day. Scientists might still be wondering why signatures of organic fluorine were peaking on their lab instruments when they scanned human plasma from blood banks, or water and wildlife from a small farm in West Virginia whose irascible owner stubbornly insisted that something coming out of the DuPont landfill adjacent to his property was killing his cattle.
Diseased cattle on Wilbur’s Tennant’s farm, April 1999, from a report by federal regulators.
American regulators and political leaders would still be the clueless dupes of DuPont and 3M, who for 40 or more years kept secret what they knew full well: Their Teflon and Scotchgard chemicals were shockingly toxic and disturbingly capable of forever permeating the planet and its people.
But today, communities across the U.S. and around the world are up in arms. Hundreds of scientists are on the hunt for PFAS and its harms. Politicians in dozens of states have at long last stirred to action. PFAS news – almost all of it bad – breaks daily. And we owe it all to a quirk of fate.
That angry farmer was Earl Tennant, who raised cows on a farm adjacent to a landfill where DuPont dumped waste from its factory in nearby Parkersburg, West Virginia. The cows kept dying, he kept complaining and getting the runaround – until on Oct. 9, 1998, he placed a longshot phone call to someone who finally listened, took him seriously and did something about it.
The man at the other end of the line was a lawyer named Rob Bilott.
DuPont’s Teflon factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia
The courtroom exploits that followed made Bilott the author of nearly all of the jaw-dropping chapters in the sordid saga of PFAS pollution. Now he’s the author of an equally extraordinary book about it. That puts him on the short list of the environmental movement’s most influential heroes of the past 25 years. It makes Exposure the most important behind-the-scenes take to date on American environmental policymaking at the turn of the century.
To read his engrossing account is to understand – 50 years after Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and as the environmental rule of law has settled into middle age – exactly how decisions to protect or not protect our health and environment are really made, who really makes them, and how.
Exposure is not the first book about the PFAS saga. Crusading journalist Callie Lyons, who from the beginning covered the unfolding PFAS crisis and Bilott’s seminal role in it for the Marietta Times of Ohio, in 2007 published Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof, and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8. Lyons is in the company of many bulldog journalists, notably Ken Ward and Michael Hawthorne, who helped break the PFAS story, and others delivering fresh scoops today, like Sharon Lerner at The Intercept and a team of reporters at Bloomberg.
We have not one but two exceptional feature films centered on Bilott’s decades-long legal battle with DuPont: director Stephanie Schoetig’s critically acclaimed 2018 investigative documentary, The Devil We Know (The Chemistry of a Cover-Up), and a riveting Hollywood take with a star-studded cast led by Mark Ruffalo as Bilott: Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes.
All of the above are well worth your attention. But Exposure is without question the definitive account of DuPont’s shockingly unethical handling of PFAS, the most important toxic chemical crisis and coverup in history.
The once-distinguished company, now forever disgraced, was led during the decisive years of the PFAS crisis by an avowed disciple of “sustainability.” We can never know for sure, but it is my firm belief that DuPont would still be poisoning you and your world with PFOA, and lying about it, if Rob Bilott had not pried loose so many secrets through 20 years of fighting in close quarters with a company that refused to tell the truth, and still does.
The most unsettling revelations in Exposure have less to do with the depredations of PFAS than with the broad and deep threats to our health and environment that originate in powerful, predatory companies like DuPont. There is no tale better told that so vividly illuminates the fecklessness of government regulators or the flimsiness of the environmental rule of law, in the face of the deeply funded, boundlessly ambitious and effective anti-regulatory racket global companies operate today under the protection of politicians they so affordably rent.
From almost the beginning, EWG has had a front-row seat for the PFAS story, as Rob graciously acknowledges in the book. Nevertheless, and leaving my personal familiarity with the PFAS drama aside, Exposure has literally reshaped how I think about the next chapters of my career as an environmental advocate. It’s a book that should reshape the thinking of anyone who, by vocation or avocation, calls themselves an environmentalist.
Because at the core of Bilott’s story is the suspicion he eventually came to share with Earl B. Tennant: DuPont knew.
Rob Bilott simply refused to walk away until he knew, on behalf of his clients, and as fully as he could, exactly what DuPont’s managers knew about PFAS and its dangers, and when they knew it. Fortunately for his clients and all the rest of us, DuPont’s employees could neither cause nor cover up the planetary PFAS catastrophe without writing down how they went about it. The resulting archive ran into the hundreds of thousands of pages: confidential memos, secret studies and internal emails that were never meant to be seen outside DuPont.
Rob Bilott read every word.
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