Center for Effective Government, By Amanda Starbuck | May 7th, 2015
In 1938, a DuPont chemist accidently created a chemical compound that would make thousands of products water- and stain-resistant. The compound belongs to a family of chemicals known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). PFCs soon made their way into nonstick cookware, carpeting, food packaging, and a host of other products.
But one of these chemicals (C8) turned out to be anything but the “miracle” chemical that DuPont claimed. A new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals how DuPont covered up the health risks from C8 for decades – and how the company is reneging on promises it made to victims of C8 exposure.
DuPont has known about the negative health effects of C8 for more than 50 years.
Internal research conducted by DuPont revealed that C8 has no safe level of exposure in animals. Subsequent studies demonstrated that PFCs accumulate in the body and are passed from mothers to their babies. Scientists also found cancer clusters among workers at C8 manufacturing plants and birth defects in children born to female employees
DuPont also monitored drinking water sources near its West Virginia manufacturing plant. In 1984, the company detected C8 contamination resulting from decades of waste disposal in landfills, unlined pits, and waterways.
But rather than warning workers and the public about these risks – and alerting federal regulators, as required by law – DuPont hid these damning findings and continued to manufacture C8.
It took the mysterious die-off of cattle near the West Virginia plant for local residents to become suspicious. In 1998, local ranchers sued DuPont, and their lawyer Robert Bilott uncovered DuPont’s secret water tests through a court order; this provided the evidence of the C8 water contamination the victims needed. Bilott helped the ranchers settle out of court and then went on to lead a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 50,000 local residents.
DuPont settled the class-action lawsuit in 2005, paying $70 million dollars in damages up front and agreeing to fund the clean-up of water supplies. DuPont also agreed to fund an independent panel of researchers to examine the health effects of C8 exposure. Victims are able to seek damages for any diseases linked to this exposure, and DuPont will pay up to $235 million to medically monitor nearby residents. (To date, the panel has linked C8 to at least six diseases, including pregnancy-induced hypertension, testicular and kidney cancers, and thyroid disease.)
In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined DuPont $16.5 million dollars for failing to notify the agency about health and environmental risks associated with C8 – the largest civil penalty EPA has obtained to date.
That same year, bowing to agency and public pressure, DuPont announced it would “voluntarily” phase-out production of C8 by 2015.
Ten Years Later, Are We Any Safer?
While DuPont and other companies producing C8 are phasing out production this year, they are replacing C8 with other compounds from the same chemical family. And these alternatives also tend to accumulate in our bodies and in the environment. Many are untested and may be as harmful as C8.
Virtually everyone in the U.S. has detectable levels of PFCs in their bodies.
Exposure is not limited to pollution from manufacturing plants; we come into contact with PFCs through everyday products. Most exposure comes from carpeting and carpet cleaning products. Waterproof clothing and food packaging (like microwave popcorn bags) also contain significant levels of PFCs. Nonstick cookware (like pans coated with Teflon) can expose consumers to PFCs, though at comparably smaller amounts than other products.
Over 200 scientists from across the world signed the Madrid Statement, warning of the dangers of PFCs and urging governments and manufacturers to severely limit their use.
In the meantime, DuPont continues to produce harmful PFCs – while fighting to evade its liabilities to victims.
The 2005 settlement requires DuPont to fund clean-ups of public water supplies with more than 0.05 parts per billion of C8 (equal to a drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools). EWG reports that one community’s water supply originally tested at a slightly lower amount. Although it later tested above the threshold, DuPont refused to fund the clean-up. A court ruled in DuPont’s favor.
DuPont may have an even slyer move planned: in July of this year, the company will spin off the unit that created C8 and now creates its replacement chemicals. “Chemours” will assume all of DuPont’s C8 liabilities. Chemours could sink under these liabilities (the original unit’s sales are in decline) and go bankrupt. This could potentially deplete clean-up funds, medical monitoring, and future damage payments made to victims of C8 exposure. EWG notes that other companies have made similar moves to avoid liabilities.
DuPont must be held accountable for the health of the people it poisoned for decades.
DuPont is a very profitable company. It can afford to pay the terms of the 2005 settlement and provide clean-up funds for all affected communities. The company should not be allowed to shed its liabilities to its planned spinoff. It is unacceptable that DuPont and other chemical companies knowingly continue to market products with chemicals that their own research shows are severely harmful to workers and consumers.
DuPont’s cover-up of C8 risks, and its continued use of other PFCs, demonstrates that companies cannot be allowed to self-regulate.
Unfortunately, our federal government does a poor job of keeping toxins out of our products. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act gives EPA the authority to regulate the over 84,000 chemicals registered for commercial use. But in almost 40 years, EPA has tested only about 250 chemicals and restricted the use of only nine – largely because of extreme industry opposition when EPA tries to regulate chemicals.
Congress is working to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. But current bills offer only moderate process improvements and will prevent states from taking actions to protect their residents against toxic chemicals.
If you want chemical safety laws that will improve EPA’s ability to identify harmful chemicals and remove them from the market, sign our action alert. Urge your senators to oppose reform that caters to the chemical industry.
You can learn more about C8 contamination from Keep Your Promises, an advocacy organization based in the communities affected by DuPont’s poisonous chemicals.