Nearly two decades ago, Carla Bartlett was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Treatment resulted in surgery to remove a tumor along with part of her rib. Bartlett described the experience as being cut “virtually in half” to an Ohio federal jury last fall. Her case is the first of more then 3,500 personal injury and wrongful death suits against the chemical giant DuPont. The jury ruled that a chemical used by DuPont to produce Teflon contaminated local drinking water and led to Bartlett’s development of kidney cancer.
The chemical in question? Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8 – it’s used as a surfactant to smooth Teflon coatings. C8 is an extremely stable chemical, which means it does not biodegrade. Instead, C8 accumulates in the blood with each exposure to contaminated air or drinking water. It’s used in the production of everything from fast food wrappers to waterproof clothing and, as a result, 98% of Americans have trace amounts of C8 in their blood. It’s also been found in the blood of birds and other wildlife worldwide and is expected to stay in the environment for thousands of years.
Litigation has revealed that DuPont scientists and senior staff members knew about C8’s potential dangers for years. After sifting through internal documents released as part of Bartlett’s suit, her lawyers explained:
Concerns about the potential toxicity of C8 had been raised internally within DuPont by at least 1954, leading DuPont’s own researchers to conclude by at least 1961 that C8 was toxic.
In the minutes from a corporate meeting held in the 1980’s, DuPont executives were clearly aware that C8 waste had leeched into local drinking water. Though the executives present were concerned that discovery of this contamination might affect the company’s image, they concluded that current methods to curb pollution were not “economically attractive.”
By 2003, an independent study found that DuPont had released more than 2.5 million pounds of C8 into the environment. The most egregious contamination occurred before the 1970’s ahead of US environment laws, when DuPont was still burying C8 waste along river banks and dropping barrels into the open ocean. More recently, DuPont has been dumping C8 waste in landfills labeled ‘non hazardous’. These landfills are not equipped to prevent hazardous chemicals like C8 from leeching into the surrounding environment.
One such ‘non hazardous’ landfill sat adjacent to a West Virgina cattle ranch owned by Wilbur Tennant. Tennant noticed that a creek running from the landfill into his pasture had turned black and rancid. After losing hundreds of cattle to unexplained illnesses, Tennant preformed his own autopsy, and found that the cow’s internal organs had turned neon green. Tennant sued DuPont for damages and settled out of court in 2001.
Sadly, Tennant died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 67, but his lawsuit is responsible for identifying C8, the discovery that helped win Bartlett’s case against DuPont. And that may be the scariest revelation from this scandal – that shockingly little public information is available about the potential hazards of industrial chemicals.
No one but DuPont knew anything about C8 until it was uncovered by Tennant’s lawyers – no one at the EPA or the CDC – no one. The cover up was facilitated by lax regulation of chemical compounds in the US. The primary law regulating chemical use is the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 drafted in part, laughably, by DuPont. One of the biggest criticisms of this law is that it doesn’t require any tests to determine environmental or health impacts of new or widely-used chemicals. Additionally, TSCA allows companies to conceal information, including the identity of a chemical, as a trade secret. This loophole allowed DuPont to keep any information about C8 out of the public eye, including when it was used and its environmental and health hazards.
Carla Bartlett’s victory signals the remaining suits against DuPont should be successful, but it raises concerns about the current state of chemical regulation in America. With roughly 2,000 new chemicals developed each year, we can’t wait for pollution and disease rates to spike again before identifying the next C8.