March 4th, 2016

The poisons used to make Teflon are.

I have a personal connection with this story. My youngest brother and his family lived downriver from the DuPont’s Washington Bottom plant on the Ohio River south of Parkersburg, West Virginia. (They’ve since moved up river to our hometown of Marietta, Ohio.) Teflon appears in our lives in many guises spanning plumbing tape to frying pans. The chemical may be more ubiquitous than the company—the name escapes me in this moment—that mounted the annoying advertising campaign in the ’80s that told Americans that a corporation they had never heard about before was touching nearly every aspect of their lives. Since Teflon doesn’t present a direct risk to end users we can too easily dismiss the threat to those who live and work near the production site.

Doing so is wrong.

Sharon Lerner, writing in A Chemical Shell Game: How DuPont Concealed the Dangers of the New Teflon Toxin for The Intercept tells us:

Fayetteville Works, as the sprawling site is called, previously manufactured C8, a chemical that DuPont used for more than 50 years to make Teflon and other products. After a massive class-action lawsuit revealed evidence of C8’s links to cancer and other diseases, DuPont agreed in a deal with the EPA to phase out its use of the chemical. But [Environmental Protection Agency scientists Andrew] Strynar and [Mark] Lindstrom were among many scientists who feared that DuPont and the other companies that used C8 might have swapped it out for similar compounds with similar problems. To see if they were right—and whether any of these replacements might have ended up in the river—they took water samples from the Cape Fear, some upstream the plant, others from points below its outflow.

Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly known as PFOA or C8, is a “perfluorinated” chemical, which means that its base includes carbon chains attached to fluorine atoms. Because the fluorine-carbon bond is one of the strongest in chemistry, these compounds are incredibly stable, which makes them useful in industry. But that stability also makes them endure in the environment. Indeed, C8, which has recently been detected in upstate New York, in Vermont, and in Michigan’s Flint River, among other places, is expected to remain on the earth long after humans are extinct. And evidence suggests that many of its replacements are just as persistent.

The potential permanence of the problem was only one reason the EPA team was mucking around on the banks of the Cape Fear River. There were short-term dangers, too. Strynar and Lindstrom knew well that the Cape Fear is a source of drinking water and that if perfluorinated chemicals—known as PFCs — had contaminated the river, they would soon make their way into human bodies. Strynar had spent eight years documenting the presence of these molecules in fish, food, air, house dust, and humans. Lindstrom, an expert on measuring PFCs in the environment who has worked for the EPA for more than two decades, had also been documenting the steady proliferation of the chemicals. Both knew that the potential for contamination around the plant was great, because C8 had spread into the water around many of the facilities that made and used it, including plants in West Virginia, Minnesota, New Jersey, Alabama, Germany, and Japan. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, 99.7 percent of Americans already had C8 in their blood.

This is a longish read (I’m still taking the whole story in) but vital, in the strictest sense of the word, to us all.

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