July 6th, 2017

More than a year ago, on 4 March and 9 April, 2016, I began reading Sharon Lerner’s now 12-part series: The Teflon Toxin, for The Intercept. Distracted by first the Democratic primaries, followed by the general election and then the first 166 days of a President Donald John Trump White House, I let Lerner’s deep dive into the muck that is Teflon, slip. I regret that.

As I noted in my first piece, I have a personal connection to Washington Bottom, West Virginia. My father worked there in the Marbon Chemical plant adjacent to the DuPont facility manufacturing Teflon and my step-grandfather worked in the plant. In addition, my youngest brother and his family lived in Little Hocking, Ohio, across the Ohio River from the plant and one of the communities put in harm’s way by DuPont’s Teflon Toxin.

I begin again this morning—allowing a nod to my previous posts, but with fresh eyes—to the story.

In recent months I’ve written a fair amount about fossil fuel pipelines. First, the Dakota Access Pipeline and now, in my backyard, the Rover Pipeline. (You can also find daily updates here.)

One ubiquitous facet of those stories is the false theme of safety repeated over and over by apologists for the construction of such pipelines. They routinely reuse the tired refrain that pipelines are safer than transporting fossil fuels by trains or trucks. Another excuse is that pipeline companies engage in best practices. Both are true and worthless.

Despite what President Donald John Trump says, Climate Change/Global Warming is real and an existential threat to humanity, and no matter what best practices or degree of safety we impose on the extraction of fossil fuels, their use is inherently destructive.

Teflon present much the same problem. While the product may be safe (although there is some evidence that even that is not the case), the manufacture of Teflon is not.

Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly called C8, is the culprit.

Lerner writes:

For years, [former DuPont Lab Analyst Ken Wamsley] measured levels of a chemical called C8 in various products. The chemical “was everywhere,” as Wamsley remembers it, bubbling out of the glass flasks he used to transport it, wafting into a smelly vapor that formed when he heated it. A fine powder, possibly C8, dusted the laboratory drawers and floated in the hazy lab air.

At the time, Wamsley and his coworkers weren’t particularly concerned about the strange stuff. “We never thought about it, never worried about it,” he said recently. He believed it was harmless, “like a soap. Wash your hands [with it], your face, take a bath.”

I recognize that attitude. Workers—concerned first with making a living, raising their families—shrug off the dangers of a the job as did coal miners for centuries; weighing in their minds the threat vs. the need to put food on the table. Years of experience, even in the absence of informed risk, can change that. Lerner continues:

Concerns about the safety of Teflon, C8, and other long-chain perfluorinated chemicals first came to wide public attention more than a decade ago, but the story of DuPont’s long involvement with C8 has never been fully told. Over the past 15 years, as lawyers have been waging an epic legal battle—culminating as the first of approximately 3,500 personal injury claims comes to trial in September—a long trail of documents has emerged that casts new light on C8, DuPont, and the fitful attempts of the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with a threat to public health.

This story is based on many of those documents, which until they were entered into evidence for these trials had been hidden away in DuPont’s files. Among them are write-ups of experiments on rats, dogs, and rabbits showing that C8 was associated with a wide range of health problems that sometimes killed the lab animals. Many thousands of pages of expert testimony and depositions have been prepared by attorneys for the plaintiffs. And through the process of legal discovery they have uncovered hundreds of internal communications revealing that DuPont employees for many years suspected that C8 was harmful and yet continued to use it, putting the company’s workers and the people who lived near its plants at risk.

The best evidence of how C8 affects humans has also come out through the legal battle over the chemical, though in a more public form. As part of a 2005 settlement over contamination around the West Virginia plant where Wamsley worked, lawyers for both DuPont and the plaintiffs approved a team of three scientists, who were charged with determining if and how the chemical affects people.

In 2011 and 2012, after seven years of research, the science panel found that C8 was “more likely than not” linked to ulcerative colitis — Wamsley’s condition — as well as to high cholesterol; pregnancy-induced hypertension; thyroid disease; testicular cancer; and kidney cancer. The scientists’ findings, published in more than three dozen peer-reviewed articles, were striking, because the chemical’s effects were so widespread throughout the body and because even very low exposure levels were associated with health effects.

We know, too, from internal DuPont documents that emerged through the lawsuit, that Wamsley’s fears of being lied to are well-founded. DuPont scientists had closely studied the chemical for decades and through their own research knew about some of the dangers it posed. Yet rather than inform workers, people living near the plant, the general public, or government agencies responsible for regulating chemicals, DuPont repeatedly kept its knowledge secret.

Another revelation about C8 makes all of this more disturbing and gives the upcoming trials, the first of which will be held this fall in Columbus, Ohio, global significance: This deadly chemical that DuPont continued to use well after it knew it was linked to health problems is now practically everywhere.

Even if you never lived near a Teflon plant, owned a Teflon-coated product:

including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes…

C8 is literally in your blood. Lerner writes:

A man-made compound that didn’t exist a century ago, C8 is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans, according to a 2007 analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood. A growing group of scientists have been tracking the chemical’s spread through the environment, documenting its presence in a wide range of wildlife, including Loggerhead sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, harbor seals, polar bears, caribou, walruses, bald eagles, lions, tigers, and arctic birds. Although DuPont no longer uses C8, fully removing the chemical from all the bodies of water and bloodstreams it pollutes is now impossible. And, because it is so chemically stable—in fact, as far as scientists can determine, it never breaks down—C8 is expected to remain on the planet well after humans are gone from it.

C8 is a cockroach chemical.

More tomorrow in Part II of How Poisoned Is My Valley

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