PART IV: HOW POISONED IS MY VALLEY…

July 9th, 2017

170709 dupont timeline teflon toxin

Yesterday I wrote about the liability line connecting Wilbur Tennant’s cows to Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott to Parkersburg elementary school gym teacher Joe Kiger and finally to DuPont employee Bernard Reilly that resulted in a 2004 local settlement between DuPont and effected residents in the poison zone.

In the next installment of her series, The Teflon Toxin, for The Intercept, Sharon Lerner explores: How DuPont Slipped Past The EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency, created by President Richard Milhous Nixon in 1970, has a long history in the Mid-Ohio Valley. William Doyle Ruckelhaus, the first administrator of the EPA, selected the Union Carbide plant on the Ohio River south of Marietta—less than a mile from my home and the source of my budding environmentalism—as the first target for the new agency. I have credited the EPA with the responsibility for turning Washington County Republican because of the jobs lost as plants were forced to stop using the Ohio River as their personal toxic waste dump and to clean up the foul smoke pouring from their smokestacks.

Cleaning up the environment is vital, but we should always remember that real people with real families must also be cared for when corporations chose to move rather than see their profits reduced by regulations and lawsuits.

In the case of the Teflon Toxin, perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA or C8, E. I. du Pont de Nemours hoped to keep concerns under the regulatory and public radar by a combination of misdirection and obfuscation. Lerner writes:

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 [2015, JH]—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.

All in the name of any corporation’s gold standard: increasing shareholder value.

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 [Parkersburg,] West Virginia plant where [Ken] 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.

Those final six words should be chilling to anyone working for, near or even tangentially associated with DuPont or any of the dozens of chemical companies promising some variation of DuPont’s 1935 slogan: better living through chemistry.

The conscious decision to keep internal studies secret begins in 1978. Echoing the words of Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker ( (Lerner describes the budding coverup this way:

In 1978, Bruce Karh, DuPont’s corporate medical director, was outspoken about the company’s duty “to discover and reveal the unvarnished facts about health hazards,” as he wrote in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine at the time. When deposed in 2004, Karrh emphasized that DuPont’s internal health and safety rules often went further than the government’s and that the company’s policy was to comply with either laws or the company’s internal health and safety standards, “whichever was the more strict.” In his 1978 article, Karrh also insisted that a company “should be candid, and lay all the facts on the table. This is the only responsible and ethical way to go.”

Yet DuPont only laid out some of its facts. In 1978, for instance, DuPont alerted workers to the results of a study done by 3M showing that its employees were accumulating C8 in their blood. Later that year, Karrh and his colleagues began reviewing employee medical records and measuring the level of C8 in the blood of the company’s own workers in Parkersburg, as well as at another DuPont plant in Deepwater, New Jersey, where the company had been using C8 and related chemicals since the 1950s. They found that exposed workers at the New Jersey plant had increased rates of endocrine disorders. Another notable pattern was that, like dogs and rats, people employed at the DuPont plants more frequently had abnormal liver function tests after C8 exposure.

DuPont elected not to disclose its findings to regulators. The reasoning, according to Karrh, was that the abnormal test results weren’t proven to be adverse health effects related to C8. When asked about the decision in deposition, Karrh said that “at that point in time, we saw no substantial risk, so therefore we saw no obligation to report.”

Not long after the decision was made not to alert the EPA, in 1981, another study of DuPont workers by a staff epidemiologist declared that liver test data collected in Parkersburg lacked “conclusive evidence of an occupationally related health problem among workers exposed to C-8.” Yet the research might have reasonably led to more testing. An assistant medical director named Vann Brewster suggested that an early draft of the study be edited to state that DuPont should conduct further liver test monitoring. Years later, a proposal for a follow-up study was rejected.

Memos in 1980 (the year I returned to the Mid-Ohio Valley and while my father still worked at the plant next door to DuPont’s Washington Bottom plant) clearly show to me the underlying problem with all chemical manufacturing. in a memo, C.E. Steiner, a DuPont employee according to Lerner, wrote that there was no conclusive evidence that workers were begin harmed by exposure to C8. That is backwards. One of the survival lessons I leaned when I was a Boy Scout that there is a very cautious way to approach eating unknown plants. This several-stop process carefully increased exposure to the plant so that there was ample opportunity for adverse reaction or first symptoms of poisoning before ingesting what could be a fatal meal.

The assumption was always that an unknown plant was poisonous until proven safe. Never the other way around as Steiner and others in the chemical industry want to conduct business. We ought to be treating all chemicals the way we do drugs. In 2017, in a world where Donald John Trump is our planet’s most powerful leader, those regulations—like the Toxic Substances Control Act—are likely to be removed in the name of profit. The TSCA was meant to protect workers and others, but relied upon the honesty of those manufacturing and using the substances in question.

DuPont proved that such an attitude was naive. Lerner continues:

[The TSCA] requires companies that work with chemicals to report to the Environmental Protection Agency any evidence they find that shows or even suggests that they are harmful. In keeping with this requirement, 3M submitted its rat study to the EPA, and later DuPont scientists wound up discussing the study with the federal agency, saying they believed it was flawed. DuPont scientists neglected to inform the EPA about what they had found in tracking their own workers.

To make matters far worse, DuPont also neglected to inform the the EPA about the threat to non-workers, living miles from the plant.

More tomorrow in Part V of How Poisoned Is My Valley

Previously in How Poisoned Is My Valley… and from last year: TEFLON ISN’T THE PROBLEM… and WHAT I’M READING: HOW POISONED IS MY VALLEY….

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