The New York Times published a great piece on the struggles of a community faced with the overwhelming effects of chemical pollution. A DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia manufacturing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contaminated the land, water, the animals and the people inhabiting this community. While this is a tragic, compelling story of a struggling community and Rob Bilott, the lawyer defending them, it illustrates the usual scenario of corporate pollution. I won’t attempt to summarize the story told so well in this article, but it’s worth examining how such a story could play out in a world where we have both federal and state agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment from toxic chemicals like PFOA.
Chemical Pollution Narrative
The narrative of PFOA includes elements common to the stories behind other chemicals such as asbestos and vinyl chloride, including:
- Secrecy. DuPont knew as early as 1961 that PFOA was linked with liver problems in rats. In 1981 studies found birth defects in rats and a subsequent study of workers also found birth defects. In 1984 DuPont knew that PFOA was getting into the drinking water and in the end it was determined that 70,000 people drank poisoned water. Studies in the 1990’s revealed PFOA’s connection to cancer and DNA damage in lab rats. None of this information was reported to the EPA or revealed to workers or the community, until 2001 when Bilott lifted the curtain from DuPont’s secrecy by writing to the EPA, the U.S. Attorney General and relevant state authorities, to reveal DuPont’s dirty secrets.
- Profits over health. In 1993 DuPont found an alternative to PFOA that was less persistent in the environment and seemingly safer, but failed to switch it out, because of potential risk to corporate profits. It finally adopted this alternative in 2013, but safety data is also lacking on the alternative.
- Corporate impunity to pollute. It might be hard to understand how DuPont could get away with polluting water, land, animals and people for decades without the EPA or state regulators noticing, but as the article points out and we now know too well, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the law that regulates industrial chemicals in the U.S., essentially allows corporations to regulate themselves. Quoting the article: “PFOA was only one of more than 60,000 synthetic chemicals that companies produced and released into the world without regulatory oversight.”
- Widespread contamination. Due to the location of manufacturing sites, PFOA is present in 94 water districts in 27 states, including Minnesota. But PFOA contamination is now global, due to the presence of PFCs in carpeting, cosmetics, clothing, nonstick pans, and food packaging. The CDC has detected PFOA and other perfluorinated chemicals in 98 percent of people tested in the U.S.
Health risks and consumer tips
In 2015 nearly 200 scientists issued the Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) supporting a growing concern for human exposure to PFASs chemicals. It provides documentation of widespread exposure to PFASs and increased risk of liver toxicity, hormone disruption, neurobehavioral effects, cancer and numerous other adverse health impacts.
Fortunately you can reduce your personal exposure to PFASs, by following a few simple tips.
- Cook whole foods at home, avoiding processed prepackaged food and fast food, with grease-resistant food packaging.
- Avoid non-stick cookware coated with Teflon, instead cook with stainless steel or cast iron pans.
- Avoid purchasing stain resistant furniture, carpets or clothing, treated with PFASs.
- Check the labels of personal care products and avoid those with the ingredients “fluoro” or “perfluoro.”
- If you live in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, avoid exposure to PFASs in fish by following the Minnesota Department of Health’s site-specific fish consumption advice.
What about TSCA Reform?
The story of PFOA pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia illustrates the failure of the chemical regulatory system to protect this community and to prevent broader exposure to a chemical that a company knew to be toxic. DuPont kept its toxic secret for decades while they continued to manufacture, put into consumer products and discharge PFOA into the environment. A growing movement by states to regulate toxic chemicals and mounting science showing adverse effects on human health from toxic chemical exposures supports the need to reform our federal regulatory system. This year both houses of Congress have passed bills to update TSCA, but neither bill adequately addresses the problem we’re talking about here.
As Congress conferences the two bills, I urge them to craft a reformed TSCA that takes the best provisions of each bill, including retaining state authority to act on chemicals of concern when EPA has not yet taken action on a chemical.
We need to change the chemical pollution narrative and finally give EPA the authority to keep chemicals like PFOA out of our environment, our products and our bodies and to assure that replacement chemicals are truly safer.