“They knew this stuff was harmful, and they put it in the water anyway.”
January 8, 2016 7:07 AM   Subscribe

In 1998, Rob Bilott, an environmental lawyer, took the case of Wilbur Tennant, a cattle farmer who believed DuPont chemical dumping was killing his livestock. Internal documents would reveal that DuPont had known for decades that the chemical—PFOA, used in the manufacture of Teflon—was highly toxic, connected to organ failure, birth defects, cancer, and more. DuPont decided to keep using it anyway. Factory workers were poisoned, as was the water supply of 70,000 people; the scale may be even greater, as “by 2003 the average concentration of PFOA in the blood of an adult American was four to five parts per billion”.
posted by Spinda (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
PFOA and DuPont previously, although that article doesn't discuss Bilott or Tennant.
posted by jedicus at 7:10 AM on January 8, 2016

He did not have a typical Taft résumé. He had not attended college or law school in the Ivy League.

That's a bit rich. Taft Stettinius is a good regional law firm, but they're not Cravath.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:21 AM on January 8, 2016

jedicus: This article also has specific information about toxicity and which concentrations were used in testing, which were complained about as missing in the other thread.
posted by Spinda at 7:31 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

DuPont, which is currently negotiating a merger with Dow Chemical, last year severed its chemical businesses: They have been spun off into a new corporation called Chemours.

Huh, a portmanteau of Chemical Tumours. Classy.
posted by Ned G at 7:50 AM on January 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

Huh, a portmanteau of Chemical Tumours. Classy.

I suspect it's derived from DuPont's full name, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.
posted by jedicus at 7:57 AM on January 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Put CEO's in PRISON.
posted by sammyo at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

The damned board also, clear up the problems real quick.
posted by sammyo at 8:14 AM on January 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

Such a harrowing article.

There are so many pieces to this story. It paints a fairly clear picture of the web the failure of environmental regulations, the intersection of money, corporations, and politics, and how all of those parts come together to poison us in more ways than our health. Look at how the Tennants were ostracized in their town.

I cannot believe that DuPont was allowed to put a landfill in an area with a stream running through it. It's common sense not to do that.

It isn't business friendly to enforce or enact environmental regulations to protect human health and the environment. There are thousands, I'm sure, of more examples of this story playing out every day.
posted by BooneTheCowboyToy at 8:15 AM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yeah. DuPont and Dow are some rank evil fuckers.
Just in case you didn't know.
posted by eclectist at 8:30 AM on January 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Cast iron pans are the answer. For more information on how to properly use and care for cast iron pans, consult your local library or nearest cast iron snob.
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:12 AM on January 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

For more information on how to properly use and care for cast iron pans, consult your local library or nearest cast iron snob.

So funny that using cast-iron has become a thing "snobs" do, considering just a little while back, when I was entering adulthood, my grandparents passed along their cast iron pans to me not as some gesture of bourgeoisie aspiration but because that's just what poor/working class people grew up doing with valuable tools like cast-iron skillets, and those same skillets had been passed down to them because getting a new kitchen up and running as a young adult can be expensive and hard.

Teflon is a racket. A shame so many people got hurt before anyone noticed the stuff was never really safe.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:24 AM on January 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

The PFOAs aren't just in Teflon.

They are in in firefighting foams - which some facilities use for fighting fires and also containing spills. Plenty of opportunities to enter the environment.

They are everywhere.
posted by BooneTheCowboyToy at 9:37 AM on January 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

The thing is, most of the perfluorinated compounds you run into on the regular aren't from teflon coated pans (where it's not very bioavailable - mind you, teflon pans have now been phased out, too). They're from fire-fighting foams that got into the groundwater or a bunch of other uses that even lefty-liberal folks like us can recognize as "useful" (you'll pry my Gore-Tex from my cold, hypothermic hands).

The thing that gets me (an environmental regulator) is that the corporations have suppressed research successfully for so long, and that the American Chemical Council is constantly fighting against federal and state regulation of toxics. So people have been exposed much longer than they should have been, and there is still not, say, a drinking water standard. And even though folks are now making new formulations for things like fire-fighting foams, we don't know the toxicity of the newer formulations, either. And yet Congress has once again successfully ensured that the EPA didn't get fully funded this year, and EPA toxicity assessments have been ground to a halt for years.

I guess I should go depress myself by reading this. One positive note that they may not have mentioned: New Jersey recently published protective toxicity values for PFCs. C'mon America, if Chris Christie can run a state with a chemical producer or two and still try to protect humans and the environment, maybe the rest of us can, too?
posted by ldthomps at 9:41 AM on January 8, 2016 [18 favorites]

Correction to my above. It's the American Chemistry Council that has been lobbying again federal toxicity assessments. They use language like "streamlining" regulation, which sounds reasonable, until you learn how they'd like that streamlining to work.
posted by ldthomps at 9:59 AM on January 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not just foams, PFOAs are used in almost every consumer fabric application as coatings. Gortex is the most famous, but they're on carpets, upholstery, even clothes (anyone wear "stain protected" garments? PFOAs most likely). PFOS, the sulfonate of the acid PFOA, is equally a problem.

PFOS/PFOAs are emerging contaminants (PDF), which is to say that they're just becoming of interest to regulators following a bunch of risk assessment work in the past ten years or so. The EPA started gathering info on these compounds in 1999, and identified them as a compounds of concern shortly after when they found them everywhere they looked. PFOS/PFOA research papers jumped from a handful a year to hundreds between 2005 and 2008. And yeah, that interest has happened largely because of efforts folks like Bilott, though you can find some papers on PFOS toxicity back to the 80s.
posted by bonehead at 10:17 AM on January 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Should add, part of the problem is that these compounds are not detected in standard methodologies, and some new analytical methods had to be developed to measure them properly. Not really super challenging, but simply overlooked by standard TICs and TIMs type analyses.
posted by bonehead at 10:20 AM on January 8, 2016

You guys, your cooking pot choices are not just teflon or cast iron. There is a world of lightweight, durable, easy-to-wash, shiny metal pots waiting for you.

(I know you know already; I'm just posting this for those youngsters who may not realize yet.)
posted by amtho at 10:40 AM on January 8, 2016

You know how we look back on the ancient Romans and shudder at things like how they put arsenic on their faces and used lead pipes? Well, this is the kind of stuff that future people will talk about when they look back at us. Our civilization pumps these chemicals into the environment without knowing how long they'll persist, where they might accumulate over time, or how they might combine with all the other trace substances out there... It's madness.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:58 AM on January 8, 2016 [11 favorites]

Do not equate PFOA with PTFE. PFOA is/was (there are other chemicals available) to make PTFE. In tests on actual in the wild cookware, the detectable PFOA on that cookware ranged from 4 parts to billion to undetectable (less than 1.5ppb) PTFE doesn't contain PFOA, and given that the detected levels match the levels found in average human beings, the chances that this contamination was from the environment, not the manufacturing, is very high.

By *far* the largest concentrations in the world are in *carpet cleaners*, specifically the encapsulating foam system, which average about 5000ppb -- three orders of magnitude more. Next up is wood/stone/tile sealants, which range from 470-3000ppb. Teflon pipe tape varied widely, from not detectible to 3500ppb, and that sounds like contamination from manufacturing or that some of that tape was made using a process that doesn't use PFOA at all. As a joint sealant, it also may be that it wasn't made to food safety standards.

Upholstery treatments also had very high levels -- 500-1000ppb.

In terms of total accumulation, firefighting foam, despite having very high levels of PFOA, is pretty minor, because we just don't spay firefighting foam around like we did carpet cleaners.

So, if you're worried about this stuff, keep your teflon pans, and look really hard at your carpets. I'm not going to say avoid firefighting foam, I'm going to say avoid fire and you'll never need to deal with firefighting foam.
posted by eriko at 11:34 AM on January 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

This is why we need a well funded Environmental Protection Agency.
posted by shoesietart at 11:35 AM on January 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

It's also why you won't get one.
posted by aramaic at 11:42 AM on January 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

The EPA isn't in horrible shape from a funding point of view (I mean sure, it could always be better). What it does need imo, is less transit back and forth from regulators to industry and better rule-making abilities.

Regulatory capture and the very slow, highly charged process of making new laws are major inhibitors. Politicized enforcement of those laws as well. The nonsense that's currently happening with NOAA scientists and access to to their emails is typical of the shitshow that is now regulatory science.
posted by bonehead at 11:51 AM on January 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Don't worry, the GOP has got this.

And by "this" I of course mean "a plan to eliminate the EPA".
posted by tommasz at 1:08 PM on January 8, 2016

Amazing story. I was initially surprised that the firm didn't have a big concern regarding one of their partners penning the Famous Letter, potentially alienating their other clients, but I guess the settlement money was persuasive.

The Wikipedia article on PFOA is pretty comprehensive.
posted by exogenous at 3:18 PM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Put CEO's in PRISON.

They can be replaced.

DEATH PENALTY for corporations. They want the rights of persons? fine, let them have the right to die. Those who deliberately allow human deaths are completely disassembled. Their charter cancelled with prejudice, their bank appropriated, their buildings sold, their employees forbidden to work together in a similar business (under threat of serious jail time). Any funds left after their toxins are cleaned up are distributed to competitors, if any, who turned them in.

A limited amount is used to create a single physical memorial recording their failure to be human, along the names of all officers of the company since it was founded, and which provides resources for researchers looking into similar potential murderers.
posted by Twang at 6:41 PM on January 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is why we need a well funded Environmental Protection Agency.

Take a look at the Union of Concerned Scientists' research into political interference with scientific decisions at public agencies, including their 2007 survey of EPA scientists. Their case studies include examples of federal agency conclusions -- expressed in reports that took years to be written -- being changed from "regulate" to "do not regulate" via one-line emails from agency executives' blackberries. It's not solely a funding issue.

I find all of this incredibly saddening. When the public cannot trust government agencies, it has a corrosive effect on civic society. On the other hand, it is incredibly valuable when public agencies take action to protect the public (today's example).
posted by salvia at 6:45 PM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

A related case is making the news in Australia at the moment.
posted by quinndexter at 10:04 PM on January 8, 2016

Cast iron pans are the answer. For more information on how to properly use and care for cast iron pans, consult your local library or nearest cast iron snob.

I am a longtime cast iron pan user and champion, but until this moment was unaware that it made me a snob. Thanks so much for enlightening me on this crucial point.

Oh, and I'll be happy to answer any questions, by the way.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:03 PM on January 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The way I read it brodiggity upthread is a cast-iron snob, and possibly a cast iron snob with it. Been wrong before, but feel this is a mild satire on the copious availability of information regarding this indispensible implement rather than a call to arms.

And what else would you make your flapjax in?
posted by Wolof at 5:44 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older Diagnosing women   |   The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments