On January 6, the New York Times published a survey of the work of lawyer Rob Billott in uncovering the unrestricted spread of PFOA throughout the global environment. The breaking event in the investigation was a West Virginia cattle rancher who reported that DuPont was dumping a soapy substance into the river upstream of his ranch, and that since the dumping began, the cattle had manifested violent behavior, gross physical ailments and birth defects.
Filing a subpoena to obtain DuPont’s toxicological studies of the substance, Billott discovered that they had knowledge of its side effects for decades, but hid the information because it was “too risky” to replace the substance, which is used in the manufacturer of Teflon. Unfortunately, everyone who has ever used Teflon now has PFOA in their blood stream – as do fish, birds and animals throughout the world.
During the course of the litigation, state regulators refused to intervene to prevent open disposal of PFOA, to order DuPont to provide treatment for the water used by tens of thousands of people, or to order health studies of those exposed. The lawyers representing DuPont eventually rose to high office in the state even as the case evolved, and those agencies arbitrarily raised the safe drinking water level for PFOA in order to protect DuPont from regulation. When the EPA finally completed its analysis, the final drinking water limits were nearly 200 times lower than those adopted by the state.
The frightening thing about this case is that the EPA is only allowed to regulate chemicals for which it has evidence of toxicity. It has only ever banned the use of four chemicals, of more than 60,000 produced by the industry. Now it appears that the industry intentionally hides evidence of toxicity from regulators. We have absolutely no idea what we are being exposed to.
Note that not all companies are bad actors. When Monsanto first began selling PFOA to DuPont, it advised that the material should be incinerated. That DuPont chose to release it to the environment was their choice. That the substance is unusually resistance to degradation was not unknown to them.
DuPont’s response to these revelations is damning: DuPont has also chosen to litigate each personal damage case individually, rather than as a class. At the rate of litigation, almost all of the claimants will be dead when a trial date is set. DuPont is also planning a merger with Dow Chemical, and has taken the unusual step of spinning off their chemistry business as Chemours. This appears suspicious. Given the culture revealed by Billott’s litigation, I wouldn’t be surprised if PFOA was only the tip of the iceberg.