Although PFOA was originally developed and manufactured in the United States, it’s not just an American problem.
IN RECENT MONTHS, PFOA, the perfluorinated chemical formerly used to make Teflon, has been making news again. Also known as C8, because of its eight-carbon molecule, PFOA has been found in drinking water in Hoosick Falls, New York; Bennington, Vermont; Flint, Michigan; and Warrington, Pennsylvania, among many other places across the United States. Although the chemical was developed and long manufactured in the United States, it’s not just an American problem. PFOA has spread throughout the world.
As in the U.S., PFOA has leached into the water near factories in Dordrecht, Holland, and Shimizu, Japan, both of which were built and operated for many years by DuPont. Last year, the Shimizu facility and part of the Dordrecht plant became the property of DuPont’s spinoff company, Chemours. Just as it did in both New Jersey and West Virginia, DuPont tracked the PFOA levels in its workers’ blood in Holland and Japan for years, according to EPA filings and internal company documents. Many of the blood levels were high, some extremely so. In one case, in Shimizu in 2008, a worker had a blood level of 8,370 parts per billion (ppb). In Dordrecht in 2005, another worker was recorded with 11,387 ppb. The national average in the U.S., in 2004, was about 5 ppb.
Water contamination was also a problem in both locations. In Shimizu, PFOA was detected in 10 wells at the site, with the highest level of contamination measuring 1,540 ppb. Groundwater in Dordrecht, which is about an hour south of Amsterdam, was also contaminated, with 1,374 ppb of PFOA at one spot near the factory in 2014.
But there has been little discussion of the problems at these two sites, at least until recently, when the PFOA contamination became news in Holland. In March, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment released a report finding that levels of PFOA in water were elevated at least until 2002 and that residents of Dordrecht had been exposed to airborne PFOA for years.
In early April, a contingent from Keep Your Promises DuPont, an activist group representing residents of West Virginia and Ohio, traveled to the Netherlands and met with local politicians, scientists, Dordrecht residents, and the union representing workers at the plant.
“They’re pissed off,” said Paul Brooks, a physician from West Virginia who went to Holland and told people about the research that enabled epidemiologists to link PFOA to preeclampsia, ulcerative colitis, and two types of cancer, among other conditions. “They knew absolutely nothing about the links to disease, nothing,” said Brooks.
But the Dutch are learning quickly. On April 7, the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad announced the results of blood tests of two Dordrecht residents who had high blood levels of PFOA. One former DuPont worker had 28.3 ppb in his blood, while his wife, who didn’t work at the plant, had 83.6 ppb. In contrast, the blood level of Carla Bartlett, an Ohio resident who was awarded $1.6 million in the first of 3,500 cases against DuPont, was just 19 ppb in 2005.
Now at least 1,000 Dordrecht residents have requested testing, according to Ingrid de Groot, an investigative journalist for Algemeen Dagblad. De Groot said residents of Sliedrecht, a small town across the river from the Dordrecht, are also worried about airborne C8 contamination “because the wind 90 percent of the time blew in their direction from the Teflon plant.”
DuPont referred questions about its Dordrecht and Shimizu sites to Chemours, the company that has inherited its perfluorinated chemical (PFC) business, which now uses shorter-chain molecules. Chemours offered a statement saying that the area around the Shimizu site, which “was created decades ago” by DuPont and the Japanese company Mitsui, is “highly industrialized and the groundwater is brackish, and not a source of drinking water.” The statement also noted that PFOA has been used by a number of companies in Japan and that “Chemours has never used PFOA.”
Regarding Dordrecht, Chemours wrote that “there is no increased exposure of surrounding residents to PFOA via drinking water for the area surrounding the Dordrecht plant” and that the company “is confident that DuPont acted reasonably and responsibly during the years it used PFOA at Dordrecht, placing high priority on the health of its employees and the community. We believe DuPont went beyond what was required, and what other companies did, to manage PFOA in order to protect the health and safety of its workers and neighbors.” The statement also noted that by 2010, DuPont had reduced its PFOA emissions at the Dordrecht site by more than 90 percent of their level in 2000, and by 2012 the company had phased out the chemical entirely.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS HAVE BEEN pushing to tamp down on the worldwide use of PFOA and PFOS, both of which have been detected all over the world, including in Germany, Canada, Greenland, Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark’s Faroe Islands, France, Vietnam, South Africa, India, England, and Australia, where a governmental inquiry is underway. In 2014, PFOS was listed as one of the persistent organic pollutants to be phased out under the Stockholm Convention, the international treaty ratified by 179 countries (though not the U.S.). Last year, the EU proposed adding PFOA to the agreement.
But as some countries phase out the production of PFOS and PFOA, others are ramping it up. Perhaps the best example is China, where at least 56 companies produce PFCs, according to data collected by the Stockholm Convention. Without drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, or restrictions on their use, contamination is spiking there. A comparison of Chinese and European rivers published last year found that concentration of PFCs in the Xiaoqing River was more than 6,000 times higher than in the Scheur River, near DuPont’s Dordrecht plant. In a recent study, scientists tested the blood of fishery workers at Tangxun Lake in China’s Wuhan region. One employee was found to have the highest level of PFOS ever detected in human blood: 31,400 ppb.
In this series, Sharon Lerner exposes DuPont’s multi-decade cover-up of the severe harms to health associated with a chemical known as PFOA, or C8.