While the dangers of PFOA and PFOS are widely known, very little is known about the other chemicals in their class, PFAS.
While the dangers of PFOA and PFOS are widely known, very little is known about the other chemicals in their class, PFAS. Here is some of the emerging science on how other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances affect people.
The revelation that PFOS accumulated in people’s blood led 3M to stop making the chemical in 2001. Disturbingly, 3M, the Minnesota-based company that made both PFOS and the related chemical PFOA, had found that virtually every blood sample it tested contained both of these manmade molecules. By 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency coordinated an industry-wide phase-out of PFOA and PFOS, both of which had been used in firefighting foam and various stain-resistant and nonstick products.
Yet, PFOA and PFOS were not alone. In 2005, 3M tested blood samples from the general population for 16 other PFAS chemicals — and found 15 of them. The company submitted the results of this testing to the EPA in 2005, as the law requires chemical manufacturers to do when they have evidence that their products pose a substantial risk to human health or the environment. Most of the chemicals they had detected were present in every one of 36 samples tested, which were gathered from various parts of the U.S. and Canada.
But unlike the two best-known PFAS chemicals, which have been phased out in this country, many of the others aren’t going away. Several are still in commercial use and some have been offered up as safe alternatives to PFOS and PFOA. The EPA has received additional studies from manufacturers raising health concerns about each of these chemicals, but has yet to set safety limits for any of them.
Though it falls into the “shorter chain” group of the PFAS chemicals, which generally exit the body more quickly, PFHxS stays in humans for more than five years — longer than either PFOS or PFOA, and poses some of the same health threats that those chemicals do. PFHxS, which 3M made until 2002 and is now found in many sites where firefighting foam was used, is more toxic to the liver than PFOS, according to a recent report from the Danish Ministry of the Environment.
Research has linked PFHxS to liver and thyroid disease, prostate cancer and arthritis, as well as immune and reproductive problems in adults. In children, the vast majority of whom have PFHxS in their blood, studies have linked the chemical with adverse birth outcomes, neurobehavioral problems, immune dysfunction, and weight gain.
The mounting data has lead European regulators to identify PFHxS as a “substance of very high concern.” The Stockholm Convention, which oversees an international agreement on toxic chemicals, is investigating whether PFHxS should be banned globally.
When it was promoting a new version of “green” firefighting foam that contained six-carbon PFAS, known as C6, a group representing the fluorochemical industry and foam manufacturers acknowledged that PFHxA was “a possible breakdown product” of the foam. The chemical has since been found in water at AFFF-contaminated sites and in spots at 5,000 times the EPA’s safety level for PFOS and PFOA.
The Firefighting Foam Coalition, an industry lobby, described PFHxA as having “a low hazard profile” and issued assurances that C6 foams are “not considered to be bioaccumulative.” But there is ample evidence that PFHxA does, in fact, enter and stay in people’s bodies. In addition to 3M’s 2005 report, which found PFHxA in a quarter of blood samples, a report DuPont submitted to the EPA in 2009 showed that PFHxA had accumulated in the blood of eight out of nine workers tested at its Chambers Works factory in New Jersey.
Another 3M study showed that the six-carbon molecule was toxic to rats. The research report, which the company submitted to the EPA in 2003 as an adverse incident report, summarized an experiment in which albino rats were given three different doses of PFHxA. Even in the group given lowest dose, all five exposed rats became uncoordinated and lethargic and drooled excessively, according to the study. Two had difficulty breathing and one died during the 14-day experiment.
According to an attorney representing the company, “3M generally believes that these chemicals present no harm to the environment or human health at levels they are typically found in the environment. Certainly, 3M sold its AFFF products with instructions regarding their safe use and disposal.”
3M introduced the four-carbon molecule PFBS in 2003 to replace PFOS in some products, such as Scotchgard. PFBS was billed as safe in part because it clears the human body more quickly than PFOS and PFOA. Yet PFBS was detected in 33 of the 36 blood samples 3M analyzed in 2005.
According to a report 3M submitted to the EPA in 2008, PFBS also accumulated in the blood and livers of rats. Another adverse incident report, which 3M submitted to the EPA in 2010, showed that, much like PFOS and PFOA, PFBS affects the livers of mice, as well as their cholesterol and fat levels.
A 3M spokesperson did not respond to questions about PFBS.
Like some of the other compounds in its class, PFBS affects both the placental cells and neurodevelopment, according to the Danish report, which also noted that, while it cleared the blood more quickly than some related chemicals, PFBS was found to accumulate in other organs. Autopsies of human bodies found elevated levels of PFBS in the lungs. Levels of the chemical were significantly higher in children with asthma compared to those without the disease.
The chemicals that stay in our bodies after we die also enter us before we are born, according to research that has found PFAS in umbilical cord blood, in which their levels appear to affect birth weight and immune response.
“When all these thing were put into the marketplace, no one said, ‘There is one downside: It’s going to contaminate the entire living world, including any babies,’” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group.
While the phasing-out of PFOS and PFOA has resulted in a gradual decrease in blood levels of those chemicals, “We went down the same road again,” said Cook. “With the replacements, the same problem is going to take us through another generation of babies.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
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, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.
The U.S. military is spending billions to clean up drinking water contaminated with toxic firefighting foam while continuing to use dangerous new formulas.
About an hour north of Seattle at the northern edge of Puget Sound, Whidbey Island is quiet, forested, and, in Bob Farnsworth’s neighborhood, idyllic. In the 22 years he’s lived on Whidbey, where he served as a command master chief at the Naval Air Base, Farnsworth, 61, has regularly crabbed and fished for salmon and enjoyed fruit from his own trees. His home, which he recently had appraised for $469,000, is less than a mile down a fir-tree lined road from a sandy beach. Until this summer, Farnsworth, who retired from the Navy in 2007, had been planning to sell it and move to Oklahoma to live near his grandchildren.
After a 30-year career, Farnsworth has an enduring love for the Navy. But last February, he discovered a toxic side to the Navy’s presence in his life: His well, which he had used to water his fruit trees, cook, and fill his children’s and grandchildren’s glasses over the years, tested positive for three chemicals that had apparently seeped in from foam used for firefighting on the base. One chemical, PFOS, was present at 3,800 parts per trillion, more than 54 times a safety standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.
Because of the contamination, Farnsworth worried that he wouldn’t be able to sell his house — and decided not to put it on the market. Suddenly, a place that had been a haven felt more like a trap. “We feel like we’re hostage here,” he said recently. The realization that he and his wife had been exposed to the chemicals, which have been linked to prostate cancer and thyroid diseases, cast the struggles they have had over the past years with these very diseases in a new light. “I don’t know what was related,” he said.
After testing their wells, the Navy provided Farnsworth and several of his neighbors whose wells tested positive for PFOS and PFOA with clean water. Spokesperson Lt. Ben Anderson said the Navy plans to continue providing bottled water and ultimately provide a clean water source to all affected families. But many on the island feel the response is an inadequate fix to the contamination that has upended many of their lives and decreased their property values.
“What the Navy is doing makes no sense,” said Steven Swanson, a retired physician living near Farnsworth whose private well contained 440 ppt of PFOA. Swanson, who also has prostate issues, felt that the Navy didn’t share his urgency about cleaning up the chemicals. “They’re just hoping this will die down, and people will get used to living with contaminated water.”
According to a statement issued by Anderson, “Navy officials at NAS Whidbey Island, Navy Region Northwest and Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest are fully committed to the timely and successful cleanup of PFAS contamination, and will be involved until all required actions are complete.”
Contamination from the military’s use of firefighting foam, or AFFF, isn’t limited to Whidbey Island. The foam has been used on hundreds of bases around the country since at least the early 1970s to put out emergency blazes and, far more often, to douse fires purposefully set to prepare firefighters for those emergencies. Chemicals in the foam, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have seeped into water in and around those bases. (PFOA and PFOS are just the two best-known examples of the much larger class of PFAS molecules.) Because mounting research links these chemicals with a host of health problems, including kidney, testicular, bladder, and prostate cancer, as well as immune, reproductive, and hormonal dysfunction, the contamination amounts to a “seminal public health challenge,” as Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, recently described it.
Yet even as the Army, Navy, and Air Force have begun the slow process of addressing the contamination, which is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion, the Department of Defense isn’t abandoning this line of chemicals. While some of the precise formulations that caused the contamination are off the table, the U.S. military is in the midst of an expensive effort to replace older foam with a newer formulation that contains only slightly tweaked versions of the same problematic compounds.
Though marketed as environmentally responsible, this new foam contains PFAS chemicals based on slightly shorter carbon chains — six, as opposed to eight, atoms. While many of these shorter compounds exit the human body more quickly, they still accumulate in blood and other tissues. And, like the longer compounds that have been the focus of environmental concerns across the country and around the world, these shorter molecules will persist indefinitely in the environment and never break down on their own.
As with PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has evidence that these shorter chain PFAS molecules accumulate in people’s bodies and the environment, posing threats to both. Some of the studies showing the dangers of these persistent chemicals came from the manufacturers themselves, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.
While several other countries have taken a precautionary approach and are using products without PFAS to put out jet fuel fires, the U.S. recently decided to continue investing in this line of persistent contaminants. As of December 15, the Air Force had swapped out the older foam at 173 of 176 installations, according to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which provides engineering services to Air Force installations. Three remote sites experienced seasonal shipping delays, but should have their older AFFF replaced by the newer version in the spring, according to Air Force spokesperson Mark Kinkade.
Meanwhile, the Navy “is developing a policy to require the testing, removal, and safe disposal of AFFF installed in firefighting systems (e.g., in an AFFF tank on a firetruck or hangar system) over the next 1-2 years,” according to Anderson, the Navy spokesperson, and will be replacing that foam with “newly qualified foams.” And the Army has planned and programmed funding to replace the current stocks in fiscal year 2019, according to a statement from Army spokesperson Wayne V. Hall.
The Air Force has already spent $10.8 million on replacing and incinerating old AFFF, according to Air Force spokesperson Laura M. McAndrews. The cost of that transition is predicted to reach more than $74 million as the process stretches on until at least 2020, according to a 2015 Air Force PowerPoint presentation. That document, along with many others cited in this article, was obtained through discovery in a lawsuit against the U.S. government over PFAS contamination filed by attorney Mark Cuker, who shared it with The Intercept.
Some of that expense is purchasing what Air Force Fire Chief James Podolske referred to in an August 2016 memo obtained by The Intercept as a “new environmentally responsible six carbon chain formula” of AFFF. The new foam contains no PFOS and “little or no PFOA,” according to an Air Force press release. Instead, it uses the closely related molecules that pose many of the same dangers.
The Navy began requiring its vessels to carry AFFF in 1967 after 134 sailors died in a fire aboard the USS Forrestal. The aircraft carrier had been off the coast of north Vietnam, when a power surge caused a rocket to fire and strike a fuel tank, igniting leaking fuel and causing nine bombs to explode. The fire burned all night and turned into one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history. (Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, then a pilot of one of the Sky Hawks aboard the Forrestal, jumped from the nose of his plane and ran through the flames to safety.)
AFFF was a new compound then: Navy scientists had been working with Minnesota-based chemical company 3M on developing the foam since the early 1960s; in 1966, the Navy patented the material, which creates a thin layer over the surface of the fuel that smothers the flames and prevents the release of vapor that could otherwise reignite. According to military specifications, the foam required a key ingredient: a “fluorinated surfactant,” a chemical to help make the foam spreadable. 3M was the military’s only supplier until the mid-1990s, when it was joined by several other companies.
PFOS-based foam was widely adopted. Eventually, the Department of Defense used it at all aircraft hangars, airfields, and aircraft fueling stations, among other locations. The Federal Aviation Administration adopted the foam to fight fires at all commercial airports. And militaries and airports around the world also came to use the foam.
But environmental concerns about the foam emerged as early as 1974, when a report from one of the U.S. Navy’s research centers fretted over releasing “a large raft of snow-white AFFF floating” into harbors, as was then the practice. Although the precise dangers posed by the foam were unclear — and 3M had assured the Navy that the foam would have no adverse affect on the environment, according to the report — the authors noted that “practically anything undrinkable by humans is unfit to discharge over the side into the sea” and suggested using instead foam made of glycerin and water. Two years later, a 1976 memo about AFFF from another Navy research lab noted that “improvements are desired in the environmental area.” Navy scientists proposed changes to Navy practice, including testing for toxicity. The Navy did not take up all of the suggestions.
Already thousands of gallons of foam were being dumped into the harbors in San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia. A 1978 report by the Naval Ship Research and Development Center authorized the continued release of the foam into the harbors, predicting it would “not be environmentally significant.” It took nearly 20 years, until 1996, for the concerns to revive substantially and even then, no one yet grasped that tiny amounts of the chemicals from the foam could affect people’s immune systems and change their risks for cancer and other diseases. Rather, according to a memo to the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center, there was a lack of data showing the fluorinated molecules in the foam were biologically safe.
Though they were still vague, the mounting concerns about the environmental effects of AFFF presented naval commanders with an ethical dilemma. Whatever unspecified health and environmental problems the foam might cause down the line, it was already saving lives by preventing catastrophic shipboard fires.
In 2000, the environmental worries suddenly became less abstract — and more public. After decades of providing the firefighting foam to the military, 3M, the Navy’s partner in creating AFFF, announced it would stop making PFOS, the company’s patented surfactant, and, ultimately, the foam.
At an August 2000, meeting at the Pentagon, an EPA staffer who worked on chemical risk explained the research that had led 3M to decide to take its products off the market. She described one study, conducted by both 3M and DuPont, which by that point was making a similar product. In the experiment, monkeys exposed to PFOS had lost weight, developed enlarged livers, and, in some cases, died within three weeks. Because some of the monkeys given the lowest dose of the chemical had died, the researchers were unable to find any safe level of exposure. Citing other research as well, she warned that the continued release of PFOS would pose a “serious concern for potential future risk for humans and wildlife.”
According to an attorney representing the company, “3M generally believes that these chemicals present no harm to the environment or human health at levels they are typically found in the environment. Certainly, 3M sold its AFFF products with instructions regarding their safe use and disposal.”
While 3M’s decision meant that its AFFF made with PFOS would no longer be available, the military continued using formulations of the foam that contained other PFAS surfactants. But less than a year after her first presentation, the EPA staffer spoke again at the Pentagon, where she reiterated the EPA’s concerns about PFOS and took her warnings a step further: The EPA wasn’t just concerned about PFOS, she explained, going on to advise the military brass not to rely on any of this class of chemicals, and recommend a “program to seek, test, and consider long-range alternatives.” In the meantime, the EPA would be studying the risks.
The EPA’s interest in their products presented a choice for the chemical and foam makers: They could, like 3M, stop making the surfactants used in AFFF. Or they could ignore the warnings and stay in a market that, with 3M’s departure, had just gotten considerably more lucrative.
Shortly after the Pentagon meeting raised the possibility that the EPA would scrutinize these other chemicals, the foam and surfactant manufacturers made their decision clear: Not only would they continue to make AFFF and the fluorinated surfactants, they would also create an organization to defend these products. The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition — with DuPont and the chemical company Dynax among its founding members — was soon making presentations to the EPA and various branches of the military. Their messages were reassuring: The chemicals used to replace PFOS were safe for human health and the environment, and AFFF was the only way to safely protect military personnel from fires.
The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition was headed by lobbyist Tom Cortina. Cortina was an old hand at defending chemicals from the EPA, but his newest clients were facing especially daunting troubles.
By 2000, some within the Department of Defense had raised the possibility of replacing AFFF with a foam that didn’t contain chemicals that would persist in humans or the environment. The next year, the country’s most prominent air safety organization, the National Fire Protection Association, held a meeting to discuss the need to abandon AFFF. And in 2002, a consulting company called Hughes Associates gave a presentation to a Federal Aviation Conference that warned that the fluorinated surfactants in AFFF were among the most environmentally persistent substances ever — “impervious to biological and most chemical assault.”
As concerns began to swirl around their products, Cortina, joined by DuPont’s Steven Korzeniowski, pushed back. At conferences, in journals, and in meetings with the military and the EPA, they repeated a key talking point: Only one PFAS chemical, PFOS, had been taken off the market; since their products didn’t contain PFOS, their products were safe.
One of the coalition’s biggest tests came at an October 2003 meeting that was part of the EPA’s investigation of perfluorinated chemicals. The agency was considering whether telomers used in AFFF, as well as the foam itself, should be part of that regulatory investigation. Had the agency concluded that the other surfactants in AFFF posed a significant threat, that step could have led fairly quickly to restrictions — or at least to a voluntary phase-out of the chemicals — as it eventually did with PFOA and PFOS.
But at the meeting, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition asked the EPA to exempt it from the regulatory process. “The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition strenuously argued that these newer chemicals were safe … and EPA basically bought that,” Rob Bilott, an attorney who was at the meeting, recalled recently. “It was so slick.”
Whatever drove the decision not to include AFFF in its regulatory process, Cortina was clearly pleased about it. “I consider this to be a major victory of the FFFC and the telomer-based AFFF industry,” he wrote in a memo to coalition members that Korzeniowski circulated to his colleagues at DuPont.
It was a major victory. Since then, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have continued to use AFFF across the country and abroad with little involvement from the EPA or pressure to replace its products. Evidence did eventually emerge that the other PFAS surfactants posed some of the very same problems that PFOA did. “Over the years, you see this recognition even in Fire Fighting Coalition newsletters,” said Bilott. “But they never went back and said to EPA, ‘Well maybe you better come back and look at us again.’”
According to Cortina, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition did submit data about AFFF use to the EPA, which subsequently phased out the eight-carbon chemicals that had been used in the foam. Korzeniowski said that DuPont and the industry group participated in the EPA process and met with the agency to discuss the chemicals in foam. “EPA held many meetings with industry representatives to help them better understand the various chemistries out in the marketplace once 3M stopped long-chain manufacture of PFOA and PFOS in 2002,” Korzeniowski wrote in an email to The Intercept.
In response to questions about the current state of cleanup efforts, the Department of Defense referred The Intercept to the individual service branches. The Army, Navy, and Air Force each provided lists of installations without detailing the number of contaminated sites at each installation, greatly limiting the usefulness of the information.
No one knows how many people are drinking PFAS chemicals as a result of that contamination, in part because some of the investigations of military installations where AFFF was used are still underway. According to the lists provided by the Army, Navy, and Air Force, both PFOS and PFOA have been detected in the drinking water on or near at least 46 military installations in concentrations above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit, which is 70 ppt.
Many more people are exposed to the chemicals at levels below that 70 ppt threshold. And, judging from the health-based levels that states have set since the EPA set its level last year, even these lower levels may pose health threats. New Jersey is moving forward with setting 14 ppt as its drinking water standard for PFOA, just one-fifth of the EPA’s number, and recommended 13 ppt for PFOS. Vermont and Minnesota have either set or proposed safety levels for both chemicals that are lower than the EPA’s. And in December, a Michigan state legislator proposed the lowest standard yet for PFAS molecules: 5 ppt. Historically, chemical safety thresholds tend to drop over time as research mounts.
The wide range of safety levels worries Aaron Weed, the town supervisor of Oscoda, Michigan. Although the fact that PFOA and related PFAS chemicals from AFFF used at Wurtsmith Air Force Base had leached into local water was first made public in 2003, Weed first learned about it in 2012. Air Force officials presented news of the contamination “as not that big of a deal,” said Weed. “That was the impression I got, that it was nothing to worry about.”
But soon it became clear that the Air Force had different ideas than Weed about what was worrisome. Last year, after he learned about New Jersey’s proposed safety levels, he brought his concerns to a meeting of the cleanup team for Wurtsmith Base, where Air Force officials were discussing a plume of groundwater that contained 50 ppt PFOA.
“They were talking about 50 ppt as if it wasn’t even there,” said Weed. “So I said: ‘Why are you talking about 50 ppt like it’s almost nothing, when New Jersey says 14 ppt is something?’” A few days later, Weed said he received an email from an Air Force official explaining that he was no longer welcome at cleanup team meetings.
According to spokesperson Mark Kinkade, the Air Force is working closely with the community living near Wurtsmith base and recently established a restoration advisory board “to ensure the community has access to information about our efforts at the installation.” Weed was designated an alternate member of that board.
The other question now dogging those living with contamination from AFFF is how many different chemicals pose dangers. The EPA has set groundwater and drinking water health advisory levels for only two compounds: PFOS and PFOA, the eight-carbon molecules that have been used in nonstick products, as well as fire fighting foam.
The military’s policy of addressing only these two chemicals flows from the EPA’s decision to limit its own actions to PFOS and PFOA. Yet clearly other compounds in AFFF also pose threats. After testing on Whidbey Island had turned up six PFAS chemicals in the water there, Navy personnel arrived at Farnsworth’s house to present and explain the results of the tests on his well. “They told me the only ones I had to worry about was PFOS and PFOA,” Farnsworth said recently. Meanwhile, Swanson, the retired physician, had several of the suspected toxic chemical in recent blood tests, yet he says the Navy never spoke to him about the presence of these other chemicals — or how to get rid of them. “They don’t want to admit that any of these are bad chemicals,” said Swanson.
The military is applying that same approach to remediation as well. Although multiple chemicals are known to have tainted the water at Whidbey and other military installations, the military is only attempting to clean up PFOA and PFOS. “The only ones we have an active response requirement for is those two,” as Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Environmental Safety and Occupational Health, explained to me in a June interview.
The exclusive focus on PFOA and PFOS means that some people who have the broader category of chemicals at considerable levels in their drinking water do not receive clean water from the military. Recognizing that PFOA and PFOS may well have a cumulative effect, the EPA set not just a safety level of 70 ppt for each chemical, but the same cutoff for both combined.
Neal Sims, who lives in the quaint town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, didn’t receive clean water from the Navy even after tests of his tap water showed he had four PFAS compounds in his water totaling more than 80 ppt. That’s because when it came to the only two recognized dangers, Sim’s water had less than 30 ppt — well under the EPA’s 70 ppt cutoff. But the tests showed that, when the levels of PFHxS, PFHpA, and PFBS were included, “the total was over 74.”
Richard Abraham, an environmental consultant who lives about 20 minutes south of Sims on Whidbey, was also worried about the other PFAS chemicals found in the Coupeville town well, which provides Sims’s water and also serves the local school and hospital. He asked the hospital to install a filter that removes the chemicals.
The hospital denied his request and in an article in the Whidbey News-Times, a hospital board member referred to Abraham as “alarmist” and blamed him for “causing unnecessary chaos.” The mayor of Coupeville told the paper there was no reason to filter the water and said that the chemicals found in the town’s water “do not rise to a level of concern based upon EPA requirements.” In January, the Navy announced its intention to set up a filtration system for the town of Coupeville, according to Navy spokesperson Mike Welding.
But Abraham and Sims were right to be concerned. Regulators in Europe have already taken action on PFHxS. Minnesota set water levels for PFBS and PFBA back in 2011. And a group of scientists cited health and environmental concerns when they recommended limiting use of the entire class of PFAS chemicals, which likely comprises hundreds of different compounds, in 2015. The state of Washington is working on establishing a lifetime health advisory limit for PFAS compounds. According to Navy spokesperson Ben Anderson, “The Navy will promptly respond as appropriate if such limits are established for those chemicals.”
Some at the Navy seem to have anticipated the confusion that would result from singling out two chemicals for response while many other similar, potentially hazardous compounds are clearly also present. A draft version of a March 2016 document on the Navy’s comprehensive strategy around contamination from the perfluorinated compounds in AFFF obtained by The Intercept revealed an interest in limiting the public’s knowledge of the range of contaminants in their water.
“Do we want to mention somewhere in this strategy that our sampling focus will only be on PFOA/PFOS?” Lindsay Nehm, chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, asked in a comment on the document. Nehm went on: “I think this is crucial to ensure that we don’t open the door for sampling to be done of the full suite of PFCs.”
No one knows the exact number of dangerous chemicals that escaped from the foam and made their way into drinking water and people’s bodies, but it is clearly not two. Nor is it three, the number of PFAS chemicals the Navy tested for in some drinking water wells on Whidbey in the first half of 2017, or six, the number the EPA has tested for in drinking water nationwide, or even 14, the number of PFAS chemicals the Navy tested for on the island starting in September 2017.
An analysis of water where the foam was used, which was published last January in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found 57 classes of PFAS molecules, each of which could contain many individual chemicals. Chris Higgins, a professor of environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and one of the study’s authors, estimated that between 500 and 700 PFAS compounds have been found at sites where the foam has been used, though Higgins put the number of PFAS that are “major components” of the foam much lower, at between 30 and 50.
It is impossible to find and remove all of these chemicals, many of which have only recently been identified. “The manufacturers themselves probably didn’t know exactly what was in them,” said Higgins. In most cases, their dangers to humans also remain mysterious. While some of these compounds may be less toxic than PFOS and PFOA, according to Higgins, “some could be more toxic.”
Further complicating matters is that many of the shorter chain molecules for which the EPA has yet to set drinking water standards — and the military has yet to directly address — appear to be more difficult and more expensive to filter out of water than PFOA or PFOS.
Susan Gordon discovered this the hard way. Until 2016, Gordon spent much of her time on the Venetucci Farm in Colorado Springs growing fruit and vegetables and teaching children about the importance of respecting nature. But testing done in June 2016 by the health department revealed that five PFAS chemicals — PFBS, PFHpA, PFHxS, PFOS, PFOA — had made their way from Peterson Air Force Base into the wells serving the farm and Gordon’s home, which is also on the property.
Although most people have low levels of some PFAS chemicals in their blood, tests revealed that Gordon had five of them, including PFOA and PFOS, at about 10 times the national average, and PFHxS at more than 100 times the national average.
Air Force representatives began dropping off big, plastic containers of water as soon as Gordon’s well tested positive for the chemicals and proposed installing special carbon filters on her wells. Gordon hesitated because the Air Force only offered to pay for the installation of the filter and made it clear that she would have to assume the costs of maintaining it.
“They couldn’t tell me what kind of costs or how often the filter would need to be changed,” Gordon said recently. But Air Force representatives told her they would eventually stop providing bottled water. “And they said, ‘If you don’t sign on now, you’re going to lose this opportunity.’” So Gordon signed up for a filter that was intended to bring the levels of only PFOS and PFOA in Gordon’s water below the EPA’s limit, despite the fact that “the PFHxS is what’s highest in everything that’s tested, including my blood.”
In response to inquiries about the Gordon’s situation, Kinkade the Air Force spokesperson, wrote in an email that “there currently is no advisory or properly promulgated national standard for the other compounds” in her water besides PFOS and PFOA. “Whenever we have found drinking water with PFOS/PFOA levels above the health advisory, the Air Force has moved quickly to provide alternate drinking water supplies.”
Recent research confirms that PFHxS, along with some other shorter chain PFAS molecules, are much harder to remove from water than PFOS and PFOA, and break through filters more quickly. Air Force officials had told Gordon it would be between six months and a year before she needed to replace the filters. Less than four months after they were installed, the PFHxS reappeared in her drinking water. At that rate, Gordon estimates her annual cost for the filters to be more than $4,500 a year. “That’s huge for a nonprofit farm,” said Gordon. “We can’t do that!”
For years, the military has argued that the risks and contamination of using PFAS chemicals were necessary because of their lifesaving value. And though it’s true that in the early years, the AFFF foam might have offered a clear advantage over other options, that’s no longer the case.
The day after 3M announced its decision to pull PFOS off the market in 2000, it deployed a chemist named Ted Schaefer to come up with another way to extinguish fuel fires that didn’t contain PFOS or other environmentally persistent ingredients.
Schaefer, who worked for the Australian division of 3M, had spent much of his career on foams used to put out forest fires. After many months of tinkering with raw materials and testing more than 300 formulations, Schaefer came up with a mix of biodegradable organic surfactants and complex sugars that performed comparably to AFFF. The fluorine-free foam, as it was called, smothered flames in tiny bubbles as opposed to a thin film as AFFF did, but it seemed to put out the burning fuel just as well.
In 2002, the fluorine-free foam matched the time it took for one of 3M’s formulations to put out the flames on a pan of jet fuel in tests carried out on a Royal Air Force Base in Manston, England. Both took 46 seconds — and the fluorine-free version outdid another 3M product, which took 50 seconds to extinguish the fire. All three foams met the 60-second standard for putting out jet fuel fires set by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“We were ecstatic,” said Schaefer, who made several improvements to the fluorine-free foam before patenting it in 2003. “We thought it would change the world.”
The U.S. Navy invited 3M to send a sample and, in 2004, Schaefer traveled to the Navy’s facility in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, for the testing. But the Navy required that foams be able to put out fires within 30 seconds. Neither the fluorine-free foam nor all of the PFAS-containing foams met the 30-second standard. At its fastest, the fluorine-free foam put out the fire in 39 seconds. For the PFAS foams, the times ranged between 25 and 36 seconds.
Schaefer had reason to believe that with practice, firefighters could apply the new product more quickly. With each of several tests of the fluorine-free foam, which is somewhat more viscous than AFFF and thus, applied slightly differently, the time to put out the flames decreased. “The firefighter related that he was confident he could get even better results,” Schaefer recalled. But even though the products were close in performance — and Schaefer’s foam had the added benefit of not containing chemicals that were already contaminating drinking water around the world — the Navy made no effort to work further on the fluorine-free foam, according to Schaefer.
“That performance gap could have been closed with effort,” he said. “But I didn’t hear ‘Let’s try to close that gap.’” Instead, the Navy noted the test as a failure and didn’t pursue it further for years. For its part, 3M turned back to researching fluorinated options and, within a few years, shut down its firefighting foam division entirely.
A Navy spokesperson said that the U.S. Department of the Navy “is aware of Mr. Schaeffer’s efforts in the past to produce a fluorine-free AFFF that would meet the MILSPEC requirements. While the DoN remains hopeful that a fluorine-free AFFF will be developed that meets or exceeds our minimum MILSPEC performance requirements, to date none has been brought to our attention. DoN continues to invest and conduct research and development to identify or develop a fluorine-free AFFF that falls within MILSPEC performance requirements.”
Between 2000 and 2004, Schaeffer also had several meetings with the Australian Defense Force, which uses AFFF based on the U.S. military specification. Schaeffer explained his concerns about fluorinated chemicals and described the potential of his new foam to avoid further contamination. But the meetings didn’t go well. “I felt their eyes glaze over,” he said recently. In response to a list of questions from The Intercept, an Australian defense spokesperson said that as a result of an internal report on general environmental issues associated with the use of AFFF, “from 2004 Defence commenced transitioning away from the 3M AFFF products.”
In 2007, a Norwegian company called Solberg bought the patent rights to the fluorine-free foam products from 3M and hired Schaefer to work on them. Like Schaefer, Jan Solberg, the company’s founder, believed the new foam was “the solution” to the massive contamination problems from AFFF that were already being discovered at crash sites, airports, and military bases around the world, as he told me recently.
Solberg also expected that militaries would soon adopt the fluorine-free foam. “I thought we would sell to the military,” said Solberg. “We saw that the U.S. market would be a big potential.”
But the company ran into significant opposition from the makers of AFFF. “The pressure on Solberg has been tremendous,” said Solberg, who retired in 2010 and sold the company in 2011. “We have been attacked by the foam manufacturers and the fluorosurfactant manufacturers, DuPont and Dynax.” Solberg complained that AFFF manufacturers “hired lobbyists to say this foam has never performed on any live fires, which wasn’t true.”
According to Tom Cortina of the Fire Fighting Coalition, the military didn’t adopt the alternative foam because it was inferior to AFFF. “As for fluorine-free foam, it is well known and objective testing has shown that it is significantly less effective than AFFF for extinguishing flammable liquid fires,” Cortina wrote in an email to The Intercept. “Fluorine-free foams are currently unable to meet the requirements of the US military specification.” Dynax did not respond to inquiries for this article.
But nine firefighting professionals interviewed for this story described similar dynamics within the firefighting foam industry, with manufacturers and sellers of AFFF fiercely defending their market by discrediting alternative foams. Even before the U.S. Navy was testing the Solberg foam, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition attacked the notion that anything could compete with AFFF.
“Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are the most effective agents currently available to fight hydrocarbon fuel fires in military, industrial, and municipal settings,” a newsletter from the industry pronounced in 2005. “This is not an opinion, but a statement of fact that is not disputed by any respected fire protection professional.”
Yet some fire professionals did disagree. In 2002, an international group of more than 100 firefighting experts held the first of five meetings about the foam and the trail of contamination it was leaving around the world. “We laid out a lot of the environmental problems very clearly,” said Roger Klein, a British chemist and firefighting foam expert who helped organize the meetings “and those who laid them out were shouted down by the industry.”
A bitter rift soon developed among fire experts over whether the fluorinated chemicals were worth the environmental and health risks they posed. On one side were Klein, environmental scientists, the makers of fluorine-free foams, and some firefighters, who raised concerns that the chemicals in firefighting foam were both polluting the planet and putting them at particular risk. On the other were the makers of AFFF. Though they represented a narrower slice of the firefighting world, their voices were amplified by a well-funded industry group.
After 2006, when the EPA reached an agreement with chemical manufacturers to phase out the eight-carbon molecules PFOA and PFOS by 2015, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition began to emphasize the safety of the six-carbon PFAS it would be using to replace them. The replacement chemicals were “not currently being considered for regulation by environmental authorities in the U.S., Europe, or Canada and are expected to be available to serve critical fire protection and life safety applications for the foreseeable future,” as the FFFC’s newsletter announced in 2007.
The industry group was right: The EPA was nowhere near regulating the six-chain molecules. But, as some within the Navy suspected, the lack of regulation didn’t mean the replacement PFAS were necessarily safe. Ronald Sheinson, a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory, drew his colleagues’ attention to the potential dangers in a 2007 email. “Although they are likely primarily C6 products,” he wrote, “they still have some as yet not completely quantitated hazard properties.”
Sheinson expressed support for investigating alternatives to AFFF and proposed that the military could reserve AFFF for emergencies and use foam that didn’t have persistent toxic chemicals in it for all the other uses.
But without EPA pressure, there was little reason for the military to pursue it. Just after the EPA announced it would not be looking at the PFAS in firefighting foam, Doug Barylski, who worked in the Naval Sea Systems Command, noted in an email to some of his colleagues that his team had “submitted issue papers to look at AFFF alternatives considering it prudent to do some early work.” However, “without any crisis the papers have not been funded.”
Instead, military brass took at least some of their cues from people who had a vested interest in keeping PFAS in wide use. In 2008, after several people within and outside the military expressed concerns about contamination from AFFF, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Wayne Arny passed on assurances about the safety of the new foam that he had gotten from its manufacturers.
“Over the past several months, my staff has met with a number of chemical industry representatives,” Arny wrote in a 2008 memo to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the assistant secretaries of the Air Force, Navy, and Army. “These representatives have assured us that suitable substitutes are being developed.” Arny explained that the Department of Defense wouldn’t be developing risk-management options “since industry is taking appropriate actions.”
Based on those assurances, the U.S. military has set out on the massive effort that is still underway: replacing AFFF with foam that contains slightly tweaked versions of those same chemicals.
The lobbying continues both nationwide and worldwide. According to slides that Korzeniowski, who’s now a private consultant, presented to the Department of Defense’s Materials of Emerging Regulatory Interest Team in July 2016, the “primary engagement points” for the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition and its international counterpart, the FluoroCouncil, include the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the EPA, the European Chemicals Agency, and Navsea, the division of the Navy that oversees the composition of AFFF.
In May 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met with executives from Chemours, which has taken over DuPont’s considerable fluorosurfactant business. In the negotiations over phasing out PFOA, DuPont asked for “timely review and approvals” of its replacements for that chemical. Chemours continues to sell those replacement chemicals for use in firefighting foam. And one of the items on the agenda of the May meeting held at EPA headquarters was the company’s desire to “protect significant new U.S. investments the company has made in reliance on previous EPA policy decisions.”
Chemours did not respond to a request for comment.
While the dangers of PFAS compounds have become increasingly obvious, many groups and individuals, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the General Accounting Office, at least one member of Congress, and a representative of the Australian military, have asked the Department of Defense about the possibility of switching to fluorine-free foam, often referring specifically to Solberg’s products.
The responses to these inquiries included the circular argument that fluorine-free foams can’t meet the military’s foam specification because the standard requires fluorinated surfactants, which fluorine-free foams purposefully exclude.
Bradley Williams of the Naval Research Laboratory issued a typical explanation in a 2013 letter to Michael Healy, a senior defense force officer in the Australian military. Outrage in Australia has spread over AFFF contamination of more than 100 sites around the country. In his response, Williams explained that the military’s specification “explicitly states that AFFF must contain fluorosurfactants,” going on to note that, in testing done in 2010, Solberg’s fluorine-free foam fell short of the performance standards, coming in at 5 seconds over the 30-second limit for putting out a gasoline fire.
Signed in the midst of growing outrage about foam contamination, the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress in November included not just $72 million for the Air Force and Navy to clean up PFOA and PFOS and $7 million for a nationwide study of the health effects of PFAS chemicals, but also a requirement that the military look into foam alternatives.
The law, however, made no mention of the replacements for PFOS and PFOA that are already known to pose dangers to health and the environment. And the military’s specification still requires that the firefighting foam “shall consist of fluorocarbon surfactants.” So by the standards of the law passed a few months ago, an “alternative” foam could contain a PFAS molecule other than PFOS and PFOA, as the replacement foam chosen by the Air Force does.
Still, while the U.S. military has been trading dangerous old compounds for dangerous new ones, others around the world have been making a different shift. Kim Olsen, who directs the fire training academy at Copenhagen Airport, oversaw his airport’s transition to fluorine-free foam in 2009. Olsen, who has worked in aviation for more than 40 years, helped conduct more than 20 tests comparing the toxic foam with foams that don’t contain the fluorinated surfactants. “The testing I’ve done clearly shows there’s no difference,” said Olsen. “They both work.”
Other governments and organizations have come to the same conclusion. On January 30, South Australia became the first state in that country to ban firefighting foams containing all PFAS chemicals — not just PFOS and PFOA. The Norwegian and Danish air forces now use fluorine-free foam, as does the oil and gas sector in the North Sea; countless firefighting brigades around the world; as well as 47 corporations, including 3M, Exxon Mobil, Statoil, and ConocoPhillips; and at least 77 airports, according to a list provided by an Australian firefighting official.
Graeme Day, the fire service compliance manager at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., has no regrets about the switch. Because Day was aware of the bitter battle over foam among fire experts, he conducted extensive public testing of the two types before Heathrow switched to fluorine-free foam in 2012. Day carefully documented the tests and even made sure that they were independently witnessed by representatives of the civil aviation authority.
The chemical vendors had warned Day beforehand that the new foam “would not work and protect passengers and firefighters well enough,” he said. But Day has felt only relief about the decision in the past five years — particularly after a British Airways airbus developed engine problems and caught fire in 2015. The firefighters had used fluorine-free foam to quickly put out the flames. Most importantly, no one was hurt. And for Day, there was an added plus: “zero cleanup costs and zero environmental concerns.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
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, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.
DuPont introduced GenX in 2009 to replace PFOA, also known as C8, a chemical it had used for decades to make Teflon and other products.
The Environmental Protection Agency has asked Chemours to test water near its plant in West Virginia for the presence of the chemical GenX. In a January 11 letter to Andrew Hartten, Chemours’ principal project manager for corporate remediation, Kate McManus, acting director of the EPA’s water protection division, noted that GenX has already “been detected in three on-site production wells and one on-site drinking water well” at the company’s factory in West Virginia, which is known as Washington Works.
McManus also referred to GenX contamination near the Chemours factory in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where DuPont and its spinoff Chemours dumped approximately 200,000 pounds of GenX into the Cape Fear River since 1980, according to Detlef Knappe, a North Carolina State University professor who has studied the contamination. In that time, more than 200,000 people have been exposed to GenX in their drinking water.
“EPA is concerned that drinking water wells in the vicinity of the Washington Works facility may similarly be contaminated by GenX,” the letter explained.
DuPont introduced GenX in 2009 to replace PFOA, also known as C8, a chemical it had used for decades in North Carolina, West Virginia, and other locations to make Teflon and other products. Like GenX, PFOA escaped the West Virginia plant and seeped into local drinking water. The contamination — and the fact that DuPont executives knew about it and hid their knowledge — set off a mammoth class-action suit, which DuPont settled for $671 million.
PFOA, which has been associated with cancers, autoimmune diseases, hormonal dysfunction, and other health problems, was phased out of use in the U.S. in 2015. Though DuPont presented GenX as a safer alternative to PFOA, the chemical has been associated with some of the same health problems, as The Intercept reported in 2016.
Attorney Robert Bilott has been asking the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to provide information on the use and release of GenX at the Parkersburg plant for more than a year. In a November 28 letter to the agency, Bilott noted that “at least some of the GenX materials at issue in North Carolina may be shipped to or used at the Washington Works plant in West Virginia, where there could also be air and water emissions.”
As the lead attorney in the epic legal battle over DuPont’s release of PFOA into the Ohio River, Bilott first asked the state agency to provide details on its agreement to allow DuPont to discharge GenX into the Ohio River in July of last year. But the agency didn’t respond to many of his letters — just as it had evaded many of his questions about PFOA before that.
“As noted in our previous correspondence, we have been writing to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (“WVDEP”) for over sixteen years to try to focus your Agency’s attention on the threats to human health and the environment posed by perfluorochemicals,” Bilott wrote in July.
A month before that, testing done by a university student in Ohio named Jason Galloway measured GenX in surface water as far as 20 miles from the West Virginia Chemours plant. Galloway also found the chemical in various creeks and streams in the area at levels reaching more than 100 parts per trillion.
The EPA chose 14 public and private drinking water supplies in the vicinity of the Washington Works facility to be tested for GenX “based upon their historically high concentrations of PFOA,” according to McManus’s letter. “It is likely that these same wells would be impacted by GenX based upon the common methods of dispersal.”
McManus instructed Chemours to complete the testing by March 31.
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, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.
GenX was engineered to replace PFOA, a toxic industrial chemical used to make Teflon. Now GenX has seeped into water in West Virginia and North Carolina.
After years of litigation over PFOA, an industrial toxin used to make Teflon and other non-stick and stain-resistant products, in 2009 DuPont introduced GenX. Now the slippery substitute has followed the path of the molecule it replaced, contaminating water near plants in West Virginia and North Carolina, and attracting its own intense legal interest.
The lawsuits over PFOA exposed the chemical’s links to several diseases, including kidney and testicular cancer. Like PFOA, also known as C8, GenX is a perfluorinated compound and similarly, was the subject of internal DuPont research showing it poses many of the same health concerns as the original chemical. Also like PFOA, GenX persists indefinitely in the environment.
In the past two weeks, two citizens groups in North Carolina announced plans to sue Chemours, the DuPont spinoff company that now makes GenX, over its release of the chemical from its plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority issued a letter of intent to sue both Chemours and DuPont last week over violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act over release of GenX into the Cape Fear River, which is a source of drinking water for more than 250,000 people in the Wilmington area. A conservative group called Civitas also announced its intention to sue Chemours over GenX. Both groups must wait at least 60 days after sending the letters before filing a suit.
The legal activity adds to the pressure on Chemours over GenX in North Carolina. On July 22, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina served the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality with a criminal subpoena to appear before a grand jury on August 22 and supply all records pertaining to the release of GenX into the Cape Fear River.
In West Virginia, where GenX has been found in ground water — though not yet in drinking water — attorney Robert Bilott, who sued DuPont over PFOA contamination, on July 28 issued a stern letter to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection requesting information about what the state agency knew about GenX when it allowed DuPont to release the chemical into local waters near the company’s plant in Parkersburg.
Levels of GenX in the waste water released from the plant into local water have been recorded in concentrations as high as 278 parts per billion in some locations, thousands of times higher than the drinking water standards the EPA set for PFOA, which is structurally similar to GenX and expected to have similar biological effects. On several occasions in 2013 and 2014, the levels of GenX in water coming from the Parkersburg plant were also higher than those set by the WVDEP, according to reports DuPont submitted to the WVDEP.
Bilott’s letter, which asked the WVDEP to “take immediate action to protect community drinking water supplies from possible GenX contamination,” echoed another he sent 16 years earlier asking the EPA to regulate PFOA “on the grounds that it ‘may be hazardous to human health and the environment.’” Chasing GenX through the environment and the courts may take just as long. Both chemicals are considered emerging contaminants, meaning they are not regulated under federal statutes, which makes it difficult to force polluters to clean them up. The EPA’s drinking water advisories for PFOA are voluntary rather than mandatory.
And the chemical industry seems to remain several steps ahead of regulators. After spinning off its “performance chemicals” division, DuPont settled the class action suit over PFOA for $671 million in February. DuPont is poised to merge with Dow at the end of August.
While the EPA has been slowly turning its attention to the class of chemicals that includes GenX and PFOA, considering the safety and cleanup of individual toxins one by one, industry has quietly come up with hundreds of replacements, introducing them to the market before they’ve proven to be safe. Although it wasn’t officially introduced until 2009, GenX was being released into the Cape Fear as a byproduct as early as 1980.
In what appears to be an attempt to disrupt this cycle of regrettable substitutions — and speed up the pollutant-by-pollutant approach to tackling their harms — the lawsuit the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is planning will target several chemicals. A recent study found six similar compounds in the Cape Fear River water, some at levels 100 times that of GenX. The water utility is planning to sue over the release of several of these “GenX pollutants,” as the Notice of Intent to Sue calls them.
Chemours did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A DuPont spokesperson declined to comment, saying that the company had “not been served with a complaint and therefore cannot comment on this matter.”
According to George House, one of the North Carolina utility’s lawyers, it’s the companies’ job to prove their products are safe — not the people’s responsibility to act as guinea pigs. “That’s putting the cart before the horse,” said House. “Why would someone think they can discharge whatever they want and then make the regulating body prove that it’s harmful to stop?”
A toxic chemical used to make Teflon has been detected in the drinking water in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in surface waters in Ohio and West Virginia.
A persistent and toxic industrial chemical known as GenX has been detected in the drinking water in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in surface waters in Ohio and West Virginia.
DuPont introduced GenX in 2009 to replace PFOA, a compound it used to manufacture Teflon and coatings for stain-resistant carpeting, waterproof clothing, and many other consumer products. PFOA, also known as C8, was phased out after DuPont was hit with a class-action suit over health and environmental concerns. Yet as The Intercept reported last year, GenX is associated with some of the same health problems as PFOA, including cancer and reproductive issues.
Levels of GenX in the drinking water of one North Carolina water utility, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, averaged 631 ppt (parts per trillion), according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters in 2016. Although researchers didn’t test the water of two other drinking water providers that also draw water from that area of the Cape Fear River, the entire watershed downstream of the Chemours discharge, which is a source of drinking water for some 250,000 people, is likely to be contaminated, according to Detlef Knappe, one of the authors of the study.
Research presented at a conference this week at Northeastern University detailed the presence of GenX in water in North Carolina and Ohio. In both cases, the chemical was found in water near plants that were owned by DuPont and since 2015 have been operated by DuPont’s spinoff company, Chemours. Both GenX and PFOA belong to a larger group of chemicals known as PFAS, which are structurally similar and believed to persist indefinitely in nature.
In Ohio, Jason Galloway, a university student who presented at the conference, measured the chemical in surface water as far as 20 miles from the Chemours plant, which is across the Ohio River in Parkersburg, West Virginia. After reading about the chemical in The Intercept, Galloway sampled water near the plant and tested it for GenX. Galloway found the chemical in various creeks and streams in the area at levels reaching more than 100 ppt. He explained that some of the chemical was likely deposited far from the plant by wind.
In North Carolina, GenX was present in water at even higher levels, with the most concentrated sample measuring 4,500 ppt. Although the EPA has not set legally binding regulations on any member of this class of chemicals, the agency last year set a drinking water standard for PFOA and the related chemical PFOS of 70 ppt. Several states have also set their own drinking levels for PFOA. Vermont has set the lowest so far at 20 ppt, and water experts in New Jersey have proposed an even lower level, 14 ppt, though it has not yet been finalized.
In response to an inquiry from the Intercept, the EPA provided a written response:
EPA is committed to protecting public health and supporting states and public water systems as the appropriate steps to address the presence of GenX in drinking water are determined. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA undertakes extensive evaluations of contaminants and uses the best available peer reviewed science to identify and regulate contaminants that present meaningful opportunities for health risk reduction. While EPA has not established a drinking water regulation, health advisory or health based benchmark for GenX in drinking water, the agency is working closely with the states and public water systems to determine the appropriate next steps to ensure public health protection.
In 2007, as it was phasing out the use of PFOA, DuPont applied to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to update its emissions permit. A resulting 2011 consent order between the company and the state agency allowed the company to emit wastewater containing as much as 17,500 ppt of GenX into a receiving stream near the plant, an amount that is 250 times the EPA drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS.
On stationery bearing the tagline “promoting a healthy environment,” the West Virginia document lays out the terms of the permit allowing DuPont to discharge its waste into the Ohio River and its tributaries. In the agreement, DuPont promised to implement a variety of “environmental control technologies that reduce environmental release and exposure.” A 2009 consent order between DuPont and the EPA, which The Intercept obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the company agreed to recover or destroy 99 percent of the GenX it produces.
It is unclear whether Chemours has kept DuPont’s promise to discharge just one percent of its GenX waste, in part because DuPont declared the amount it intended to produce confidential in the consent order. A spokesperson for DuPont referred questions to Chemours, saying “that whole thing has been transferred to them.” Chemours did not respond to inquiries for this article about how much GenX it produces and discharges into waters near its plants.
In an email, a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Jacob Glance, wrote that DuPont and Chemours have been submitting monitoring reports in accordance with their permit, but that the agency does not monitor the water for the presence of GenX.
In the West Virginia consent order, DuPont described GenX as having “a favorable toxicological profile” — a phrase Chemours has also used in its marketing materials. But DuPont’s own research calls that characterization into question. The company submitted 16 reports of adverse incidents related to GenX between 2006 and 2013, describing experiments in which lab animals exposed to the chemical developed cancers of the liver, pancreas, and testicles as well as benign tumors. The industry research also tied GenX to reproductive problems, including low-birth weight and shortened pregnancies in rats, and changes in immune responses.
On Monday, in response to local reporting about the presence of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water, North Carolina public health officials issued a statement assuring that “the GenX levels detected in 2013-2014 would be expected to pose a low risk to human health.” The statement mentioned a European study that had a high threshold of safety — 70,909 ppt — but didn’t provide a citation for it. Meanwhile, a recent Dutch report found that the adverse effects of GenX are similar to those of PFOA. And a 2017 report from a respected group of researchers in Sweden found GenX to be more toxic than PFOA.
Both Chemours and DuPont have also emphasized that GenX exits the human body more quickly than PFOA. But at the recent conference, Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, downplayed the significance of that difference. “Every PFAS that has been studied is causing problems,” said Birnbaum, whose agency funds scientific research into the chemicals. “Even if they have a shorter half-life, if it has a half-life of 30 days, it’s going to build up in your body.”
Given the conflicting information, Knappe, co-author of the study about drinking water in North Carolina, felt the state agency shouldn’t have suggested that extremely high levels of GenX are safe to ingest. “I really have heartburn over the 71,000 number,” said Knappe, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University. “It’s irresponsible to put that kind of number out and pretend that we can tell people that the water is safe at those levels.”
Many people in the area are also worried — and confused — about the contamination. Since she heard about the GenX in her drinking water, Deborah Buchanan has been wondering whether it might help explain why she developed thyroid cancer and thyroid disease in 2015. Although there is no research available on how GenX affects the human thyroid gland, a quick Google search showed Buchanan, who lives in Leland, North Carolina, that PFOA was linked with the disease. “I’m not sure that’s how I got sick,” said Buchanan, “but it does make me wonder.”
Parents in the area are particularly worried. As soon as the news was out, “all the cancer moms in our group started posting on Facebook,” said Amy Hermann, who organized local parents of children with cancer after her son developed leukemia in 2012. “My first thought was: what did we expose him to that might have started his cancer?” said Hermann. “My second thought was: We have three other kids. How do we protect them?”
Fifty families belong to Hermann’s group, the Wilmington Childhood Cancer Support Group, including families of several children with leukemia and three with a rare form of kidney cancer. PFOA has been linked to kidney cancer in humans, though there are no published studies on the links between GenX and kidney cancer in humans. Besides the industry studies, which were accessed on the EPA website using information that had originally been classified as “confidential business information,” there is very little research available on the health effects of GenX.
Even less is known about other chemicals the researchers found in the Cape Fear River. In addition to GenX, the scientists detected six other PFAS compounds in the river water, some at levels 100 times that of GenX. In all, experts estimate there may be between 3,000 and 6,000 different PFAS compounds.
“It just blows my mind to see the number and diversity of different compounds that are out there,” Andrew Lindstrom, a research scientist at EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory and co-author of the North Carolina study, told the audience at the conference. “You have to ask yourself: how good is the drinking water treatment plant that is downstream? And very often then answer is not very good.”
Indeed, even the advanced water processing system used by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which provided the water in the North Carolina study, was unable to keep the chemicals out. “We’d expect that it’d be very effective with a wide range of contaminants,” said Knappe, “but these compounds zipped through the plant untouched.”
Because the chemicals aren’t regulated, states and water providers are under little or no legal obligation to test for or remove them. And frustrated residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, Warminster, Pennsylvania, Pease, New Hampshire, and Oscoda, Michigan, among other communities with PFAS-contaminated water, have been taking matters into their own hands, organizing local protests, calling legislators, and putting pressure on polluters. In Wilmington, several groups have already sprung up to fight GenX. And the law firm Levin Papantonio has announced it is filing suit over the chemical.
But the legal strategy holds only limited promise. Though the class action suit over PFOA yielded a historic $671 million settlement in February, it took more than a decade to litigate. By spinning off Chemours, DuPont, which Thursday was granted conditional approval to merge with Dow, has stanched its losses. And well before the case was decided DuPont had already begun using and emitting its replacement, GenX. EPA monitoring conducted from 2013 to 2016, which tested for just six of the thousands of PFAS compounds, showed that 15 million Americans in 27 states have contaminated drinking water. The government is not currently monitoring drinking water for these chemicals.
The lack of government oversight is what drove Jason Galloway, the student in Ohio, to do his own testing for GenX. Galloway isn’t a chemist. He doesn’t even know how to swim. Yet he took it upon himself to go out in a kayak to get samples of local water.
“I looked around and when I saw it hadn’t been done, I knew the agencies who should have been doing it were either complicit or underfunded,” said Galloway. “So I did it myself.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
When the U.S. phased out PFOA, long used to make Teflon, China's production and use of the toxic chemical soared.
Standing on a concrete bridge above the Xiaoqing River, a farmer named Wu shook his head as he gazed down at the water below. Wu, who is 61, used to be able to see all the way to the bottom. And he and others in Cuijia, a village of about 2,000 in China’s Shandong province, used to swim at this very spot. There were so many turtles he could easily stab one with his forked spear, he recalled on a steamy Saturday in July. To catch some of the many fish, he simply threw a net into the water, he said, moving his arms as he spoke in a gesture that has survived in his muscle memory long after most of the fish have disappeared.
The Xiaoqing flows 134 miles through the major cities of Zibo, Binzhou, and Dongying in Shandong province. Tens of millions of people depend on it. In Jinan, which is close to the river’s origin, human and livestock waste and runoff from fertilizers and pesticides have caused the water to stink in recent years. But downstream from Jinan, waste from factories has compounded the river’s problems.
Directly translated from Chinese, the word “Xiaoqing” means “clean and clear.” But here in Cuijia, the water is neither. From the bridge, you can see debris and garbage swirling atop the forceful rush of brown. Occasionally, bits of plastic and something that looks like Styrofoam float by. But what may be most dangerous in the Xiaoqing River isn’t visible: perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, long used by DuPont in the production of Teflon, among other products, and linked to cancer and other diseases. Because Cuijia lies downstream from a factory that emits more PFOA than any other industrial facility in the world, levels of the chemical at various points near here are among the highest ever reported, reaching more than 500 times the safety level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently set for drinking water. The plant, operated by a company called Dongyue Group, is the world’s biggest producer of Teflon and emits 350 pounds of PFOA every day, an amount that totals 63 tons in a single year, according to a recent estimate.
DuPont and seven other companies agreed to phase out the use and production of PFOA in the United States by 2015, after lawsuits and protracted negotiations with the EPA. Keeping toxic chemicals at bay in countries that have relatively strong environmental regulations is a Herculean task that, in the case of PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, is still underway. Though this effort can consume the energies of Western environmentalists, the story doesn’t end when they push a toxic chemical beyond their borders. In China, that’s often when a chemical’s life begins in earnest.
As we stood next to the river, Wu looked out across the landscape. He wore blue plastic sandals and baggy gray pants. A shovel, from which two empty plastic buckets hung, lay across his shoulders, and as he listened to translations of my questions he nodded slightly. He had never heard of PFOA, he said, and didn’t know the exact causes of his village’s problems. There may be many. The Dongyue plant isn’t the only factory that disposes of its waste in the water. Wu said a paper mill upstream also puts waste into the river. And Dongyue itself makes many chemicals in addition to PFOA.
But Wu understands well that something has profoundly changed the river he has relied on his whole life. For more than a decade, the people of Cuijia have watched as their crops have stopped thriving. The corn does better than the wheat, he said, but both have become harder to cultivate. Recently, his wheat crop failed altogether, imperiling his family’s meager income.
Then there’s the sickness. More and more people in Cuijia have been falling ill and dying, he said, often with cancer and at a young age. When I asked whether any of them got medical help or reimbursement for their doctors’ bills when they became sick, Wu guffawed theatrically, putting one hand over his belly and turning his face to the side, as if some invisible presence would appreciate the absurdity of my idea. After his laughter subsided, he explained that some of the villagers had recently reported the increase in pollution and cancer to the local government, but had received no response.In 2005, a class-action suit against DuPont over contamination in West Virginia and Ohio set off the first alarms about PFOA, also known as C8 because of its 8-carbon molecule. In the intervening years, the attorney overseeing that case has waged a campaign to get the government to regulate the chemical in the U.S. But until recently, concern about perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in the U.S. remained the preoccupation of a small group of scientists and legal experts. It was only in the past year, as PFOS from firefighting foam was discovered in the water near hundreds of military bases, and communities around the country found PFOA and other PFCs in their drinking water, that awareness blossomed into outrage.
Around the world — from Hoosick Falls, New York, to Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, Holland, Sweden, and several parts of Australia — communities have begun to understand not only that the chemicals have been in their water for years but also that the contamination continued after industry scientists knew PFOA and PFOS persisted indefinitely in the environment, accumulated in human bodies, and affected health.
Yet by the time that information made its way to the public, the contamination was too great to be completely cleaned up, and PFCs were already in the vast majority of human bodies. A 2007 study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control found that 99.7 percent of Americans over 12 had trace amounts of PFOA in their blood, while 99.9 percent had PFOS. The contamination begins even before birth, according to a 2006 study, which detected PFOA in 99.3 percent of umbilical cord blood.3M and sold to DuPont to help make Teflon, a panel of scientists linked the chemical to thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, and high cholesterol, as well as kidney and testicular cancer. Although debate continues about the precise dangers the chemicals present and what amount — if any — is safe to ingest, researchers have seen an association between PFOA and other health problems, including decreased immune function, impaired sperm quality, and low birth weight in humans, and pancreatic and liver cancer in lab animals. A recent EPA report on PFOS and drinking water also noted possible links with bladder, colon, and prostate cancer as well as reduced fertility.
This mounting knowledge has translated into action in many places — if slowly and, some argue, inadequately. The European Union officially deemed PFOA a “substance of very high concern” in 2013, a designation reserved for chemicals that have “serious and often irreversible effects on human health and the environment.” Production and use of both chemicals has subsequently ceased throughout most of Europe, Japan, and Canada. And in response to outrage over contamination, one Australian state recently banned firefighting foam that contains PFOS.
In the U.S., an agreement between the chemical industry and the EPA brought all production and use of PFOA and PFOS to an end last year. And in May, in part because of concern in communities that had discovered PFOA and PFOS in their water supplies, the EPA came up with voluntary standards limiting the amount of both chemicals in drinking water to .07 parts per billion (ppb). This week, New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute recommended a much lower standard, .014 ppb, one-fifth that of the federal EPA. The U.S. Air Force just announced that it would replace its PFOS-containing firefighting foam with a safer substitute, and people exposed to the chemicals in their water have sued both the U.S. Navy and private companies.
Yet while most of the world was phasing out PFOA and PFOS and beginning to address the problems they had caused, the chemicals emerged in countries with fewer restrictions. There is some evidence that India and Russia have recently used PFOA to make Teflon and that Russia may also be manufacturing the chemical. But it’s in China that the business has truly boomed, keeping global output of PFOA and PFOS steady even as the industry ground to a virtual halt everywhere else.tripled, according to one 2015 study. Though it’s impossible to quantify precisely, the country now makes somewhere between 64 and 292 tons of PFOA per year, most of which is released directly into the water and air. Total PFOA emissions in China may be as high as 168 tons per year, according to one recent estimate. And both production and emissions are predicted to continue through at least 2030. China also produces somewhere between 110 and 220 tons of PFOS a year, more than any other country.
So while Teflon began as a quintessentially American brand, China now manufactures most of the world’s supply of the slippery substance, which is used in dental floss, textile fibers, wire and cable insulation, and hundreds of other products, including nonstick cookware. The Dongyue plant in Shandong used PFOA to make more than 49,000 tons of Teflon in 2013 as well as four other products, including PVDF, a compound used in the semiconductor, medical, and defense industries.
Though they’re toxic, persistent, and accumulate in human bodies, PFOA and PFOS are by no means the only contaminants China has to worry about — or the most dangerous. Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, which cause cancer, lung problems, and brain damage, have made one-fifth of the country’s farmland too polluted for growing food. Air pollution, which has reached hazardous levels in at least 83 cities — and in some places, as much as 20 times recommended levels — is perhaps the country’s most visible problem and is contributing to soaring lung cancer rates.
The nation’s water crisis is just as dire. More than 80 percent of China’s underground water supply is unfit for human consumption and almost two-thirds is unfit for any human contact, according to a government report released earlier this year. Some 300 million people —almost equivalent to the entire U.S. population — lack access to clean drinking water, and an estimated 190 million have become sick from drinking water polluted with everything from pesticides to heavy metals, toxic waste, and oil spills.
PFOA and PFOS are just the latest in a steady stream of chemicals to make the journey to China after being cast off by countries that have deemed them unacceptably hazardous. Production of short-chain chlorinated paraffins, which are used as lubricants and coolants in metal cutting, shot up 30-fold in China as these chemicals were coming under EPA scrutiny. Similarly, China is now the world’s biggest producer of HBCD, a flame retardant the EPA recently targeted for action. And the aniline dye industry migrated from the U.S. to China after it was well established that the chemicals involved are carcinogenic.
“I call it the leftovers problem,” said Joe DiGangi, who works for IPEN, a network of organizations in 116 countries devoted to protecting health and the environment from toxic chemicals. “Often a chemical comes under public or regulatory pressure in the EU or the U.S. and then shortly thereafter, Chinese companies begin producing it,” said DiGangi. China and the other developing countries that inherit it, he said, “often don’t have the adequate infrastructure to regulate, monitor, and deal with it safely.”Changshu Advanced Materials Industrial Park sprang up in 2001, just as the first suit over PFOA contamination in West Virginia was being filed and PFCs were coming under the scrutiny of the EPA. Originally named the Chiangsu High-Tech Fluorine Chemical Industrial Park, the almost 6-square-mile campus in the Yangtze River Delta is home to more than 40 factories. With an output of 31,000 tons per year, it is China’s second largest source of Teflon after the Dongyue plant. Many of the factories in the park produce fluorochemicals, and several of them are operated by companies that used or made PFOA and PFOS in the U.S. until recently, such as Solvay Solexis, Arkema, and Daikin. (Solvay Solexis, Arkema, and Daikin did not respond to requests for comment.)
DuPont, which made Teflon a household name, also built a plant here in 2008 at a cost of $80 million. In July 2015, it passed the facility on to a new company called Chemours, when it spun off its performance chemical division. In July 2016, Chemours announced it would invest $15 million to expand its Changshu Works plant to augment the company’s “already considerable presence in China” and increase Teflon output. (Chemours did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
With its own fire station and heat, water, power, sewage, and postal systems, the Changshu industrial center is like a small self-contained city. A giant modern sculpture and the flags of more than a dozen nations adorn its entrance, and manicured shrubbery lines its freshly paved roads. Changshu’s website lays out grand plans for the park, predicting that it “will become a paradise for technological development, a powerful treasure land and an ecologically harmonious auspicious land.”
But after more than a decade of operations, residents of a nearby village called Haiyu have planted corn between and around the neatly spaced buildings. Although the crop appears to be fed at least in part with wastewater, one of the villagers told me that people in Haiyu eat the corn as they always have, cooking it on the cob and grinding up whatever’s left to make dough for noodles.
One family of three even made their home on one of the park’s many crisscrossing canals, mooring their old wooden boat under an overpass that a plaque identified as the “DuPont Bridge.” Although the labels on the pipes lining the canal made it clear that at least some of them carried industrial waste, the family had been living there for some time, ferrying chemicals between the factories. Their boat was festooned with drying laundry.
A short drive from DuPont Bridge, a man wearing a Paddington T-shirt bearing a picture of the bear eating a sandwich was fishing in another canal. He sat under a thatch of trees across from a factory, dangling a wooden rod into the water below as brown waves lapped at the mouth of a pipe that opened onto the stone-lined canal. The man told me he worked at one of the factories. This was a Sunday, and though he didn’t have to work, he had ridden 40 minutes on his motorbike to try his luck fishing. He’s spent most of his days off this way over the past four years. And in that short time he had noticed the number and quality of the fish in the canals worsen. That morning, it had taken several hours just to catch the six small fish in the plastic bucket beside him.
Scientists might have predicted the size and yield of his catch, since PFOA has been shown to harm fish exposed to it. The chemical causes male fish to develop female reproductive cells and the ovaries of female fish to degrade. Contaminated food may account for as much as 90 percent of human exposure to PFOA and PFOS.
There are plenty of both chemicals in this water. In fact, in 2013 the scientists measured some of the highest concentrations of PFCs ever reported in China right here in this industrial park. But the man in the Paddington shirt said he wasn’t terribly concerned. He’s careful to switch fishing spots if the water begins to smell bad or turns an odd color. He had just recently stopped fishing at a nearby canal when its water turned an electric blue. He said the fish he caught at other spots sometimes tasted bad, but these were delicious, especially when stewed with soy sauce and spices over a small fire.
Ni Jiahui, director of the Changshu park, wrote in an email that wastewater in the park was pre-treated at factories and then sent to the park’s wastewater treatment plant and that factories’ exhaust systems have to pass an environmental assessment. Ni also acknowledged in his email that boats are present in the park and that people farm and fish amid the factories. “I think having people fishing and farming in the industrial park are indications that our chemicals production has not caused any problem to the environment,” he wrote. “Otherwise no one would fish here.”Just as in the U.S., the production of PFCs in China has been followed by a rise of the chemicals in the environment — and in people. As scientists traced the growing presence of these chemicals in water and fish, they were also able to document increasing levels in human blood by looking at several students and faculty members at a university in the northern city of Shenyang. Between 1987 and 2002, the level of PFOA increased 54-fold, while blood levels of PFOS increased by a factor of 747. Since then, they have crept up further, especially in factory workers and commercial fisherman.
You can also find the molecules in dust and air, as one study recently did, documenting a 12-mile plume of PFOA-contaminated air that surrounds the Dongyue plant in Shandong. The level of PFOA in the nearby Zhulong River was recently measured at 10,379 ppb, more than 148,000 times what the U.S. had deemed safe.
Yet other than guards who discouraged passing cars from slowing, nothing seemed particularly menacing about the Dongyue plant. The factory entrance was plastered with colorful billboards with reassuring English messages, such as “Safety and environmental protection are the first value of the Dongyue group,” and “Taking good care of yourself is the best love to your mother.”
Just over 5 miles away, in a small farming village called Bozhadian, the residents seemed well aware of the river’s problems. An elderly man who was ushering his herd of goats across a bridge over the Zhulong said that no one fishes in the river anymore. And the proprietor of the local corner store said simply, “The water’s not good there.”
Low labor costs and a lack of environmental regulation helped draw American and European chemical companies to China. Since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping opened the country’s economy to the world, the chemical industry has been at the heart of its dazzling growth. In the past four decades, the Chinese chemical sector has grown faster than that of almost any other country. From 2000 to 2010, production of chemicals nearly tripled. By 2010, industry sales totaled more than $754 billion a year.
Yet knowledge of the environmental hazards of industrial chemicals — and how to address them — has not always made the trip.
Since 2006, when it first negotiated the phaseout of both PFOA and PFOS in the U.S., the EPA has also required companies to drastically reduce their emissions of the chemicals. And each of the eight companies that participated readily began recycling and incinerating PFOA after using it. Companies in Japan and Western Europe also instituted recycling.
Yet in China, these straightforward techniques of disposing of PFOA appear to be the rare exception. Scientists I contacted agreed that releasing the chemical waste directly into waterways and the air seemed to be the norm. “The best available treatment technique is not used in China despite that this would be a very cost-efficient and easy way to drastically reduce emissions of PFOA,” Robin Vestegren, an environmental researcher at Stockholm University, wrote in an email.
The Dongyue Group declined a request to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson wrote in an email that the company denies researchers’ claims that its emissions contribute to water pollution in the Xiaoqing River. The email also said that the Chinese government has installed a 24-hour monitoring system in its factory, and that its emissions comply with government regulations. “Dongyue values environmental protection above all things,” the company spokesperson added.
But Vestegren and his colleagues in China recently calculated how much PFOA the plant would emit based on its Teflon production, and found that the number was very close to the actual amount they measured in the Xiaoqing River. (A small amount of the chemical is also emitted through the air.) Vestegren wrote that he was confident the plant “has not installed any treatment technology.”
You can even see the differences in practice between plants belonging to the same company. In the U.S., DuPont greatly reduced its emissions of PFOA after coming under scrutiny. Workers’ blood levels dropped, too. The amount of PFOA in workers at its New Jersey plant was down to an average of 1,644 ppb by 2007 and had dropped to 1,110 by 2009. But in China, the levels of PFOA in workers’ blood reached an average of 2,250 ppb within the first year of operation of the Changshu plant.The EPA action that marked the beginning of the end of PFOA and PFOS in the U.S. might have raised red flags about the chemicals here, too. At least one Chinese news outlet, the Shanghai Star, covered the story in July 2004, when the EPA first charged DuPont with failing to report the risks of PFOA. Although it described the chemical as posing “a potential threat to health,” the Star noted that the Chinese government didn’t have the technology necessary to do its own safety tests.
DuPont’s international messaging team was quick to fill in the blanks. Shortly after the news broke, two senior staff members from DuPont’s Beijing office took part in a talk show on sina.com, one of the largest Chinese-language websites, offering assurances that there was no link between PFOA and health hazards and noting that “administrative reporting requirements in the U.S.” had led to a “misunderstanding about the quality of the products.” On its Chinese website, DuPont proclaimed that the company had used the chemical “safely” for 50 years and, according to the story, that “there is no PFOA in Teflon product.”
Neither statement was true — there were trace amounts of PFOA in Teflon, and DuPont had known for years about the health effects of PFOA on its workers and lab animals. But the effort seems to have quelled any nascent controversy in China over the chemical.
In an emailed statement, a DuPont spokesperson wrote that the company “always acted responsibly based on the health and environmental information that was available to the industry and regulators about PFOA at the time of its usage.”
Small organizations like Guo’s, which has only four full-time staff members, often rely on volunteers. More than 100 have come forward to help Green Qilu. For now, most pitch in by participating in the “black and smelly river project,” which involves visiting local waterways and reporting on whether they reek or have an odd color. The project, which is sponsored by the central government’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, has already yielded an alarming picture of the extent of water contamination nationwide. But going further — figuring out which particular contaminants are causing the changes or taking steps to remove them — is a trickier business.
Part of the problem is financial. It’s expensive to train volunteers and test water for individual chemicals. The Chinese government made a huge step in 2013 by requiring factories not only to perform certain tests on their wastewater but also to make the water itself available for independent testing. Environmentalists around the country, including Guo, have begun to collect samples. But, while more than 40,000 types of chemical products are made in China, Guo can usually only afford to test for one or two and sometimes opts for tests that simply characterize the water as good, fair, or poor.
An even bigger challenge is a fear of reprisal that hovers over environmental work in China. Businesses often don’t take kindly to citizen oversight. And if protestors are perceived as undermining the government, the consequences can be dire. Guo said Green Qilu’s volunteers wouldn’t be comfortable investigating industrial water contamination because “they’re hesitant that the factories will do something to them or their families.” And even though he is careful to file all the appropriate papers and follow all government regulations, he sometimes worries that the work will somehow cause problems for his own family.
Simply documenting levels of various substances in air, soil, and water can be a risky pursuit. Several of the Chinese researchers I spoke with who track the presence of PFOA said they didn’t want to be mentioned by name. And one environmentalist, Mao Da, told me of his difficulties finding epidemiologists to work on a survey of people living near waste incinerators. “The university professors didn’t want to do it because they didn’t want to have trouble,” Da said, adding that “data collection can be very hard because the local government may try to stop you.”Despite the potential consequences of sticking their necks out, many have. In recent years, environmental protests have become the most common form of public demonstration, which has helped bring the country to a distinct turning point. While activists still sometimes face arrest and detention, Chinese authorities seem increasingly tolerant of their occasional outbursts and view pollution itself as a greater threat to the social order than protests over it.
The country’s new environmental protection law, which went into effect last year, may be the best evidence of the seriousness with which the Chinese government is now approaching the crisis. The law lifted what had been a low ceiling on fines that government officials could impose on polluters and for the first time authorized environmental organizations to sue over pollution. The first successful verdict came in June.
The youth of the environmental movement and the severity of the mess it has sprung up to address make this an odd — and, in some ways, hopeful — moment for China. “It’s like the late ’60s in America,” said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based organization the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “The issue is so bad and so obvious,” it’s become virtually impossible to ignore. “We feel quite lucky. It’s one of the few areas where we have so much social consensus.”
Ma has been thinking about China’s pollution problem for a long time, first as a journalist, and for the past 10 years, as head of the venture that came up with perhaps the cleverest way to fix it. To Ma, the most vexing aspect of China’s situation was the lack of transparency. Large companies throughout the world had outsourced their dirty chemical work to China, but few were keeping track of what these companies were doing with their waste. The big foreign companies sometimes didn’t even know which companies were supplying their chemicals, let alone what their environmental practices were. “The supply chain was a black box,” said Ma.
IPE has managed to shine light into that box by harnessing both the Chinese government’s amped up commitment to tracking pollution and the internet’s power for public shaming. The organization created a database that allows multinational and local brands to see whether their Chinese suppliers comply with the law, using data that factories are now obligated to report about their waste. It also synthesized information on companies such as Adidas, H&M, Zara, and Dell — whether they screen their suppliers or even attempt to identify pollution problems, for instance — into handy online charts available in English.
Unfortunately, IPE’s online tool has very little information on PFOA or PFOS, since reporting on the use of these chemicals is still voluntary. But you can get a sense of some of the companies that still use these chemicals from the EPA’s website.Texas Instruments, the Motorcycle Industry Council, Tyco Fire Protection Products, Gelest, Hewlett Packard, the High Speed Wax Company, Intel, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the American Coatings Association, and the Semiconductor Industry Association.
In some cases, the rationale for requesting an exemption seemed to be based on the unique qualities of PFCs. (PFOA gives ski racers an inimitable glide, for instance.) But for many manufacturers, the challenge appeared to be logistical. A letter from the Association of Global Automakers described the average car as “a complex web of systems and networks, containing more than 30,000 unique components sourced from thousands of suppliers around the world.” Thus, it concluded, removing the chemicals would pose “significant challenges to the automotive sector.”Given the heft of the industries and the number of countries involved in the chemical trade, it would be folly to think that China — or any nation — could tackle the problem alone. This was the idea behind the Stockholm Convention, a treaty adopted in 2001 as a way for countries to collectively stop the migration of toxic chemicals, which move across borders not just by way of changing regulations and market forces but also wind and ocean currents. The convention focuses on chemicals that persist in the environment and build up in people’s bodies. PCBs and DDT were among the first “dirty dozen” it targeted.
But even with the backing of 179 countries, including China, the Stockholm Convention has made slow progress. The convention added PFOS to the list of substances to be restricted in 2009. Implementation of the order didn’t begin until 2014. Even then, industries petitioned for exemptions, and loopholes were carved out for the use of PFOS in firefighting foam, liquid crystal displays, color printers, and decorative plating. A precursor of PFOS can still be used to control red fire ants, and China ships between 30 and 50 tons of it each year to Brazil, which has used and then dumped much of the stuff.
When I visited the office responsible for implementing the Stockholm Convention in China, on the outskirts of Beijing, the staff had recently finished hosting a delegation from North Korea. To put the enormity of their burden in some perspective, they had been coaching the North Koreans on how to eliminate PCBs, chemicals the rest of the world stopped making decades ago. In addition to overseeing the Stockholm Convention project throughout the Pacific region, which includes many countries that are much further behind in terms of eliminating the chemicals than China, the office is also responsible for administering the Basel Convention, a separate treaty governing the transnational movement of hazardous waste.
All of which helps explain why their efforts to reduce PFOS in China through the convention are just getting underway. “We’re just in the beginning to investigate how much of the chemical occurs,” one staff member told me. “China is a very big country. We have a lot of industry. We need some time.”
In the coming weeks, a committee is expected to take the first steps toward adding PFOA to the convention’s list. Though participating governments probably won’t make a final decision until at least 2019, it seems likely that at some point not too far in the future, that chemical, too, will start inching closer to elimination.
“The country may get a few years out of it,” IPEN’s DiGangi said of PFOS, which itself was a substitution for another chemical, Halon, that was produced in China and phased out in the 1980s because it was depleting the ozone layer. For the PFCs, foreign companies have already taken the next step, replacing PFOA and PFOS with similar molecules that are based on shorter-carbon chains. DuPont, for instance, swapped out PFOA for a chemical it calls GenX.
Indeed, Ni Jiahui, the director of the Changshu industrial park, said that because of safety concerns, both PFOS and PFOA have now been replaced with shorter-chain PFCs. The most recent testing, done in 2012, showed both these replacement molecules and PFOA were present in the water around the park.
While new testing could help clarify that the park has since exclusively switched to shorter-chain replacements such as GenX, it’s difficult to confirm whether companies have phased out chemicals. For instance, one group of German scientists led by Franziska Heydebreck recently measured extremely high levels of 8- and 10-carbon chain compounds inside a Chinese textile manufacturing plant that supposedly had switched to shorter-chain replacement PFCs.
Because many of the shorter-chain PFCs do not appear to be much safer than PFOA and PFOS, even if companies do switch to these molecules, they will likely wind up having to swap out these replacements as they are targeted for global elimination.
The justification for adopting these cast-off chemicals is financial, of course. Yet, many of the leftovers that were big moneymakers in their earlier years aren’t as lucrative in the last stage of their lives. As China has become the main producer of Teflon in recent years, its price has dropped.
Whether because of this or the broader economic forces that have squeezed the Chinese chemical industry, business was slow for the family living on the boat under DuPont Bridge. In the past month, the woman said, she had ferried only a single load of chemicals over the canals of the Changshu industrial park and was worried about how her family would survive.
A few miles away, in a hotpot restaurant in the small city of Fushan, two men also pondered the business of making a living at the chemical park. The name “Fushan” translates to “Fortune Mountain.” But given its proximity to the factories that make PFCs, some locals have darkly joked that the town ought to be called “Fluorochemical Mountain,” which sounds very similar in Chinese.
The argument briefly grew heated, as the two men raised their voices and put down their chopsticks. But the factory worker put an end to it with an analogy: “It’s like walking down the road,” he said, as they returned to their meal. “There’s always a chance you might get hit by a bus, but still you walk.”
The analogy doesn’t hold up. China faces far more than the possibility that these toxic chemicals will spread throughout the country. They already have, exposing Chinese people to PFCs without their knowledge or consent. It’s much the same predicament Americans were in 15 years ago, except that this time scientists have a far greater understanding of the dangers posed by the molecules being released into water and soil. And even as international experts prepare to hammer out which chemicals to tackle next and the Chinese government slowly brings its immense power to bear on the pollution problem, they continue to accumulate.
Back in Cuijia, the situation is already urgent. According to Wu, young people in the village decided their best shot — the only one in their power, really — was to leave. Most have. Not long ago, Wu’s own son set off to become an itinerant worker, a life he hopes will be safer than relying on the polluted Xiaoqing River.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and ChinaFile.
Research: Coco Liu
First DuPont spun off much of its environmental liability into a new company known as Chemours. Now the company plans to merge with Dow.
Sometime back in the early 1980s — Craig Skaggs can’t recall the exact year — a DuPont executive vice president ordered a thorough review of the company’s waste sites. A new hire named Martha Rees was given the job of compiling a list of all the places the company had manufactured, used, and dumped chemicals. “She was this young attorney that had been assigned this grunt work, really,” said Skaggs, who worked in government affairs for DuPont from 1974 until 2001. “And she’d come to my office frequently.”
It was a different era back when Rees started writing what would become known as “the Rees Report.” Love Canal, the environmental disaster in Niagara Falls, New York, in which a school was built on top of a toxic dump, had awakened Americans to the idea that industrial chemicals might be dangerous. Judging from Rees’s assignment, DuPont, which jointly owned a company that played a bit role in the Love Canal disaster, seems to have taken notice, too.
But appreciation of the extent of the harm posed by DuPont’s chemical plants dawned slowly, according to Skaggs. Back when the project began — and quickly expanded from a memo to a report to a “whole filing system” — the dangers of environmental waste were still remote and abstract enough for at least some at the company to joke about. “We used to call it a barrel of di-double-do-bad,” Skaggs said of the waste, which he recalls as being subject to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind treatment. “It was, take it to the dump, just dump it behind the building.”
Tracking the contents of all these barrels, pits, dumps, leaks, landfills, spills, and waste streams over time was a monumental task. Even back in the 1980s, the company, which was founded in 1802, had an environmental trail that defied cataloguing. “There were waste sites from the ’50s and ’40s,” said Skaggs, who remembers there being 113 plants at the time — and the waste sites as being far more numerous. “Waste would be hauled off in drums and taken to these sites and buried. And often, these sites were owned by other people.”
Rees was meticulous, combing through legal files within the company, interviewing employees who might know about older waste sites, and researching property records for evidence of the company’s disposal records over the years, according to Skaggs. “It was a huge thing,” he said, admiringly. “She did a great job.”
Martha Rees, who according to her LinkedIn profile retired from the company in 2015, did not return repeated calls inviting her to participate in this article. In response to inquiries about the Rees Report, DuPont spokesperson Daniel Turner wrote in an email, “It is hard to comment on the recollections of a former DuPont employee only to say that the employee may be mistaken.”
Last July, DuPont spun off its “performance chemicals” division, forming a new company known as Chemours, along with responsibility for a large portion of its environmental liabilities, including litigation over PFOA. Then, in December, DuPont announced plans to merge what was left of its company with another chemical giant, Dow, and to divide the resulting corporate colossus into three separate entities.
Together, the moves leave those struggling with DuPont’s environmental legacy with lots of questions. So even as they’re litigating the case of David Freeman, an Ohio man who developed testicular cancer after drinking water contaminated with PFOA, attorneys have also been asking the court to compel DuPont to demonstrate its ability to cover any awards to Freeman and other plaintiffs.
In particular, they want to know “where the liabilities and obligations of DuPont will fall” if the merger takes place. In their most recent legal brief in what is known as the Leach case, submitted on May 11 to Federal Judge Edmund Sargus, lawyers reiterated fears that the proposed Dow-DuPont merger “may be an attempt to extinguish DuPont’s liability” for claims related to PFOA. “DuPont reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from the manufacture of C-8 at its Washington Works plant and is now taking the position that not one Leach class member is entitled to compensation for injuries linked to their exposure to C-8.”
In its own brief, filed on May 4, DuPont said there had been no decision yet as to how the emerging companies will handle the costs in the PFOA cases and called the plaintiffs’ request for documents premature as well as “improper and intrusive.” DuPont’s lawyers also said that the plaintiffs’ accusations that the company was dodging its responsibilities were “merely speculative.”
Those awaiting their day in court said they were worried not just that DuPont would try to duck out of its financial responsibilities, but that the company might disappear entirely. While DuPont has repeatedly promised that it will cover its liabilities, plaintiffs’ lawyers responded that those assurances are meaningless “if DuPont fails to exist, which is likely after the impending merger.”
“I’m afraid DuPont will vanish,” said Rob Bilott, the attorney who oversees the class-action suit.
The company DuPont spun off in July, Chemours — meant to rhyme with “Nemours,” as in DuPont’s founder, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours — assumed a heavy load from its corporate parent. The assets it inherited — including 37 active chemical plants and DuPont’s fluorochemical division — accounted for just 19 percent of DuPont’s $35 billion in sales in 2014. Chemours also assumed 62 percent of DuPont’s environmental liabilities, including 174 polluted sites.
As part of the agreement, Chemours assumed legal responsibility for DuPont’s costs in “product liability, intellectual property, commercial, environmental and anti-trust lawsuits,” according to the filings. But some fear that Chemours will be unable to fulfill those obligations. Jeffrey Dugas, a spokesperson for Keep Your Promises DuPont, which represents people living near DuPont’s West Virginia plant who were exposed to PFOA, saw the spinoff as a deliberate dodge. “It looked to us like another way for DuPont to avoid paying the people of the mid-Ohio valley what they were owed,” said Dugas. “All of a sudden these massive liabilities are being transferred to a poorly capitalized company.”
Chemours’s first year has been financially shaky. Since opening at $21.00 a share a year ago, the company’s stock has fallen to $8.34. While DuPont has promised to cover some of the new company’s liabilities if necessary, that promise won’t necessarily cover all the company’s costs, as Chemours spelled out in its February SEC filings. “DuPont has agreed to indemnify us for such liabilities, but such indemnity from DuPont may not be sufficient to protect us against the full amount of such liabilities, and DuPont may not be able to fully satisfy its indemnification obligations.”
One financial website recently put Chemours’s chances of bankruptcy at 50 percent. Another, Citron Research, went further, concluding in early June that Chemours is “a bankruptcy waiting to happen,” and likening DuPont’s “dump-off” of liabilities to its treatment of PFOA itself. “While chemical giant DuPont has spent 60 years dumping waste around its facilities, they have spent the past 11 months dumping this ‘toxic spinoff’ on Wall Street.”
With Chemours’s creation, DuPont was “diabolically using the legal system to avoid liability,” according to Citron, which spelled out the gambit this way: “Create a bad entity that is designed to fail, so the good entity can be spared the reputational and liability damage.” The financial website predicted that it will take Chemours 18 months to go bankrupt, “just long enough for the new Dow/DuPont to split into three companies, and create separate entities that will all fight for indemnification from this financial toxic dumpsite of liabilities.”
Citron, which has been publishing for 15 years, concluded that the spinoff amounted to “complete securities fraud” and that Chemours is “the most morally and financially bankrupt company that we have ever witnessed.”
A February announcement that DuPont would also indemnify the individual members of Chemours’s board, ensuring that none of them faced personal financial consequences, was no doubt a relief to the executives, including CEO Mark Vergnano, whose current salary is about $1.33 million before stock options. But it rattled some close to the PFOA litigation. “It’s not right that individuals in a corporation can make decisions that endanger millions of people and then walk away,” said Paul Brooks, a West Virginia doctor who helped tally the health consequences of the chemical.
In an email, DuPont’s Daniel Turner wrote, “DuPont remains committed to continuing to fulfill all of its environmental and legal obligations in accordance with existing local, state and federal regulatory guidelines. The indemnification provision we agreed to with Chemours does not take away any valid legal claims that plaintiffs have against DuPont for pre-spin operations or the right to collect from DuPont if DuPont is found liable in any related action.”
The statement also said that “under state and federal law, most, if not all of the Chemours active environmental remediation responsibilities are guaranteed by surety bonds or other forms of insurance that name the government as the beneficiary. Should Chemours fail to perform, the government may step in and use these funds to complete any required remediation.”
Chemours declined a request to comment for this story.
If all goes according to plan, a unified DowDuPont could emerge as soon as October. Though the mega-company is anticipated to have a combined market capitalization of $130 billion, it may be hard for plaintiffs to access any of that money.
“Moving assets around can make it more difficult to recover,” said Lawrence A. Hamermesh, a professor of corporate law at Delaware Law School. The merged entity assumes the debts of the original companies that formed it, said Hamermesh. And depending how Dow DuPont chose to organize those debts, “it could get complicated.”
It could become more complicated still after DowDuPont splits into three separate companies — one for agricultural chemicals; another for “specialty products” such as Kevlar, Tyvek, and food additives; and a third that will specialize in chemicals used in cars, food packaging, and pharmaceuticals.
“With all these spinoffs and individual companies, it’s possible that the company that carries through all of this could end up having very few assets,” said Hamermesh.
It’s possible, too, that Chemours’s financial woes could derail the planned merger altogether, according to Donald Baker, an anti-trust attorney hired by Keep Your Promises DuPont. Since the merger has been envisioned as a coming together of equals, in which the shareholders of each company would take a 50 percent stake in the combined company, a financial failure at Chemours could alter that equation. “If Chemours went under, then some of the assignments to Chemours might be set aside as fraudulent for purposes of bankruptcy law,” said Baker. If that happened, “the Dow shareholders might feel that giving DuPont 50 percent or close of the combined company wasn’t worth it because DuPont was responsible for this big turd.”
The exact size of that turd is subject to both interpretation and change. Last July, DuPont counted 171 contaminated Chemours sites; Chemours has since upped the number of sites to 174. Citing “adverse” circumstances, Chemours also acknowledged that the bill for its environmental burdens might be $611 million higher than its first estimate of $290 million.
One reason for the upward revision could be the ballooning exposure of PFOA litigation. In October, DuPont was found liable for $1.6 million in the first of more than 3,500 personal injury claims relating to the chemical. In February, the company settled another PFOA case for an undisclosed amount. And starting in May 2017, 40 more claims over DuPont’s PFOA liability are slated for trial.
The EPA’s recently revised health advisory, which lowered the amount of PFOA acceptable in drinking water from .4 to .07 parts per billion, may also affect the calculations. According to Chemours’s latest SEC filings, three of the sites where it used or made PFOA are subject to the new lower levels. And “EPA has determined that additional public water systems and private residential wells around” two of those sites may have to be filtered.
Among the other legal burdens assumed by Chemours is the cost of litigation over benzene, a carcinogen contained in some of DuPont’s paints. In December, a Texas jury awarded $8.4 million to a painter who developed leukemia after using the paints for years. And at least 27 more benzene cases, expected to cost the company between $200 and $300 million, were pending as of December, according to Chemours’ SEC filings. The spinoff company also faces some 2,180 upcoming suits over asbestos; 83 pending cases over silica, which also causes a deadly lung disease when inhaled; and four over butadiene, a known carcinogen that DuPont used to make neoprene.
Chemours is also obligated to clean up Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, where DuPont manufactured explosives from 1902 until 1994, and where lead salts, mercury, volatile organic compounds, explosive powders, chlorinated solvents, and detonated blasting caps still contaminate groundwater and soil. Chemours’ SEC filings estimated that the remediation, which began in 1985, may cost as much as $116 million to finish. And some residents fear that number is too low. Lisa Riggiola, a former Pompton Lakes city council member, said that for years, she and others in the community have been asking for a full inventory of the chemicals DuPont used and dumped in their hometown so they can understand the full extent of the contamination.
“We’ve never we seen it,” said Riggiola. “We still don’t know everything we need to know about the site.”
No doubt a detailed report on DuPont’s historical production sites would be helpful in determining the true scope of DuPont’s and Chemours’s liabilities. But Dupont’s Turner says the “Rees Report” that Skaggs remembers is nowhere to be found. “To the best of our knowledge we have found no evidence for a ‘Rees Report’ regarding ‘waste sites,’” he wrote in an email.
For his part, Craig Skaggs is confident his recollection of the report Martha Rees began compiling 30 years ago is accurate. “I’m sure it still exists somewhere,” said Skaggs. “And I’m sure it’s retained by the legal department.”
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.
Chemical companies are using a trade secrets loophole to withhold the health effects of new products, preventing scientists from identifying emerging environmental threats.
MARK STRYNAR AND Andrew Lindstrom walked down the muddy bank of the Cape Fear River toward the water, sampling equipment in hand. It was the summer of 2012, and the scientists, who both work for the Environmental Protection Agency, were taking the first steps in what would be more than two years of detective work. The Cape Fear winds its way for over 200 miles through North Carolina before flowing into the Atlantic, but Strynar and Lindstrom were focused on a 20-mile stretch that runs from a boat dock outside Fayetteville south to the little town of Tar Heel. About halfway between the two points, on the western bank of the river, sits a large plant built by DuPont.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly known as PFOA or C8, is a “perfluorinated” chemical, which means that its base includes carbon chains attached to fluorine atoms. Because the fluorine-carbon bond is one of the strongest in chemistry, these compounds are incredibly stable, which makes them useful in industry. But that stability also makes them endure in the environment. Indeed, C8, which has recently been detected in upstate New York, in Vermont, and in Michigan’s Flint River, among other places, is expected to remain on the earth long after humans are extinct. And evidence suggests that many of its replacements are just as persistent.
The potential permanence of the problem was only one reason the EPA team was mucking around on the banks of the Cape Fear River. There were short-term dangers, too. Strynar and Lindstrom knew well that the Cape Fear is a source of drinking water and that if perfluorinated chemicals — known as PFCs — had contaminated the river, they would soon make their way into human bodies. Strynar had spent eight years documenting the presence of these molecules in fish, food, air, house dust, and humans. Lindstrom, an expert on measuring PFCs in the environment who has worked for the EPA for more than two decades, had also been documenting the steady proliferation of the chemicals. Both knew that the potential for contamination around the plant was great, because C8 had spread into the water around many of the facilities that made and used it, including plants in West Virginia, Minnesota, New Jersey, Alabama, Germany, and Japan. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, 99.7 percent of Americans already had C8 in their blood.
What Lindstrom and Strynar didn’t know was exactly what DuPont had used to replace C8 and whether it was escaping the plant. The river water was their key to finding out. By comparing the samples from above and below the plant’s outflow, they could determine which chemicals may have entered the river at that point.
Strategic sampling was the easy part. Figuring out the exact chemical structure of those molecules would require more ingenuity. Ultimately, it would take a team of 10 scientists from five different institutions more than a year to figure out the structure of the PFCs they found in the river — using a mass spectrometer, which produced spiky graphs depicting the exact weight and features of each molecule, software that uses the masses of compounds to generate likely chemical formulas, and painstaking searches of chemical databases and public records for descriptions of new PFCs to compare against their findings. Altogether, the scientists found 12 new PFCs, including one discovered in the files of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which in 2011 approved DuPont’s use of a C8 replacement at its Washington Works factory in Parkersburg. That was the same facility that had caused massive C8 contamination of drinking water linked to severe health problems among the local population.
After analyzing the molecules, Strynar and Lindstrom concluded that “a new generation of replacement compounds is now out in the environment,” they wrote in response to questions from The Intercept. These new chemicals likely had “the same chemical performance properties” as the older generation of PFCs, like C8. “This would also suggest,” they wrote, “that their toxicity and environmental persistence are likely to be similar as well.”
When companies want to begin making and selling a new chemical, they are required to file a written notice with the EPA. But current regulations do not mandate that any particular health or safety studies be performed, and according to a 2007 report from the EPA, only 15 percent of new chemical notices contain any information about the materials’ impact on health. Moreover, chemical manufacturers are permitted to claim that various parts of the information they give the EPA are “confidential business information,” or CBI. About 95 percent of new chemical notifications, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, include information that is protected as a trade secret, a figure the EPA confirmed as still “generally accurate.”
Even the very name and structure of a chemical, which are essential to tracking its presence in food, water, and the rest of the environment and determining how it affects humans, can be claimed as CBI. The 12 chemicals Strynar and Lindstrom’s team painstakingly identified are just the tip of a mysterious and dangerous iceberg. Manufacturers have used the CBI shield to withhold the names and identities of 17,585 of the chemicals now registered with the EPA.
The allowance for certain confidentiality claims, which is written into the law, is based on the idea that if companies are forced to reveal the exact nature of a chemical, other companies will be able to duplicate it, depriving the original manufacturer of the opportunity to profit from its research and development investment. In response to past criticism of CBI claims, the American Chemistry Council has said that “balanced confidentiality laws help protect the trade secrets that foster innovation and create jobs.”
“CBI hinders our ability to capture emerging pollutants and make sure the public is safe,” said David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, whose 2009 report publicly raised the problems posed by the growing list of secret chemicals. “Scientists can’t search for contaminants if they don’t know what they’re looking for.”
The secrecy surrounding DuPont’s C8 replacement, which is sold under the commercial name GenX, left Strynar and Lindstrom in a bizarre situation. Although they work for the EPA’s National Exposure Research Lab, they didn’t have access to all the information they needed to determine whether people were being exposed to the chemical and, if so, whether that exposure posed an environmental risk. They might have applied for CBI clearance, but because those privy to such business secrets are by law forbidden from sharing them, they wouldn’t have been able to reveal what they learned. Compounding the absurdity of their situation, a recent records search has revealed that although the chemical identity of the replacement was initially shielded as CBI, DuPont had declassified it by 2011. As a result, its generic identification number was switched to a traceable number, and information about the chemical was theoretically public. But because there had been no announcement of the declassification and no publication of the traceable number until after Strynar and Lindstrom began their research, no one — including the two EPA scientists — was able to access information about it. And so they had to spend many months and many taxpayer dollars sleuthing out information that was readily available to some of their colleagues within the EPA.
As it turned out, GenX was present in the river.
After a manufacturer tells the EPA about a new chemical it would like to introduce, the agency has 90 days to respond. While it most often simply accepts these new creations and rarely forbids companies from bringing them to market, in about 10 percent of new chemical applications since 1979 and about 40 percent of the notices submitted last year, the agency gave its version of a yellow light, requiring some sort of testing or restrictions on the production of the substance. These requests often take the form of consent orders. Publicly available versions of these documents are often riddled with redactions meant to protect confidential trade secrets.
For instance, a consent order for three PFCs issued in 2006, after the phase-out of C8 was announced, bears the stamp, “EPA SANITIZED,” and notes that critical details such as “company identity, specific chemical identities, production volumes, manufacturing process, processing and use information, and other information” have been scrubbed from it on the grounds of CBI.
The absence of this information makes what does come to light in the rest of the document particularly disturbing. The consent order for the three chemicals acknowledges that the EPA is concerned they “could cause lung effects” and notes that they may degrade into substances that “will persist in the environment, could bioaccumulate or biomagnify, and could be toxic (“PBT”) to people, wild mammals and birds.” These factors taken together, the consent order concludes, “raise concerns for potential adverse chronic effects in humans and wildlife.”
Despite these concerns, the EPA allowed the three replacement chemicals to enter the market in 2006 with the provision that the company perform reproductive, toxicity, and carcinogenicity tests of the chemicals’ effects on rats. Because the testing was required only if the company made or imported more than a certain amount of the chemicals — and because that “trigger amount” was withheld as CBI — it’s unclear if the company ever reached that limit or if the testing was ever done.
When asked about this document, the EPA provided the following response: “Based on concerns raised during the review of three alternative chemicals, a consent order was put in place (and later modified) that requires certain fate testing (i.e., hydrolysis, photolysis and biodegradation studies) to be completed in 2016 and 2017. The data will allow us to better understand the degradation rate of the chemicals.”
Several dangerous chemicals have been replaced by what environmentalists call “regrettable substitutions,” molecules that are often just slightly tweaked versions of the originals and pose similar problems. After PCBs were associated with health problems, including lowered immune response and developmental issues, the chemicals that replaced them also proved to be toxic. And in perhaps the most notorious recent example, bisphenol S (BPS), an additive to plastic used for water bottles and sippy cups, turned out to have many of the same dangerous characteristics as the close chemical cousin it replaced, bisphenol A (BPA).
But while PCBs had only a handful of replacements, and BPA had one primary substitute, the phasing out of PFOA and other PFCs based on 8-carbon chains has led to the introduction of a much larger number of chemicals.
Between 2006 and 2011, after manufacturers agreed to phase out longer-chain PFCs, chemical companies notified the EPA of their intent to introduce some 150 chemicals to replace them, according to research conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund in 2012. At least 125 of those chemical names were claimed as confidential.
Over the past decade, the EPA has reviewed more than 300 proposed alternatives to C8, according to a written response the agency provided to questions from The Intercept. Of those applications, 0.9 percent were not accepted; 67.1 percent were subject to consent orders, which often require additional testing of the chemical; and 18.5 percent were withdrawn by the submitter, “often in the face of regulatory action.”
The manufacture of just one of these compounds can result in many byproducts, which themselves can be dangerous. Several of the 12 PFCs Strynar and Lindstrom found in the Cape Fear River may have been created through the process of making GenX.
While Strynar and Lindstrom were searching the river for signs of DuPont’s C8 replacement, a PhD student in Europe confirmed the chemical structure of GenX in a surprising place. Zhanyun Wang, whose dissertation focused on PFCs, was at a conference in Munich in 2012 when he met a DuPont employee who told him that the formula for GenX had been printed in a brochure.
When Wang, now an environmental scientist who spends much of his professional life tracking down and sharing hidden information about dangerous chemicals, got home from the conference, he easily found a copy of the brochure on the DuPont website. The formula of GenX — CF3CF2CF2OCF(CF3)COOH.NH3 — was right there on Page 2. He told me he assumed that its publication was a mistake but went ahead and included the formula in a 2013 paper that included a roundup of replacements for long-chain PFCs.
Shortly after his paper came out, Wang ran into some colleagues who worked for DuPont. “They were not happy,” Wang recalled. “But then they found out it was from their documents so there was nothing they could do.”
Recently, CBI claims have hobbled the EPA’s efforts to move forward with the regulation of a group of flame retardants known as brominated phthalates clusters (BPCs). These chemicals were introduced to replace older flame retardants that accumulate in humans and the environment, and were banned in some states after being linked to developmental problems, hormone disruption, and cancer.
Like the older flame retardants, BPCs are present in furniture, electronics, and some baby items. Although researchers have only recently begun studying BPCs, they have already raised some of the same red flags, and have linked the newer flame retardants to DNA damage and hormone disruption. Chemtura, one of the companies that made the previous generation of flame retardants, is also producing at least two of these new chemicals and together with two other manufacturers made somewhere between 1 and 10 million pounds of one BPC in 2011, according to the Chemical Data Reporting Database.
In 2013, the EPA began to officially assess the risks posed by BPCs, but in August 2015 it published a document known as a “data needs assessment,” which concluded that the agency still needed more data. The report reveals how much information the flame retardant industry has withheld from the scientific community. Consider two of the chemicals, listed in the August report only as “Confidential A” and “Confidential B.”
The consent order for Confidential A sums up the problem well: As with other consent orders, this document is heavily redacted, with the name of the chemical, its manufacturer, intended uses, and production quantities all withheld as confidential business information. The few details that do emerge are alarming. For instance, the document notes that the chemical raises concerns about “liver and kidney toxicity” and carcinogenicity in humans, as well as toxicity to fish and aquatic life, while also acknowledging that Confidential A will be used in consumer goods and may be “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.”
Nevertheless, the EPA allowed Confidential A to enter the market in 2009 with the provision that the unnamed company perform additional tests to determine whether the chemical affects reproduction and development in rats. These tests, too, were tied to a trigger level that was claimed as a secret. (According to EPA documents, as of August 2015 the trigger level had not been reached.) The consent order for Confidential A also warns the manufacturer against making “predictable or purposeful release” of the chemical into “the waters of the United States.” But, as we know from Strynar and Lindstrom’s experience, the ability to determine whether the chemical has in fact been released hinges on first figuring out what it is.
Perhaps more disturbing is what happened with Confidential B, a chemical that “sailed through the New Chemicals program,” according to comments on the report that the Environmental Defense Fund submitted to the EPA on January 20, 2016. Despite the fact that the unknown chemical is so worrisome that it made it onto a shortlist of chemicals the EPA is investigating, the agency apparently didn’t require its mysterious manufacturer to perform any health testing. In 2015, according to the EPA’s August data needs assessment, Confidential B was grouped among chemicals that were produced in volumes greater than 1 million pounds.
When asked for comment, the EPA noted that it hasn’t received any new test data on Confidential B “because the production volumes are too small” and pointed out that the agency now typically bans the manufacture and import of new BPCs “until up front testing can be conducted and reviewed.” Asked to resolve the inconsistency, the EPA insisted that “for Confidential B, the production value is not greater than 1 million pounds.”
We don’t know much more about the named BPCs. For instance, the production data entry for a chemical known as TBB, one of the seven flame retardants listed in a supplement to the EPA’s report, is essentially devoid of information. The name of the production site, the amount produced domestically, the amount exported, and, as with Confidential A, the amount produced overall, have all been claimed as CBI.
“By calling production volume data CBI, they’re obscuring the extent of how prevalent a chemical is — and how prevalent exposure is,” said Eve Gartner, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, who submitted comments about the BPC data needs assessment to the EPA on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Washington Toxics Coalition, and Earthjustice in January. Without this data, said Gartner, the EPA can’t do its job.
“EPA had a legal obligation to find out more about the toxicity of these chemicals and it failed to do that,” said Gartner. “And now it can’t do a risk assessment that might lead to regulation. That means many more years in which people, children, firefighters — everyone — is being exposed to toxic chemicals.” Indeed, while the regulatory process has been stalled, the environmental concentration of two BPCs known as TBB and TBPH has been doubling every year in urban areas and every 1.6 years in rural areas, according to a 2012 article in Environmental Science Technology.
While Gartner admits that some confidentiality claims, including those for the production volume, may fall into a legal gray area, others are plainly violations of the law. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which lays the groundwork for chemical regulation, makes it clear that health studies cannot be protected as CBI. Yet, in 2012, Chemtura submitted more than 12 health studies to the EPA that it claimed as CBI.
The EPA did not dispute that it allowed health studies to be submitted as confidential business information, but wrote in a response to questions from The Intercept that it made summaries of the studies public. The agency statement also noted that “EPA is currently following our established process to review these and other submissions and declassify unwarranted CBI claims.”
When asked for comment, Chemtura did not dispute that it claimed the studies as confidential, but said in a statement that “providing information as Confidential Business Information to protect proprietary technical information is in full legal compliance with what is allowed under Federal regulations.” Chemtura also wrote that it strongly disagrees “with the characterization that there is something wrong with confidentiality claims.”
The law allows us to make a claim of confidentiality in order to protect our investments. Companies invest a lot of money in the development and manufacture of its products. This investment comes in many forms: research, physical testing, construction of manufacturing plants, product registrations, toxicology testing, marketing and advertising are among the many investments a company can make. These investments form proprietary information which is a barrier to entry for other companies. Giving away your investments to competitors is an unsustainable business practice for companies who seek to be successful. In the case of toxicology data, competitors have and do use public information they obtain to register competing “copycat” products against the data originators. Technical data is a valuable asset, and care should be taken in how companies distribute that intellectual property.
Gartner worries that the agency’s acceptance of Chemtura’s inappropriate CBI claim — and apparent failure to notice that the EPA itself was violating the law — signals a much bigger problem. “Nobody blinked an eye at EPA,” said Gartner. “It raises a lot of questions. How many other health and safety studies have been submitted to the agency and claimed as CBI?”
It’s impossible to answer Gartner’s question, since the information needed to determine whether a CBI claim is justified is itself often confidential.
Part of the problem is the weakness of the law. TSCA indicates that companies should have to prove that disclosure of the information they’re claiming as CBI would likely “cause substantial harm to the business’s competitive position.” But while the EPA can face hefty fines if it violates a company’s confidentiality, TSCA offers no way to penalize companies that make false confidentiality claims. The EPA has helped companies declassify documents and encourages them to review their confidentiality claims through “the CBI Voluntary Challenge” and, in 11 cases, has disallowed CBI claims, according to an agency spokesperson. But it has never punished a company for a false claim.
Environmental researchers need to be resourceful — and lucky — to penetrate the obscurity created by CBI. Heather Stapleton, a scientist at Duke University who studies household dust, was able to show that two of the BPC flame retardants were widespread in the environment only because one of her colleagues happened to suggest that a new chemical she noticed in a dust sample might be a component of Firemaster 550, a flame retardant made by Chemtura. Luckily for Stapleton, the colleague happened to have — and share with her — a sample of the product, which isn’t readily available to scientists. Stapleton was able to match the molecules in it to those in the product sample.
Stapleton’s discovery might have ended there. But after giving a talk about her research, a furniture manufacturer who was in the audience gave her a letter from Chemtura saying that the company’s prenatal development studies of its product had found “some effects.” The letter went on to assure the manufacturers that the risk was “negligible,” despite the findings, since the product didn’t leak into the environment.
But Stapleton’s work proved otherwise. The chemical was clearly making its way into the environment if it was showing up in dust samples. Alarmed, she asked Chemtura for its health studies of Firemaster 550. Stapleton said the company declined to supply them (Chemtura told me that it has no record of Stapleton requesting the studies), and so she asked the EPA for any data it had on the product. “They mailed me a CD that had 800 pages and 90 percent was blocked out for CBI,” Stapleton told me recently. “I couldn’t make heads or tails of that document.”
According to a statement from the EPA, the agency declassified the company name, chemical names, and individual ingredients of Firemaster 550 in 2010, and this information is now available in the public docket.
So Stapleton decided to use some of her remaining Firemaster 550 sample to study the product’s health effects, exposing pregnant rats to varying doses of the substance and observing the health of their offspring. She found that exposure could have clear effects on the rats’ babies, which were more likely to become obese and show signs of anxiety. Female rats whose mothers were exposed to Firemaster 550 were more likely to experience early onset of puberty, and males whose mothers were exposed at levels lower than the company deemed safe had an increased rate of heart defects. Stapleton also concluded that Firemaster 550 is an endocrine disruptor.
Independent research on the health effects of the replacements for C8 and longer-chain perfluorinated compounds has only recently begun in earnest. But several studies already indicate problems similar to those linked to C8, which include immune disorders, reproductive problems, and two kinds of cancer.
The most worrisome health information comes from industry itself. Chemical manufacturers are required by Section 8 (e) of the Toxic Substances Control Act to report any information to the EPA that “reasonably supports the conclusion that” a substance they make or use “presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.” But the critical information in these 8 (e) reports can also be claimed as confidential. Last year, the Environmental Working Group reviewed more than 100 Section 8 (e) reports that had been submitted for perfluorinated chemicals between 2007 and 2015 and found that, among the 85 percent in which the chemical’s name was withheld, “reported health effects of exposure included death; maternal and developmental toxicity; degeneration and necrosis of the kidneys; chromosome aberrations; changes to the weight of the heart, kidney, liver, thymus, spleen, prostate, ovaries and adrenal glands; lethargy; and irregular breathing.”
The EPA has possessed evidence of the health effects of DuPont’s C8 replacement, GenX, since at least April 2006, when DuPont filed the first of 16 Section 8 (e) reports about the chemical. Some of those reports reference a 2009 consent order, which The Intercept obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. That document — in which the specific identity of the replacement chemical and a closely related salt molecule, their production volume, manufacturing process and sites, processing, use, and other information have been withheld as CBI — lays out the agency’s many concerns about DuPont’s C8 replacement. It notes, for instance, that it has evidence that the chemical and its salt are toxic to lab animals and cause mutations in mammalian and human cells. The document also lays out concerns that the molecules “will persist in the environment, could bioaccumulate, and be toxic (“PBT”) to people, wild mammals, and birds”; that “there is high concern for possible environmental effects over the long-term”; and that “EPA has human health concerns for the PMN substances.”
An analysis of the 8 (e) reports, which are based on DuPont’s experiments on lab animals, shows that GenX presents some of the very same health problems that C8 does, including changes in the size and weight of animals’ livers and kidneys, alterations to their immune responses and cholesterol levels, weight gain, reproductive problems, and cancer.
In response to inquiries from The Intercept, DuPont declined to comment, noting that GenX is now a product of Chemours. Chemours responded that “extensive safety testing was conducted” on GenX. “Data suggests that it is not a developmental, reproductive, or genetic toxicant, or a human carcinogen.” (See “New Teflon Toxin Causes Cancer in Lab Animals” for the complete text of Chemours’ response.)
Due to CBI claims, it’s impossible to determine the amounts of the new PFCs that are being manufactured and used in the United States. Without this information and with little monitoring of their presence in the environment, exposure levels are similarly indeterminate. DuPont’s filings in Europe estimate production of GenX at between 10 and 100 tons each year. GenX, however, is only one of the company’s new PFCs. Chemours, the chemical company spun off by DuPont in July 2015, has many additional new formulations of surfactants and repellents for use in textiles, firefighting foam, and leather. Other chemical companies have developed their own substitutes. 3M, which supplied C8 to DuPont for many years, uses a product called ADONA. Solvay, Asahi, Dow Corning, and numerous companies in Japan and Europe have also come up with their own formulations. Zhanyun Wang estimates that tens of thousands of tons of fluorinated alternatives are now produced worldwide.
In May 2015, a group of scientists issued the Madrid Statement, which called for limiting production of all perfluorinated chemicals (regardless of the length of their molecules) based on their persistence and toxicity. The scientists noted that little information has been made public about how poisonous the replacement chemicals are to humans or animals, but that longer-chain PFCs have been shown to cause “liver toxicity, disruption of lipid metabolism, the immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, and tumors in multiple organ systems” in lab animals and are associated with “testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines, and reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty” in people. And a 2014 study in Environmental Research has already linked one of the C6 replacement molecules, PFHxA, with a health problem that does not seem to be linked to other PFCs — a liver disorder known as Gilbert Syndrome.
There is one way these “shorter-chain” variations seem to be better than the originals they’re replacing. Many of them, though not all, remain in the human body for less time. According to one 2011 document from the European Food Safety Authority, 3M reported that the half-life of its chemical ADONA was between 12 and 34 days in the bodies of three workers. In contrast, it takes humans about four years to clear half of the C8 from their bodies. Although it takes months for lab animals to rid themselves of C8, DuPont has claimed that with GenX, “virtually complete elimination from the body occurs in 12-24 hours.”
But as C8 replacements become increasingly ubiquitous, this improvement may be moot. “Even if it stays for just days,” said Wang, a chemical “still has possibility to cause damage.” Because the replacements are already so widespread, he said, “we’ll keep eating them and drinking them, so we’ll have continuous exposure. And if the environmental concentration in food and water keeps going higher because of increased use, then concentrations in our bodies will also go up.”
Asked for comment, 3M provided the following statement: “We believe that these shorter-chain compounds do not present health risks at the levels they are typically found in the environment.”
In terms of how long they’ll persist in the environment, the new chemicals are just as bad as the C8 they’re meant to replace. Like C8, GenX is extremely stable and will likely persist indefinitely. As A. Michael Kaplan, DuPont’s then-director of regulatory affairs, put it in one of the 8 (e) reports the company submitted to the EPA in 2010, “The biodegradation of the test substance was 0%.”
“It will take thousands of years to break down — or maybe longer,” Wang said of GenX. 3M’s ADONA, he said, will also endure indefinitely. “The company claims that this replacement degrades, but actually it doesn’t.” Indeed, most of the new replacement PFCs — or, in the case of the longer-chain molecules, the substances they degrade into — won’t ever break down. “We’re replacing a super-persistent chemical with super-persistent chemicals.”
It took half a century from the introduction of C8 into commercial use for the public to catch on about its dangers. In part because the EPA has yet to issue binding regulation that could require polluters to be held financially responsible for their mess, most of the contamination from that chemical is still in our environment. The earlier flame retardants that BPCs are replacing — and the dangerous chemicals they degrade into — also remain with us.
Now, with the introduction of next-generation replacement chemicals, industry has reset the clock. In addition to the C8 and the phased-out flame retardants in our water, soil, and air, we are being exposed to hundreds of other chemicals, many of which could endure forever.
DuPont referred to C8 as an “essential processing aid.” Chemours, which has inherited DuPont’s PFC business, notes that its newer generation of fluoropolymer resins, manufactured using GenX, is “critically important.” The company website points out that its products are used to provide cable and internet service, more efficient cars, and “insulation for cabling that is essential for safety, security and performance in buildings, data centers, ships and aircraft.”
But while PFCs are used to make some very useful products, they’re also in many others that are not essential, including food packaging, clothing, make-up, workout gear, and outdoor equipment, such as hiking clothes and tents, which means that nature lovers may be unwittingly spreading the contamination to remote places when they travel. Clearly, many if not all of these products could be manufactured without using PFCs.
The American Chemistry Council insists that “flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection and help save lives.” But as the Chicago Tribune has reported, the trade organization has used phony customer watchdog groups and bogus claims to make the case for the necessity of flame retardants. Not only do the chemicals provide no meaningful protection from fire, as the Tribune’s reporting made clear, they can actually increase smolder propensity, as California officials noted when the state was doing away with its requirement that furniture makers inject the flame retardants into cushions. Some scientists also insist there is no scientific justification for the current practice of putting flame retardants in electronics. The American Chemistry Council did not respond to our requests for comment.
Although it’s technically possible to rid the environment of some PFCs, the process of finding, extracting, and disposing of them is practically out of reach in most of the world. Most countries won’t be able to pay for it, and the few that can, including the U.S., are unlikely to undertake this incredibly difficult and expensive task.
This should be the ideal time to be grappling with the enduring impact of unsafe chemicals. Congress is in the midst of revisiting our lax national chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and reform bills have passed both the House and the Senate. But lawmakers have already missed the opportunity to close one gaping legal hole that allows unsafe chemicals to enter the market, since neither of the bills now being considered would require companies to submit specific safety data before new chemicals are approved for use.
Nor does either bill really fix the confidentiality problem. The Senate’s bill would make some improvements on CBI, requiring the EPA to review past and future confidentiality claims that mask a chemical’s identity, as well as at least a quarter of the CBI claims for other types of information. But the House bill does not mandate any CBI review or lay out penalties for companies that make false claims. And in one important respect, TSCA “reform” could be a step backward: The House bill would allow companies to claim chemical identity in health studies as CBI.
As Congress dickers over reconciling the two TSCA reform bills, the regrettable replacements are accumulating all around us. The researchers who have made it their business to chase after those chemicals meanwhile struggle to keep pace. Stapleton, the researcher at Duke, is raising money to conduct a larger version of her experiment with Firemaster 550, which was criticized for its small sample size. Stapleton’s lab at Duke also runs a public testing program so that people can send in foam samples from their furniture to determine whether it contains dangerous flame retardants.
Wang, for his part, has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of awareness of the irreversible PFC contamination. Time, he says, is running out. “We need to reduce the emissions as fast as possible and evaluate whether uses are essential.” To his great frustration, however, most of his colleagues who work with PFCs are still focused on C8.
Strynar and Lindstrom, the EPA researchers in North Carolina, are hoping their discoveries will spur medical researchers to investigate the health effects of the PFCs they discovered in the Cape Fear River. They themselves have begun to work on developing methods to measure the chemicals, and to test methods for removing them from drinking water. Their research will likely continue for years.
While touting GenX as being a safe replacement for PFOA, DuPont filed 16 reports of “substantial risk of injury to health or the environment” about its new chemical.
THE CHEMICAL INTRODUCED by DuPont in 2009 to replace the surfactant PFOA causes many of the same health problems in lab tests that the original chemical did, including cancer and reproductive problems, according to documents obtained by The Intercept. PFOA, also known as C8, was a key ingredient in Teflon.
C8 was originally manufactured by 3M, then by DuPont, and was phased out after a massive class-action lawsuit revealed evidence of its health hazards. The new chemical, sold under the name GenX, is used to make Teflon and many other products. While touting GenX as having a “more favorable toxicological profile” than C8, DuPont filed 16 reports of “substantial risk of injury to health or the environment” about its new chemical. The reports, discovered in the course of an investigation by The Intercept, were filed under Section 8 (e) of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and submitted to the EPA between April 2006 and January 2013. They cite numerous health effects in animals, including changes in the size and weight of animals’ livers and kidneys, alterations to their immune responses and cholesterol levels, weight gain, reproductive problems, and cancer.
“It’s the same constellation of effects you see with PFOA,” said Deborah Rice, a retired toxicologist who served as a senior risk assessor in the National Center for Environmental Assessment at the EPA. “There’s no way you can call this a safe substitute.”
In one experiment, rats given various amounts of GenX over two years developed cancerous tumors in the liver, pancreas, and testicles, according to a report DuPont submitted in January 2013. In addition to the cancers, some of the GenX-exposed rats in that experiment also developed benign tumors, as well as well as kidney disease, liver degeneration, and uterine polyps.
Satheesh Anand, a DuPont senior research toxicologist who signed the report, concluded that “these tumor findings are not considered relevant for human risk assessment.” Anand dismissed the significance of the results in part by emphasizing that the mechanism associated with the tumor formation in rats might not be the same in humans. DuPont scientists have long made the very same claim about C8 (as in this study from 2004), which caused testicular tumors in DuPont experiments on lab animals before it was linked to testicular cancer in exposed people.
Alan Ducatman, a physician who studies the health effects of perfluorinated chemicals such as C8 and GenX, characterized Anand’s claim as “a partial argument that could be interesting only to those who are not strongly following the literature.” Ducatman, who teaches environmental health sciences at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, is one of several researchers familiar with the health effects of C8 who reviewed the documents for The Intercept. He summarized DuPont’s interpretation of its own data as “cherry picking,” highlighting “species differences only when arguing that a problematic study finding is not relevant.”
DuPont’s reporting on the hazards of GenX “all has an eerie echo,” Ducatman wrote in an email to The Intercept. He noted that the reports show the chemical has the same trio of biological effects — on the liver, immunity, and the processing of fats — seen with similar chemicals, including C8. “This reminds me a lot of a path we have recently traveled. That journey is not ending well.”
Despite the fact that Section 8(e) reports are required only when companies have evidence that their product presents a substantial risk, the summaries of the experiments written by DuPont employees downplay most of their findings.
“There’s a lot of hand-waving sentences, ‘Yeah, this happened, but we don’t think it’s relevant,’” said Rice, the former EPA toxicologist. In one study conducted on rats and mice, for instance, male rats given any dose of GenX had changes in their cholesterol levels, and some also had changes in levels of two blood proteins. But the report, which like many of the others was labeled “Company Sanitized,” simply concluded that “these changes were of uncertain relationship to treatment and considered non-adverse.” It’s impossible for independent reviewers to evaluate these claims because the reports don’t include the data on which they’re based.
As The Intercept reported in August, DuPont scientists in the 1970s chose not to report abnormal liver test results in workers exposed to C8. In a 2004 deposition, the company’s medical director said that the company had not reported the findings because the liver changes weren’t proven to be problematic health effects related to the chemical. In its filings on GenX, DuPont scientists did report increases in the weights of kidneys and livers, and other changes in liver cells, in rats exposed to the chemical, but they again downplayed the results, saying that these changes were “not considered adverse,” according to a July 2010 letter signed by A. Michael Kaplan, DuPont’s former director of regulatory affairs.
Rice took issue with the judgment that such changes won’t cause problems in humans. “These are well-nourished, homogenous animals,” Rice said of the lab rats. “The human population isn’t like that. When you push these things around, you’re going to push some people into disease states.”
GenX also affected reproduction in lab animals, according to the reports. Rats exposed to higher amounts of the chemical were more likely to give birth early and have babies that weighed less. Another study showed that female rats exposed to GenX reached puberty later than the unexposed animals.
While the company also dismissed the significance of many of these effects in the summaries of its experiments, the findings are “suggestive of a reproductive effect,” said Laura Vandenberg, a reproductive biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Vandenberg said that the tests described in the reports can’t fully show the extent of the chemical’s reproductive activity because they only look at the effects of very high doses of GenX.
“That might make sense if what we were worried about was whether this chemical maims or kills you outright,” said Vandenberg. “But that’s not what we’re seeing. People don’t cook on Teflon and drop dead. These are chemicals that interfere with normal biological functions at low doses and contribute to disease.” Because hormones act at low doses, “you have to study them at low doses.”
The DuPont studies estimated the lethal dose of GenX in rats as 7500 mg/kg. At such doses or higher, the animals “died within approximately 3 hours of dosing and exhibited discomfort, gasping and/or tonic convulsions prior to death,” according to one report submitted in 2006.
While all the scientists The Intercept asked to review the reports agreed that the issues they raised demanded multiple additional investigations, the EPA did not require any further testing of GenX.
Some of the reports reference a consent order for GenX, a document the EPA issued in 2009, which The Intercept obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. That document lays out the agency’s many concerns about DuPont’s C8 replacement, including evidence that the chemical and its salt are toxic to lab animals and cause mutations in mammalian and human cells. The document also lays out concerns that the molecules “will persist in the environment, could bioaccumulate, and be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds”; that “there is high concern for possible environmental effects over the long-term”; and that “EPA has human health concerns.”
Such orders are issued when the EPA requires more information in order to evaluate a new chemical’s safety. Although the DuPont studies show many significant findings and clearly raise questions about the health and developmental effects of GenX, the lack of a strong regulatory response to them isn’t unusual, according to one EPA official.
“A lot of them do just get filed away,” Vincent Cogliano, director of the Integrated Risk Information System at the EPA, acknowledged of studies industry submits to the agency.
The EPA has a number of options once it has evidence that a chemical is hazardous. The agency could use its statutory authority to regulate the chemical, setting limits on its use or even banning it and requiring companies to clean up contaminated areas. While the EPA has yet to take any of those actions on C8, which has been shown to be hazardous over the past decade, it has added that chemical to the list of substances regularly monitored in drinking water.
The EPA could also add GenX to that list, but such efforts are often met with resistance from industry. “Companies fight them,” Cogliano said, “and bring in other scientists who debunk the studies that show there are health hazards.”
For now, GenX is neither regulated nor tracked, even as Chemours (the chemical company spun off by DuPont in July 2015) produces the chemical and releases it into the environment in undisclosed amounts. Chemours declined to reveal production quantities for GenX, but said that emissions are 1 percent or less of the quantities used. Yet according to one of the hazard reports DuPont sent the EPA in March 2010, “The biodegradation of the test substance was 0%.” So GenX, like C8, is likely to be with us forever.
In response to inquiries from The Intercept, DuPont declined to comment, noting that GenX is now a product of Chemours.
Chemours responded with the following statement:
Chemours was created in July 2015 through the spin-off of the DuPont Performance Chemicals unit, which included the fluoropolymers business. Before this, in 2013, DuPont stopped making or using PFOA, replacing it with a new polymerization aid for use in the manufacture of fluoropolymers.
Extensive health safety testing was conducted on the new polymerization aid, and the data has been shared with regulatory agencies around the world as well as published in peer-reviewed scientific publications. The full body of testing data indicates that the polymerization aid can be used safely in the manufacture of fluoropolymers. It is rapidly eliminated from the body with low bioaccumulation potential. It has low acute toxicity in mammalian and aquatic testing, low repeated-dose toxicity in mammalian testing, and is not a skin sensitizer. Data suggests that it is not a developmental, reproductive, or genetic toxicant, or a human carcinogen. In addition, the new chemistry is used in conjunction with environmental exposure control technologies that reduce potential for environmental release and exposure.
Studies to evaluate chemical safety are designed to find health effects through the use of very high doses, in order to establish acceptable exposure limits with appropriate margins of safety. Therefore, finding such effects is important in effectively managing chemical safety. The level of potential worker or public exposure to this chemical is orders of magnitude below the levels at which any effects have been seen in our testing.
Regulatory authorities in the U.S., Europe, China, Japan and Taiwan have reviewed the testing data on our new polymerization aid and have given permission for its manufacture and use.
The EPA has yet to regulate the toxic PFCs found in fire-suppressing foam, Teflon, and other products that have contaminated our drinking water.
LORI CERVERA HAD ALWAYS been an active person. She liked camping, playing outdoors with her kids, and practically lived in her running shoes. She didn’t have much patience for illness. So when she developed a dull ache on her right side in May 2014, Cervera took a few Tylenol and did her best to ignore it. But after a few days in which the pain grew sharper and more intense, she went to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed a mass. To her complete surprise, Cervera, a mother of four and grandmother of two who was 46 at the time, was diagnosed with stage 2 kidney cancer. That July she underwent surgery to remove both the tumor and almost half her right kidney.
Cervera returned to her home in Warrington, Pennsylvania, relieved to be alive but also perplexed. She had no family history of kidney cancer, and the diagnosis felt like it came out of left field. So with 22 staples still in her belly and a drainage tube coming out of her wound, Cervera propped herself up in bed and took to Google, intent on learning more about what might have caused her illness.
Her research quickly led her to a recent report on PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8, a chemical that for six decades was used by DuPont in the production of Teflon and other products. Research on people in West Virginia and Ohio who had consumed water contaminated by leaks from a nearby DuPont factory showed probable links between the chemical and six diseases, including kidney cancer.
Cervera soon discovered that the very same chemical, as well as a related one, PFOS, had been found in drinking water in her area. Both were part of a larger class known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, “emerging contaminants” that were still being studied — and had yet to be regulated. And, according to public notices from the local water and sewer authorities, both had come from foam that was used to put out airplane fires and train soldiers at two nearby military bases — the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster and a former naval air station at Willow Grove, now owned by the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
Cervera knew the bases well. One of her daughters works across the street from the Naval Air Warfare Center, which everyone calls Johnsville. Willow Grove is only about a mile south of her house; she drives by it practically every day. The Wawa convenience store where she buys milk and gas is directly across the street from Willow Grove, which the Navy shut down in 2011. It wasn’t hard to imagine how water from that former base would make its way to her home. The road that runs between the two parallels a creek that floods practically every time it rains.
When they moved 25 miles north to Warrington from Philadelphia in 2000, the Cerveras had found the well at their new home charming. Now, after reading about the contamination, she regarded it with suspicion. Had the water she drank and used to make coffee, brush her teeth, fill kiddie pools, and mix infant formula for her grandchildren over the years contained chemicals from the military bases?
In August 2014, she decided to find out and requested a free test of the well water, which the local EPA office was offering to families living close to the bases. Three months later, an agency staffer rang her bell to hand-deliver the results: Though the chemicals were present in their well, they weren’t at levels of concern, he assured her. “We were so relieved,” said Cervera, who went on drinking and cooking with the water.
However, EPA monitoring done around the time of Cervera’s surgery showed that the Warminster municipal water authority, which provides water to the township adjacent to Warrington, had the third-highest level of PFOS of all public drinking water systems tested in the entire country — 1.09 parts per billion — as well as a very high rate of PFOA, .349 ppb. The Warminster water authority stopped using two of its public wells last year because of the contamination. Warrington Township, where the Cerveras lived, found PFCs at elevated levels in three of its public supply wells and also shut them down. The chemicals had spread into some private wells, too. By June 2015, 45 had been identified with either a PFOA or PFOS level above the safety threshold set by the EPA. The chemicals were also present at lower levels in more than 100 other wells.
In late January 2015, a second test of the Cerveras’ well showed higher levels of contamination, but they were given no indication that they should stop drinking the water. Then, in August, a few weeks after a third test of their well water, a worker from the lab that processed their sample called to tell them to stop drinking it immediately. A few days later, several 5-gallon jugs of water arrived at their home. Cervera noticed the same plastic jugs began to appear outside many of her neighbors’ homes as well.
IN MAY 2014 when Cervera was first noticing the pains in her side, Andrea Amico read in her local paper that PFCs had been found in the water on the former Pease Air Force Base near her home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The level of PFOS in one of the wells serving Pease was 12 times a provisional safety level set by the EPA — so high, in fact, that the city promptly decided to shut it down.
Pease, which was a Strategic Air Command facility and Air Force base until 1991, is now home to a golf course, a commercial airport, and more than 250 businesses employing some 9,500 workers. Amico works as an occupational therapist for a hospital that’s based there, and her husband, a graphic artist, worked at Pease for more than eight years. But when she heard about the contamination, Amico’s thoughts immediately turned to her son and daughter, ages 2 and 4, who have attended Great Bay Kids’ Company, one of two childcare centers at Pease, since they were 12 weeks old.
“I was like, oh my God, my children are in daycare there,” she said. “What are these chemicals?”
The answers she has received over the past several months have often contradicted one another, sending Amico on a journey through medical journals, doctors’ offices, and public forums. What is indisputable is that PFOA and PFOS are part of a group of man-made chemicals that have been tied to a range of health effects, from obesity in children to reproductive problems and cancers. Used to make Teflon, stain- and water-resistant coatings, cosmetics, and hundreds of other products, PFCs persist in the environment and are easily absorbed by the human body. Both PFOS and PFOA, the best studied of these chemicals, have been shown to be “endocrine disruptors,” tiny amounts of which can interfere with the hormonal system.
What was less clear to Amico was how being exposed to these contaminants would affect her family. PFCs, she knew, can cross the placenta, showing up in cord blood and newborns. They also accumulate in breast milk. And several studies have shown children to be particularly vulnerable to their effects.
Yet some state officials she encountered at community meetings seemed more interested in calming her down than giving her an honest picture of the dangers of PFCs. “They weren’t giving us the whole story,” said Amico. “There’s this apprehension that we’re going to freak out.”
Nor were the local authorities of much help when it came to finding out how much of the chemicals her family members had in their bodies. Right after the contamination was discovered, Rick Cricenti, director of the Emergency Services Unit at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, promised to help Amico get blood tests, she said. But eventually he stopped replying to her emails and returning her calls, and Amico spent more than seven months trying to find anyone to help her determine the level of PFCs in her family’s blood.
Jet fuel is made to burn. When airplanes crash, the reserve of the hydrocarbon liquid can produce a massive, violent fireball. Water, which doesn’t mix with the fuel, does little to extinguish these explosive fires, often just boiling off or sinking ineffectually under the fuel itself. So, about 50 years ago, the Minnesota-based chemical manufacturer 3M, in conjunction with the Navy, developed a product that would help extinguish such fires.
The sudsy liquid, dubbed “Aqueous Film-Forming Foam,” or AFFF, put out hydrocarbon fires more quickly and effectively than ever before by smothering them. Since it was developed, the military has been using huge quantities of the foam, which has been heralded for saving firefighters’ lives. Unfortunately, 3M’s miracle product also contained PFOS. And the other official formulation of the foam purchased by the Department of Defense contains “telomers,” compounds that can break down into PFOA and other PFCs. In addition to being linked to health problems, PFOA and PFOS stay in the human body for years and, unless they are removed, persist in the environment indefinitely.
The extent of contamination would no doubt be far less if the military had just used the foam to put out crash fires, which are fairly rare. Between 1979 and 2000, for instance, there were only four plane crashes near Willow Grove. But the foam is also used to teach soldiers to put out fires, and those training exercises are common. A typical exercise, which has been conducted by various branches of the military many thousands of times since the 1960s, involves flooding a fire pit with flammable liquids, lighting them on fire, and then putting out the flames with between 75 and 100 liters of firefighting foam. For decades, no one thought to construct barriers at these sites to contain the foam, which sank down through the earth into the water table.
CONTAMINATION FROM THIS frequent dousing with PFC-laced foam is a far bigger problem than either Amico or Cervera imagined. Water testing done in or near military bases, which isn’t yet complete, has already shown that the chemicals spread into public drinking water systems around Willow Grove, Pease, and a third base — Eielson, in Alaska. PFCs have also been detected in the ground water at many more bases, including the Air National Guard base in Delaware; the Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana; and the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada. Indeed, according to a 2013 presentation by the Air Force, PFCs were found at every Air Force base that had been tested, which so far includes Randolph in Texas; Robins in Georgia; Beale and McClellan in California; Eglin in Florida; Ellsworth in South Dakota; and F.E. Warren in Wyoming.
In some of these places, huge amounts of chemicals from the foam have been found in soil and water. At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, for instance, one of the telomers that can decay into a chemical similar to PFOA was found at 14,600 ppb. Near the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada, where fire-training exercises were conducted for more than 30 years, PFOA has been recorded in the groundwater at levels as high as 6,720 ppb. And, at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan, where crash trainings also took place for more than three decades, one plume of groundwater had concentrations of total PFCs between 100,000 and 250,000 ppb.
It’s clear that the full extent of the contamination will be much bigger still. As of 2014, there were 664 current or former military fire- or crash-training sites in the U.S., according to a statement from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Air Force and Navy have the largest number of these spots. Although the DOD has said it’s too early in the cleanup process to know how many of these sites have been contaminated with PFCs, it is likely that all of them have, said Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State. Field has been studying the environmental fate of the chemicals used in firefighting foam and has yet to see an area where the foam was used in which PFCs have not been detected.
“We’re batting 100 on the bases where they’ve had fire-training sites,” Field told me. “Even one crash site can leave a fingerprint.” No one yet knows the full extent of the emerging environmental contamination caused by the firefighting foam. But according to Field, “It’s going to be big.”
The U.S. military, which has been using the foam in fire-training exercises since the 1960s, is the biggest user — and polluter — by far. But commercial airports, airplane hangars, oil refineries, fire departments, petrochemical transfer and production sites, and heliports have also used firefighting foam containing PFCs for decades, which likely pushes the total number of contaminated sites into the thousands, according to Thomas Bruton, a PhD candidate in environmental engineering at Berkeley who is studying PFC contamination.
There’s little doubt that, together, widespread use of firefighting foam has contributed to the exposure of huge numbers of people to PFCs. EPA monitoring begun recently found PFOS in water systems serving almost 10 million Americans, most of whom have no idea they’re drinking it. The number of potentially exposed people climbs to more than 14 million when the other five PFCs now being monitored by the EPA are included. And those six chemicals are only the tip of the iceberg; more than 2,000 PFCs have already been identified on the global market, and scientists expect that number to climb to 4,000.
Even as the Air Force, Navy, and the Department of Defense struggle to clean up this massive environmental mess, the military continues to use PFC-containing firefighting foam for both training purposes and emergencies. The military has the largest stockpile of PFOS-containing firefighting foam in the United States, with around a million gallons, according to a 2011 estimate by the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition, an industry group. While the EU and Canada have banned the use of stockpiled foam containing PFOS, the U.S. has no restrictions on its use.
In fact, the current military specifications for firefighting foam require that the product contain PFCs. In response to a list of questions provided by The Intercept, a military spokesperson wrote: “Until non-PFC formulations are certified, DOD is implementing measures to prevent uncontrolled releases of firefighting foams during maintenance and firefighting training exercises. Additionally, DOD will be removing stocks of PFOS-based foam where practical.” While the military can still use the stockpiled foam, according to the DOD response, “Non-PFOS based foams, which do contain shorter-chain PFCs, will continue to be the main product used for firefighting until non-PFC formulations can be tested and certified to meet the military performance specifications.”
These products using “shorter-chain” PFCs, which manufacturers have been shifting to in recent years, consist mostly of molecules with either four- or six-carbon bases, as opposed to eight, like PFOS and PFOA. Industry has claimed that the new compounds are safer, because the shorter-chain molecules have a shorter half-life. But since long-chain chemicals persist indefinitely, the practical difference may not amount to much. To date, little research has been completed about the health effects of these chemicals. Experts disagree about their potential to cause harm, but they are suspected to persist in the environment and to accumulate in the human body.
In recent years, biologists have begun to trace the path of chemicals from firefighting foam through the environment, and PFCs from the foam have been shown to accumulate in earthworms. At levels between 10 and 120 ppb, PFOS can damage the worms’ DNA. Fish swimming near the Wurtsmith base had internal PFOS levels as high as 9,580 ppb. Birds that eat these fish have PFCs in them, too.
The chemicals are clearly entering humans’ bodies as well. Before the 1940s, when the first PFCs were developed, no one had them in their blood. Now, it’s virtually impossible to find anyone who doesn’t have at least trace amounts of these man-made substances in their bodies, most of which likely come from exposure to the chemicals in consumer products.
The PFCs from firefighting foam can add substantially to this burden, as Andrea Amico now knows. After several months of public meetings, letter writing, and phone calls, she finally managed to get free testing approved not just for her family but also for anyone who drank the water on Pease. Rick Cricenti, the New Hampshire official who stopped responding to Amico’s communications, referred me to a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, who did not dispute her version of events but said, “I feel good about the department’s response ultimately to this contamination.” Eventually, that response included working with the CDC to offer blood testing to anyone who was affected. So far, 1,600 people have had their blood tested for the presence of nine PFCs. The first of the results, which were released in August and September, showed that the average level of PFOS in children who were exposed to water from Pease was more than double the rate measured in a comparison group of children. Levels of another PFC called PFHxS were particularly high — more than triple the national average among adults and five times higher than a comparison group among children.
Amico’s daughter, who was just 4 when she had her blood tested, had a PFOS level that was more than four times that of a group of children from elsewhere in the country; her PFHxS level was more than 12 times higher.
IN 2006, THE EPA helped broker a deal under which the eight companies in the U.S. that were making or using PFOS and PFOA would stop doing so. As of this year the companies say that they have. But the federal agency dedicated to protecting human health and the environment has yet to set a safe level of lifetime exposure to the chemicals.
As The Intercept reported in August, Robert Bilott, an attorney representing people living in West Virginia and Ohio near a DuPont plant, first asked the EPA to regulate PFOA in 2001 under the Toxic Substances Control Act, “on the grounds that it ‘may be hazardous to human health and the environment.’” Bilott based his plea on decades of research on PFOS and PFOA he had uncovered through his legal work. In one of the many studies he unearthed, which was reported by 3M scientists in 2001, two of six male monkeys exposed to PFOS died. The chemical also caused monkeys to lose weight, increased the weight of their livers, and interfered with various hormones.
Still, the EPA didn’t address the question of how much PFOA or PFOS might be safe until 2009, after the agency discovered that sludge containing high levels of both chemicals had made its way from a wastewater treatment facility in Decatur, Alabama, to nearby fields. For 12 years, it turned out, that contaminated sludge had been spread across 5,000 acres of local grazing land. The fear was that the chemicals would make their way into animals and humans in the rural area. And, in fact, they did. But even so, the EPA didn’t enact binding regulation, which could have been used to force the companies responsible for the chemicals’ presence in water, including 3M, to clean up the contamination.
Instead, the agency came up with a temporary, unenforceable solution to the PFC problem. The Provisional Health Advisory on PFOS and PFOA that the EPA released in 2009 referred to the industry’s monkey research and other evidence of disturbing health effects of PFCs on animals when it calculated the maximum levels of these chemicals that humans should be exposed to through drinking water. For PFOS it was 0.2 ppb; for PFOA, 0.4 ppb. But these levels fall short of enforceable regulations.
And both are for “short-term exposure,” which according to the EPA means they are supposed to apply to periods of exposure that last from “weeks to months.” Yet Andrea Amico’s oldest child was exposed for years — indeed, for most of her life. In all likelihood, Lori Cervera and her family drank contaminated water for as long as 15 years. And many others living near fire-training sites may have been exposed to the chemicals for far longer, since the military has been using the foam for close to 50 years.
Although the EPA has repeatedly said it would update these numbers, it hasn’t done so since 2009. In a written response to questions from The Intercept, Cathy Milbourne, an EPA spokesperson, said the agency expects to finalize health advisories for PFOA and PFOS “this winter.” Once published, those numbers will supersede the provisional health advisories from 2009.
In the meantime, the military continues to use the provisional safety levels to guide its response to contamination from AFFF. One of the agency’s Q&A sheets, for instance, assures people living near Willow Grove that these levels “are intended to ensure protection of public health, with a margin of safety built-in.” Those in charge of the cleanup there use the numbers to determine who receives bottled water and which homes now reliant on contaminated private wells will be connected to public water systems. And residents whose wells contain even slightly less than this amount and who have been drinking the chemicals for years may be reassured, as Cervera was, that their water is safe to drink.
SINCE THE EPA SET these provisional levels, evidence has emerged suggesting that guidelines for safe levels of PFC exposure over the long term should be much lower. In 2009, the same year that the EPA set its short-term level for PFOA at .4 ppb, a group of water experts appointed by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection calculated what they thought should be a safe lifetime limit for drinking water: .04 ppb, one-tenth the EPA’s provisional level. And since then, much evidence has emerged showing that the long-term level should be lower still.
In 2012, data gathered from plaintiffs in a class-action suit Bilott and others filed against DuPont found that exposure to PFOA was likely linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid diseases, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and preeclampsia. The minimum level of contamination in water districts represented in the suit was low — just .05 ppb, a small fraction of the level now being used to guide cleanup — and more recent research suggests maximum levels for drinking water should be even lower than that.
For years, industry did the vast majority of research on PFCs, most of which was never made public. “We didn’t pay attention to the PFCs because it looked like there was nothing,” said Philippe Grandjean, a physician and environmental health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But in 2000, after conducting a study of the health effects of PFOA on monkeys, 3M announced that it would phase out production of both PFOS and PFOA. “It was when industry said ‘oops,’ that’s when the academics got started,” said Grandjean.
Grandjean himself became interested in PFCs after he noticed a 2008 study in which researchers looked at how the chemicals affected mice. “Animal toxicologists got to the immune system and — bing! — they found these very strong effects.” Grandjean wondered whether the chemicals might have similar effects in children and devised a way to find out: He looked at the blood from group of young children before and after they were vaccinated for tetanus and diphtheria. His findings, which were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012, were striking: After being vaccinated, 7-year-olds who had very slightly elevated levels of PFCs in their blood tended to have lower levels of antibodies to those diseases. For each doubling of exposure to the chemicals, the risk that the vaccine didn’t take increased twofold to fourfold.
“I fell off my chair when we got our first results,” said Grandjean, who believes the study has broad implications for overall immune function, which affects the development of allergies, autoimmune diseases, cancers, and a huge range of other illnesses. Indeed, a separate study, published in 2013, bears out his hunch. This one mapped certain illnesses to exposure to very low levels of certain PFCs in Norwegian children. Those who had higher levels of PFOA and another perfluorinated chemical, PFNA, got more colds. And those who had higher levels of PFOA and PFHxS, the chemical found at elevated levels in many of the people near Pease, were more likely to get stomach infections.
Based on his findings — which were corroborated by other research showing an association of very small amounts of PFCs in the blood of pregnant women in Demark with increased risk of miscarriage — Grandjean came up with a maximum level of the chemicals that would be safe to ingest that was much lower than the provisional level set in 2009. “You need to get down to something like several hundredfold less than what EPA originally set,” said Grandjean, who has suggested a safe level should be set below .001 ppb instead of 0.2 or 0.4.
Though it came close, the contamination detected in Lori Cervera’s well never exceeded the EPA’s guidelines for short-term exposure. After years of exposure, though, even tiny amounts of the chemicals can be harmful, according to Grandjean. Because PFCs accumulate in the body — it takes five years for people to get rid of just half of PFOS in their bodies, for instance — for people who have been chronically exposed, like Cervera, “any additional exposure should be prevented,” said Grandjean.
It’s never easy to find and clean up tiny molecules that have been scattered through vast amounts of water and soil.
And the effort to rid the environment of PFCs from firefighting foam promises to be especially messy and difficult. Not only have these chemicals been spread across the entire country, they’re often mixed in with other contaminants, including jet fuel, benzene, and other byproducts of combustion. This is certainly the case at Eielson, Pease, and Willow Grove, all of which were Superfund sites well before they were known sites of PFC contamination from firefighting foam.
So far, the best method for cleaning up PFCs requires putting contaminated water through an “activated” carbon filter, and then burning the chemicals that have been filtered out. The process is expensive, as is the pumping of the water from the ground to a place where it can be treated.
Indeed, in July, the Navy agreed to pay $8.8 million to treat the public drinking water wells of the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority near the Cerveras’ home and almost $4 million to clean the water at the Warminster Municipal Authority in the next town. And those costs are only for cleaning wells that have PFCs above the provisional advisory levels.
Because PFCs are unregulated, the law doesn’t require their cleanup — and the costs of getting them out of the environment aren’t covered by the Superfund program. Nevertheless, the Air Force has decided it will address the contamination on a case-by-case basis, reviewing and addressing requests for action on PFCs when “direct human exposure, and/or off-site migration is identified.”
The consequences of not adequately cleaning the PFCs loom large. At Willow Grove, for example, plans are already underway to develop housing, a school, and a retirement community.
IN OCTOBER, A JURY found DuPont liable for $1.6 million in damages to a woman who had developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water near one of the company’s plants. Though she developed the same disease after similar exposures, at this point, Lori Cervera is unlikely to have such success in the courts.
In the DuPont cases, the second of which will be tried in March, there is ample evidence the company was responsible for putting the chemical into local drinking water. And, according to the terms of the class-action suit from which the case stemmed, the jury had to accept that PFOA can cause kidney cancer.
If Cervera were to sue, her lawyers would have to sort through a tangle of potentially responsible parties. Over time, the bases near her have been home to several branches of the military, including the Navy, the Air Force, the Air National Guard, and the Army Reserve. Suing any of them is notoriously difficult. And then there is the challenge of sorting out which of several companies made the particular foam in question. Though 3M was the sole supplier of firefighting foam to the U.S. military until 1982 and made about three-quarters of the military’s entire stockpile, six other manufacturers, including Ansul, Chemguard, National Foam, and Buckeye Fire, have also sold firefighting foam to the military. And they bought some of the chemicals used in the foam from other companies.
National Foam, Ansul, and Chemguard declined to comment for this story. Buckeye Fire did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 3M provided the following statement:
“3M’s AFFF products were all sold with material safety data sheets, or MSDSs, that advised how to handle and dispose of the product in a safe and effective manner,” Donna Fleming Runyon, spokesperson for 3M, says. “When used properly, we believe AFFF was safe and effective. In fact, the products are widely credited with benefiting the military and civilian firefighters around the world. They are known in many cases to have saved lives.”
“We believe that PFCs, such as PFOS and PFOA, do not present health risks at the levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood,” says Carol A. Ley, MD, vice president and corporate medical director, 3M Medical Department. “In more than 30 years of medical surveillance, we have observed no adverse health effects in our employees resulting from their exposure to PFCs such as PFOS and PFOA,” says Ley. “This is important since the level of exposure in the general population is hundreds, if not thousands, of times lower than that of production employees who worked directly with these materials.”
Still, Cervera was considering her legal options — and, for months, waiting for calls back from the Centers for Disease Control, the EPA, and the local base closure office to get more information about her exposure over the years. But at press time, a routine blood test had heightened her doctors’ suspicions that her cancer had returned — and banished, for now, Cervera’s questions about why she got sick.
Back in New Hampshire, Amico is now part of a recently formed community advisory board at Pease that is working with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to design a health study to see how the PFCs in drinking water might have affected the health of people who drank water there. It will likely be years before any results emerge from this research.
The U.S. isn’t the only country contending with the environmental consequences of firefighting foam.
PFC contamination from the foam has recently been discovered in Europe, Japan, and Australia, where TV coverage likened the widespread contamination to “Agent Orange, all over again.”
Perhaps the most instructive response to the problem has been in Ronneby, a small town on the southern coast of Sweden. In December 2013, the level of PFOS in drinking water there was found to be elevated. As in the U.S., the Swedish contamination was tied to firefighting foam used by Sweden’s air force. But unlike in the U.S., the response in Ronneby was thorough, swift, and very open.
As soon as the problem was discovered, it was widely reported to the public and clean water was distributed. Blood sampling of exposed residents got underway by February and initial results from those tests were reported in March. Within months, a Swedish university received an emergency research grant to study the health effects in the population and the government mobilized a network of national agencies to work on the issue.
As in the U.S., plenty of questions remain about the PFCs in Ronneby. Epidemiological studies of the health of the local population, while already funded, won’t get underway until 2016, according to Kristina Jakobsson, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Gothenburg University. But the process is clearly already a governmental priority — or as Jakobsson put it simply, “an act of responsibility.”
Research: Danielle Mackey and John Thomason
After less than one full day of deliberation, a jury in Columbus, Ohio, found DuPont liable for $1.6 million in a personal injury claim over C8 contamination.
A JURY HAS FOUND DUPONT liable for negligence in the case of Carla Bartlett, taking less than a day to award $1.6 million to the Ohio woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking water contaminated with a chemical formerly used to make Teflon. The jury declined to give Bartlett punitive damages in the federal case. Instead, the award included $1.1 million for negligence as well as $500,000 for emotional distress.
“This is brilliant,” one of Bartlett’s attorneys, Mike Papantonio, said of the verdict. “It’s exactly what we wanted.” Papantonio emphasized that Bartlett’s case, the first of more than 3,500 personal injury and wrongful death suits filed on behalf of people in West Virginia and Ohio who were exposed to C8, had been chosen by DuPont as the first to be tried and involved less egregious injuries than many others yet to be heard.
“They picked this case with the idea that it was the most winnable. Strategically they never dreamed we’d win this case,” said Papantonio, who predicts that other C8 suits in the pipeline will result in punitive damages. “Really, it’s just a matter of time.”
In a statement, DuPont said it expected to appeal the verdict and emphasized that “safety and environmental stewardship are core values at DuPont.”
CARLA BARTLETT LIVED much of her life in Coolville, Ohio, a tiny town a few miles across the Ohio River from a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. After years of drinking water that had been contaminated with C8, Bartlett, who is now 51, was diagnosed with a tumor on her kidney in 1997 and underwent a painful surgery that involved removing part of one of her ribs along with the tumor.
Bartlett’s attorneys argued that while she and tens of thousands of people living near Parkersburg, West Virginia, were drinking water contaminated with C8, DuPont was actively working to ensure they didn’t “connect the dots” about the chemical. One DuPont PowerPoint presented by Papantonio described the company’s strategy of keeping sensitive information from government agencies, community organizations, and “disgruntled employees.”
DuPont’s lawyers, for their part, denied any responsibility for Bartlett’s illness. “Nobody at DuPont expected that Mrs. Bartlett or anyone else in the community would be hurt,” said Damond Mace, who emphasized that the company couldn’t have predicted that scientists would find a probable link between C8 and kidney cancer, as they did in 2012.
Bartlett’s attorneys responded with voluminous internal communications showing the company did in fact foresee the damage they would later inflict. In one DuPont document, a summary of a 1984 meeting about C8, a DuPont employee concluded that “we are already liable for the past 32 years of operation.”
The presentation of historical documents was designed to convince the jury that the company acted irresponsibly, even given the information that was available before Bartlett’s diagnosis. Bartlett’s lawyers laid out a clear timeline that began in the 1950s, when DuPont first learned of the chemical’s potential toxicity. By 1966, some DuPont employees realized that C8 was seeping into groundwater. By 1980, after the company instituted regular testing of its own employees, DuPont had evidence that C8 was present in workers’ blood — and within two more years there was evidence that the contamination persisted in human tissues. By 1984, according to testimony, DuPont’s own testing had established that C8 had leaked into local drinking water. In 1989, DuPont knew that C8 caused testicular tumors in rats — and even classified C8 as a possible carcinogen. But rather than reporting these developments, Mike Papantonio told the jury, “They hid this information from the public for at least 16 years.”
The company could have easily disposed of its C8 waste differently, Bartlett’s attorneys argued. As evidence, they produced a 1985 memo and a manufacturer’s information sheet from 3M, the company that sold C8 to DuPont until 2000, both of which clearly stated that the chemical should have been either incinerated or placed in a landfill designed for hazardous waste. Bartlett’s lawyers also revealed documents showing that DuPont did in fact follow 3M’s directive in its facilities in Japan, China, and the Netherlands, where it burned C8 waste.
In Parkersburg, however, DuPont chose to pump C8 through its smokestacks, bury it in unlined landfills, and dump up to 50,000 pounds a year directly into the Ohio River. The attorneys also presented evidence that switching to incineration would have cost the Parkersburg plant less than .2 percent of its annual operating costs. “The only reason they didn’t do it was because they wanted to save money,” Papantonio told the jury. Later, he added: “We wouldn’t be here today if it were incinerated.”
ARGUABLY THE MOST MOVING testimony came from Bartlett herself, a mother of two who described her daily routine of drinking iced tea that she unwittingly made with contaminated water, the physical pain of her ordeal, and her fear of a recurrence. Bartlett cried while on the stand and traced a huge line across her body where she has a scar from her surgery, saying, “It’s very big, and it’s very ugly.”
But it was testimony from two of DuPont’s own witnesses, who admitted to having high levels of C8 in their own bodies, that may have been even more damaging. Anthony Playtis, who was occupational health coordinator at the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, said that in 1994 C8 was measured in his blood at 400 parts per billion (ppb), a level that is roughly 100 times the national average. The retired DuPont worker went on to dismiss the notion that the measurement was cause for concern. “I knew there were a lot of other people who had much higher levels, and so I didn’t think mine was anything to worry about,” he said. Also, Playtis noted, “Everything is toxic.”
As part of a group of DuPont employees who measured C8 levels in local drinking water, Playtis took a sample from his home in 1988 that measured 2.2 ppb — more than double the safe level the company had set internally. But neither he nor anyone else at DuPont reported the elevated C8 readings to the public or to regulators until 1999. During those years, local children were splashing in backyard pools and community members were watering their vegetable gardens with the stuff.
Another former DuPont employee, Paul Bossert, who served as plant manager in Parkersburg from 2000 to 2005, made a point of mentioning that he drank the plant’s water, which had elevated levels of C8, and acknowledged that the chemical had been measured in his own blood at 85 ppb. Upon cross-examination, however, Bossert admitted that he had high cholesterol and a potentially cancerous “spot” on his kidney. Both conditions are among the six approved by a panel of scientists as grounds for personal injury cases such as Bartlett’s.
The jury didn’t have to make a decision about whether Bossert’s health conditions were caused by C8, but they did have to try to determine if the chemical caused Bartlett’s cancer, and they were given specific instructions about how to do so. According to the terms of a 2005 class-action settlement over the contamination that spawned these cases, they had to accept as fact that drinking C8 for at least a year at the level of .05 ppb or above, as Bartlett did, can cause cancer.
Although DuPont’s attorneys were not permitted to dispute the fact that C8 can cause cancer, they did question whether it had caused Carla Bartlett’s particular illness. “Just because C-8 is capable of causing cancer does not mean that it did cause Mrs. Bartlett’s kidney cancer,” DuPont attorney Damond Mace said. Instead, he argued that Bartlett’s cancer that was caused by her obesity.
The $1.6 million verdict is only one of several problems now facing DuPont. Since March the company’s stock is down more than 30 percent, and on Monday CEO Ellen Kullman announced she was stepping down, leaving DuPont without a succession plan.
Some observers who are familiar with the company’s long history in Parkersburg believe Kullman’s departure is tied to C8. Jeffrey Dugas, campaign manager of Keep Your Promises DuPont, a local nonprofit devoted to holding the company accountable, said the company’s mishandling of the chemical — the contamination, the cover-up, and now the bruising legal fight that just concluded in Columbus — hasn’t served anyone well.
“This whole process of trying to wiggle out of its responsibilities has hurt everyone involved,” said Dugas. “The latest victim is Ellen Kullman. But mid-Ohio residents have been suffering for over a decade.”
As the first of six bellwether cases, Bartlett’s verdict is seen as an important predictor of the thousands of C8 claims that may yet come to trial. The next case, in which the plaintiff has ulcerative colitis, is scheduled to be heard in Columbus in late November. The future of Chemours, the chemical company that was recently spun off from DuPont, may also hinge on the outcome of these trials.
With C8 present in water far beyond the Ohio Valley, where Bartlett and other plaintiffs in the current crop of plaintiffs were contaminated, the implications of the Bartlett case may be far wider. Papantonio, who tried some of the first asbestos cases, sees that litigation, which has cost industry more than $50 billion to date, as a possible model.
“This is starting out just like those cases,” said Papantonio. “If I was in charge of this company, I’d be worried.”