Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

The Social Discovery of a Class of Emerging Contaminants

Parkersburg, West Virginia

Suspected source: Dupont’s Washington Works plant

DuPont began using PFOA to manufacture Teflon at its Washington Works plant in 1951. The company knew that PFOA is toxic in 1961.

In 1981, DuPont found evidence of birth defects in babies born to female employees who worked in its West Virginia plant, and decides to pull female employees from Teflon work. Drinking water monitoring conducted by DuPont in 1984 confirmed elevated PFOA levels around the Washington Works plant, but decides that reducing PFOA emissions is not “economically attractive” (Hawthorne, 2003). 

DuPont employees found an elevated number of leukemia deaths at the West Virginia plant in 1989. Several months later, they measured an unexpectedly high number of kidney cancers among male workers. Both elevations were plant-wide and not specific to workers who handled PFOA (Lerner, 2015).

westva
(Photo: Maddie McGarvey)

In the 1980s, DuPont purchased a piece of land from, Wilbur Tennant, a cattle rancher, to use as a landfill for supposedly no-hazardous materials. The land contained a creek that flowed directly into the Ohio River. After witnessing abnormal qualities in the creek and mysterious deaths of hundreds of his cows, Wilbur Tennant sued DuPont with attorney Rob Bilott in 1998 (Kelly, 2016). In the process of the suit, Bilott uncovered DuPont internal documentation of PFOA exposure in plant workers and groundwater. Lawsuit ended in a sealed settlement in 2001. The same year, Bilott initiated a class-action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of 50,000 people in the Ohio River area.

After 3M announced a phase out of PFOA in 2000, DuPont became its sole manufacturer. In the process, Ohio Valley residents found out that PFOA was contaminating their water, so DuPont moved PFOA production to its new Fayetteville Works plant in North Carolina (Judge, 2015). Before the new plant opened, DuPont issued a statement to employees and surrounding residents: “DuPont has used [C8/PFOA] for more than 50 years with no observed health effects in workers” (Lerner, 2015).

In 2004, DuPont settled Bilott’s class-action suit, which now applied to 80,000 plaintifs in 6 water districts, for $343 million. The settlement also included the creation of a C8 Science Panel and funding of a study to collect medical information on the exposed population and determine whether PFOA exposure actually posed harm. The project was complete in 2013, and linked PFOA exposure to 6 diseases: ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer (Lerner, 2015).

The Environmental Protection Agency settled its lawsuit against DuPont with a $16.5 million penalty for the company’s failure to disclose health risks found with PFOA. The agreement required DuPont to remediate drinking water with PFOA levels exceeding .4 ppb and phase out PFOA by 2015. Initial tests tests in Parkersburg returned levels below the cut off, although later tests confirmed presence of the chemical greater than the limit. DuPont never installed filtration systems in the city.

In September 2015, the first of 3,500 personal injury trials for the plaintiffs of the 2004 class action occured in Columbus, Ohio. The class action settlement’s terms prohibited DuPont from denying the link between PFOA and the identified diseases in the C8 Science Panel, but the company could argue that the diseases were a result of factors other than PFOA exposure. The plaintiff was awarded $1.6 million (Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler).

DuPont and Chemours settled 3,500 cases and future suits in February 2017, each contributing $335.35 million and up to $25 million each year for the next five years.

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Full citations are available on the second page of the full contamination site tracker. We ask for your additions, changes, questions and comments be sent to pfasproject@gmail.com.

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