Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Teflon Toxin: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception

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Corporations are sociopaths. Sharon Lerner reports in The Intercept:

Ken Wamsley sometimes dreams that he’s playing softball again. He’ll be at center field, just like when he played slow pitch back in his teens, or pounding the ball over the fence as the crowd goes wild. Other times, he’s somehow inexplicably back at work in the lab. Wamsley calls them nightmares, these stories that play out in his sleep, but really the only scary part is the end, when “I wake up and I have no rectum anymore.”

Wamsley is 73. After developing rectal cancer and having surgery to treat it in 2002, he walks slowly and gets up from the bench in his small backyard slowly. His voice, which has a gentle Appalachian lilt, is still animated, though, especially when he talks about his happier days. There were many. While Wamsley knew plenty of people in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who struggled to stay employed, he made an enviable wage for almost four decades at the DuPont plant here. The company was generous, helping him pay for college courses and training him to become a lab analyst in the Teflon division.

He enjoyed the work, particularly the precision and care it required. For years, he measured levels of a chemical called C8 in various products. The chemical “was everywhere,” as Wamsley remembers it, bubbling out of the glass flasks he used to transport it, wafting into a smelly vapor that formed when he heated it. A fine powder, possibly C8, dusted the laboratory drawers and floated in the hazy lab air.

At the time, Wamsley and his coworkers weren’t particularly concerned about the strange stuff. “We never thought about it, never worried about it,” he said recently. His believed it was harmless, “like a soap. Wash your hands [with it], your face, take a bath.”

Today Wamsley suffers from ulcerative colitis, a bowel condition that causes him sudden bouts of diarrhea. The disease also can — and his case, did — lead to rectal cancer. Between the surgery, which left him reliant on plastic pouches that collect his waste outside his body and have to be changed regularly, and his ongoing digestive problems, Wamsley finds it difficult to be away from his home for long.

Sometimes, between napping or watching baseball on TV, Wamsley’s mind drifts back to his DuPont days and he wonders not just about the dust that coated his old workplace but also about his bosses who offered their casual assurances about the chemical years ago.

“Who knew?” he asked. “When did they know? Did they lie?”

Until recently, few people

had heard much about chemicals like C8. One of tens of thousands of unregulated industrial chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — also called C8 because of the eight-carbon chain that makes up its chemical backbone — had gone unnoticed for most of its eight or so decades on earth, even as it helped cement the success of one of the world’s largest corporations.

Several blockbuster discoveries, including nylon, Lycra, and Tyvek, helped transform the E. I. du Pont de Nemours company from a 19th-century gunpowder mill into “one of the most successful and sustained industrial enterprises in the world,” as its corporate website puts it. Indeed, in 2014, the company reaped more than $95 million in sales each day. Perhaps no product is as responsible for its dominance as Teflon, which was introduced in 1946, and for more than 60 years C8 was an essential ingredient of Teflon.

Called a “surfactant” because it reduces the surface tension of water, the slippery, stable compound was eventually used in hundreds of products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Concerns about the safety of Teflon, C8, and other long-chain perfluorinated chemicals first came to wide public attention more than a decade ago, but the story of DuPont’s long involvement with C8 has never been fully told. Over the past 15 years, as lawyers have been waging an epic legal battle — culminating as the first of approximately 3,500 personal injury claims comes to trial in September — a long trail of documents has emerged that casts new light on C8, DuPont, and the fitful attempts of the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with a threat to public health.

This story is based on many of those documents, which until they were entered into evidence for these trials had been hidden away in DuPont’s files. Among them are write-ups of experiments on rats, dogs, and rabbits showing that C8 was associated with a wide range of health problems that sometimes killed the lab animals. Many thousands of pages of expert testimony and depositions have been prepared by attorneys for the plaintiffs. And through the process of legal discovery they have uncovered hundreds of internal communications revealing that DuPont employees for many years suspected that C8 was harmful and yet continued to use it, putting the company’s workers and the people who lived near its plants at risk.

The best evidence of how C8 affects humans has also come out through the legal battle over the chemical, though in a more public form. As part of a 2005 settlement over contamination around the West Virginia plant where Wamsley worked, lawyers for both DuPont and the plaintiffs approved a team of three scientists, who were charged with determining if and how the chemical affects people.

In 2011 and 2012, after seven years of research, the science panel found that C8 was “more likely than not” linked to ulcerative colitis — Wamsley’s condition — as well as to high cholesterol; pregnancy-induced hypertension; thyroid disease; testicular cancer; and kidney cancer. The scientists’ findings, published in more than three dozen peer-reviewed articles, were striking, because the chemical’s effects were so widespread throughout the body and because even very low exposure levels were associated with health effects.

We know, too, from internal DuPont documents that emerged through the lawsuit, that Wamsley’s fears of being lied to are well-founded. DuPont scientists had closely studied the chemical for decades and through their own research knew about some of the dangers it posed. Yet rather than inform workers, people living near the plant, the general public, or government agencies responsible for regulating chemicals, DuPont repeatedly kept its knowledge secret.

Another revelation about C8 makes all of this more disturbing and gives the upcoming trials, the first of which will be held this fall in Columbus, Ohio, global significance: This deadly chemical that DuPont continued to use well after it knew it was linked to health problems is now practically everywhere.

A man-made compound that didn’t exist a century ago, C8 is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans, according to a 2007 analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood. A growing group of scientists have been tracking the chemical’s spread through the environment, documenting its presence in a wide range of wildlife, including . . .

Continue reading.

The way that DuPont seems forced by the profit imperative to keep churning the stuff out in spite of the obvious dangers reminds me of how oil and coal companies continue to encourage use of their product despite the obvious (and now occurring) dangers of global warming.

Written by Leisureguy

12 August 2015 at 9:34 am

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