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January 12, 2016

New York Times: DuPont hid decades of chemical pollution

Lawsuits ongoing against industrial giant over PFOA, chemical used in Teflon

Industrial giant DuPont dumped thousands of tons of polluted waste into landfills and spent decades hiding its knowledge that a chemical used in Teflon was toxic, according to a scathing exposé published in The New York Times Magazine this week.

Titled "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare," the lengthy article by Nathaniel Rich describes how corporate lawyer Rob Bilott has spent 16 years leading lawsuits against DuPont for its use of PFOA, a chemical used in nonstick products. 

While the chemical is no longer in use, it's unclear if its replacement is safe, and scientists have found high concentrations of fluorochemicals in places like Wilmington, Delaware, where the company is headquartered. 

Bilott started his efforts after meeting a farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where DuPont operated a factory. Chemicals from a DuPont landfill seeped into the water system, poisoning the farmer's cows and causing terrible malformations. Here's how the article describes what DuPont did with the chemical, starting in 1951:

Over the decades that followed, DuPont pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg facility into the Ohio River. The company dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ‘‘digestion ponds:’’ open, unlined pits on the Washington Works property, from which the chemical could seep straight into the ground. PFOA entered the local water table, which supplied drinking water to the communities of Parkersburg, Vienna, Little Hocking and Lubeck — more than 100,000 people in all.

Over the decades, according to documents that the lawyer recovered from the company, 3M and DuPont conducted secret medical studies which found that the substance caused tumors in lab animals. They knew that PFOA was in the local water supply and found elevated PFOA levels in the blood of factory workers. The company even found an alternative chemical but decided against switching to it.

DuPont settled a class-action suit in 2004, agreeing to pay for medical monitoring of 70,000 people in West Virginia who drank the water. It also agreed on a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA in 2005.

Studying blood samples from people who drank the tainted water, scientists found in 2011 that there was a "probable link" between PFOA and a host of diseases, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease. More than 3,500 people have filed personal-injury lawsuits against DuPont, but just a handful will be tried in the courts this year.

DuPont stopped using PFOA in 2013. However, it's unclear if the new chemical being used for nonstick products is any safer.

"DuPont just quietly switches over to the next substance. And in the meantime, they fight everyone who has been injured by it," Bilott said.

Not only that, but a nonprofit group has found fluorochemicals like PFOA in 94 water districts across the country, affecting more than 1.3 million people in New Jersey; 220,000 in Pennsylvania; and 320,000 in Delaware – which represents more than one-third of the First State's entire population.

In Wilmington, Delaware, where DuPont is headquartered, the water "has a higher concentration of fluorochemicals than that in some of the districts included in Rob Billot's class-action suit," the article warns.

This summer, DuPont spun off the chemical business that makes Teflon into a different corporation known as Chemours. In December, it announced plans for a $130 billion merger with Dow. The combined mega-corporation will then split into three separate companies focused on materials, agriculture and specialty products. 

The Times' editorial board described DuPont's actions as "unconscionable decades-long efforts ... to hide the dangers of an obscure chemical and bamboozle regulators into allowing toxic pollution to continue long after the dangers were known to the company." The board urged Congress to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act so that the EPA will have more power to regulate harmful chemicals.

Read the full story here.