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About that Teflon Skillet

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There was a time in U.S. history, maybe it’s today still, where we would respond in wonderment to new technological products without questioning what the downside of those products might be. Actually, yes, given that technological fetishism is the national religion we still are in that time. Now, obviously technological innovation can be good and questioning science can be really stupid (thanks Jenny McCarthy says all the kids with whooping cough!). But for the most part, a lot more questioning would be useful. Let’s take, oh I don’t know, a non-stick Teflon pan. What the heck is that non-stick stuff?

Well, it’s something called C8. And it’s, um, not good for you.

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.

Two years after DuPont learned of the monkey study, in 1981, 3M shared the results of another study it had done, this one on pregnant rats, whose unborn pups were more likely to have eye defects after they were exposed to C8. The EPA was also informed of the results. After 3M’s rat study came out, DuPont transferred all women out of work assignments with potential for exposure to C8. DuPont doctors then began tracking a small group of women who had been exposed to C8 and had recently been pregnant. If even one in five women gave birth to children who had craniofacial deformities, a DuPont epidemiologist named Fayerweather warned, the results should be considered significant enough to suggest that C8 exposure caused the problems.

As it turned out, at least one of eight babies born to women who worked in the Teflon division did have birth defects. A little boy named Bucky Bailey, whose mother, Sue, had worked in Teflon early in her pregnancy, was born with tear duct deformities, only one nostril, an eyelid that started down by his nose, and a condition known as “keyhole pupil,” which looked like a tear in his iris. Another child, who was two years old when the rat study was published in 1981, had an “unconfirmed eye and tear duct defect,” according to a DuPont document that was marked confidential.

Like Wamsley, Sue Bailey, one of the plaintiffs whose personal injury suits are scheduled to come to trial in the fall, remembers having plenty of contact with C8. When she started at DuPont in 1978, she worked first in the Nylon division and then in Lucite, she told me in an interview. But in 1980, when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy with Bucky, she moved to Teflon, where she often sat watch over a large pipe that periodically filled up with liquid, which she had to pump to a pond in back of the plant. Occasionally some of the bubbly stuff would overflow from a nearby holding tank, and her supervisor taught her how to squeegee the excess into a drain.

Soon after Bucky was born, Bailey received a call from a DuPont doctor. “I thought it was just a compassion call, you know: can we do anything or do you need anything?” Bailey recalled. “Shoot. I should have known better.” In fact, the doctor didn’t express his sympathies, Bailey said, and instead asked her whether her child had any birth defects, explaining that it was standard to record such problems in employees’ newborns.

Oh well, that’s nice. See also part 2 of the story.

And like basically every other awful thing corporations produce, 3M and Dupont delayed and delayed and delayed in admitting fault or taking precautions, sending workers to horrible deaths in order to make a few more dollars. It’s the same strategy taken by tobacco companies and that the oil companies use today in order to undermine action on climate change. All these industries have full knowledge of what their products do to people and the planet. And they don’t care. I don’t even really know what to say that’s all that useful here except to point out the story. These companies are tremendously evil. But we accept their products as advancements when really, in this case, we could have just continued using the pans we were using that work fine with some oil. But the combination of our technological futurist fetishism, belief in capitalism, and weak regulatory system created a system where a lot of people have suffered for no good reason and the companies involved (and especially the individuals involved) haven’t been held to account.

And the same thing will happen tomorrow with other companies so long as we continue to believe these myths about technology and capitalism.

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