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DuPont and Teflon, Revisited

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A few weeks ago, I linked to a good in-depth discussion of how DuPont had poisoned the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia through the production of C8, the chemical making up the key component of Teflon. The Huffington Post now has a very long and in-depth piece on the same subject, which you should also read. I won’t go over the details again except to say that DuPont, like basically all chemical corporations, treat the environment, workers, and the surrounding communities with a complete lack of basic respect in its quest to maximize profit. But two points to pull out. First:

By the early 1970s, Congress was once again debating how to regulate the chemicals that now formed the fabric of American domestic life. Both houses drafted legislation that would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and regulate their use. But the industry unleashed another lobbying blitz. Under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, existing chemicals were again grandfathered in. Manufacturers did have to inform the EPA when they introduced new chemicals—but no testing was required. The resulting regulatory regime, which exists to this day, is remarkably laissez-faire. Only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety—meaning that we are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.

This is a really key issue. Like fracking and so many other technological developments of industrial life, we have given corporations carte blanche to create profitable markets in chemicals without meaningful testing, and especially without meaningful public testing that would give people a right to know what chemicals are in their air, water, food, and workplaces. Only if disasters strike of the thalidomide level does real accountability to corporations ever take place. Meanwhile, more chemicals can be created, dumped, and forgotten about, all at continuing profit. Even here, with overwhelming evidence of how DuPont created birth defects, massive wildlife and livestock dieoffs, cancers in workers and local residents, etc., the company still have not faced real accountability. Instead it is using every known tactic of corporations to delay compensation and try to offload legal liability. This gets us to the second point.

Meanwhile, this past July, DuPont spun off its specialty chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours. The new enterprise will assume the liability for DuPont’s most polluted sites, including Washington Works—but it will only have one-quarter of DuPont’s revenue. Many people with cases pending against DuPont worry that it will use this arrangement to avoid paying damages or, at the very least, stall any resulting payouts. “I’m sure part of their theory is the longer they delay, the more people will die,” said Deitzler, the Parkersburg-based lawyer. “It’s already worked. Before we could even file cases, many of the people who’ve been affected passed on.”

Creating new companies that are underfunded in order to deal with liabilities is an old corporate trick. Dollars to donuts Chemours declares bankruptcy in the next decade that allows DuPont to escape from any meaningful compensation at all.

Meanwhile, DuPoint has moved on from C8. But to what?

Under the current regulatory system, DuPont is not required to ensure that these chemicals are free of the qualities that made C8 so toxic. While relatively little is known about these substances, most of them have very similar structures and properties to C8, and the limited information that is available reveals troubling effects. Also, while some of the replacement chemicals break down faster than C8 does, they need to be used in larger quantities to achieve the same results, a fact that has caused alarm in the scientific community. This May, 200 scientists—chemists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists among them—signed a statement urging governments to restrict the use of these chemicals because of the “risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.”

Until that happens, these substances will continue to spread, unchecked. Not long ago, the Little Hocking water district commissioned a study to see whether any of the C8 replacements were contaminating the town’s aquifer. Researchers tested worms unearthed from Little Hocking’s well field, a scraggly meadow overlooking the vast expanse of storage tanks and smokestacks at the Washington Works plant. They found a number of C8’s chemical cousins, including C5, C6, C7, C9 and C10. Once again, local residents may have been unwittingly exposed to toxins whose ultimate effect on human health is unknown.

The weak regulatory system combines with the nation’s profit-first ideology and corporate malfeasance to ensure that nothing will change here. Maybe one of these chemicals will, 20 years from now, be found to also kill people. If the system is similar to today, another decade will pass before any kind of compensation is required and then DuPont will continue to find more ways out and local people will suffer.

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