Don’t drink the Teflon

April 7, 2016

Poisoned groundwater in New York and Vermont is the latest chapter in a national water crisis--and a reminder of DuPont's role in creating a toxin, writes Michael Ware.

MICHAEL HICKEY'S father died of kidney cancer in 2013 at the age of 70. Hickey and his father, John Hickey, both lived in Hoosick Falls, New York, near the Vermont border, a small town of 3,500 with a phonetically ominous name.

John was an adored figure in the village where he spent most of his life, driving a school bus for 30 years, serving as a village trustee and working at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics--where he dealt with PFOA, also known as C8, a chemical used in the creation of Teflon and ChemFab.

His father's exposure to chemicals led Michael to test the town's tap and well water after John's death. What he found was another damning case of toxic industrial pollution fouling the groundwater and the likely cause of his father's death.

As Hickey told National Public Radio, "I'm not a big environmentalist. I'm just an everyday guy that came across a chemical that I felt the need to follow through on for my father and my son."

In researching the issue, Hickey found a scientific report linking PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, to kidney cancer. The tests he paid for himself revealed levels of PFOA near the Saint-Gobain plant that were 45 times higher than the levels allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Michael Hickey stands next to the polluted municipal well in Hoosick Falls, New York
Michael Hickey stands next to the polluted municipal well in Hoosick Falls, New York

The EPA PFOA standard of 400 parts per trillion is itself somewhat lax. The Vermont standard, by comparison, is 20 parts per trillion for short-term exposure to account for small children.

A standard, however, does not mean regulation. According to the EPA's website, "If EPA decides not to regulate a contaminant, then the Agency may decide to develop a health advisory. A health advisory is a non-enforceable federal limit. It serves as technical guidance for federal, state, and local officials."

In other words, officials are not compelled to act if a standard is violated and the public is potentially at risk.

NEW YORK state health officials brushed off the early test results, suggesting that the Hoosick Falls water was still safe to drink, citing the lack of clear regulation around PFOA levels. It was only a year and a half after Hickey's initial tests--and after the Flint water contamination scandal led to calls for the resignation and/or arrest of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder--that officials finally condemned Hoosick's water supply, telling residents to drink bottled water instead.

Meanwhile, the contamination in Hoosick Falls led other towns with current or former Saint-Gobain plants to test their water supplies. Thirty miles east of Hoosick Falls, five private wells around North Bennington, Vermont--the site of a former ChemFab/Saint-Gobain plant from 1970 until 2002--tested positive for elevated levels of PFOA.

That number has now jumped to over 100 wells with the low levels of the carcinogen found in the public water supply in nearby Pownal, Vermont--where residents urged testing due to suspected dumping at a former manufacturing site.

Erin Brockovich--who famously exposed Pacific Gas and Electric's contamination of drinking water in California--and a New York law firm have filed a suit against Saint-Gobain and Honeywell International (which used to own the Hoosick plant) for the Hoosick Falls contamination. They are also investigating PFOA exposure in North Bennington and Pownal.

"We are facing a water contamination crisis across our country," Brockovich said in a statement. "North Bennington is the latest in a long line of communities who can no longer trust the most basic necessity of life. I hope this investigation will help residents understand more about the size and scale of the problem."

NEW YORK Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to explain away the state's bungled response to the Hoosick Falls slow poisoning by citing the ambiguous federal standards around PFOA. It is true that much of the blame lies with the EPA--which acknowledges in its own documents that it "has not classified PFOS or PFOA carcinogenicity" and instead lists them as an "unregulated contaminants," which a suspicious mind might conclude is a sop to big industry.

But state and local officials claimed Hoosick Falls' water safe to drink as late as December 2015, even after the EPA advised the village in November to drink only bottled water.

Vermont's Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, sensing the public outrage over Flint and his possible exposure, responded quickly to the contamination in North Bennington and is trying to force Saint-Gobain to pay for the cleanup and water line extensions.

Shumlin blamed the Feds for being too lax about potential toxins, saying, "And that's the scary part about not having a federal government that's doing what it should to test the stuff before it goes on the market."

Shumlin, however, was not quite as passionate about protecting the public when he took office. His first veto as governor was of a 2011 bill to require testing of private wells intended for use as a potable water supply, claiming it was too burdensome for private individuals.

As a result, there are still no requirements for the testing of private wells in Vermont. Shumlin has also repeatedly supported Vermont Gas against vocal public opposition to a natural gas pipeline expansion to bring fracked gas into the state. Fracking is banned inside Vermont due in part to its impact on groundwater.

The real heroes in this emerging water crisis are people like Michael Hickey, Erin Brockovich and the people of Flint, who have refused to be quietly poisoned.

Rallies and protests in Flint, as well as earlier battles for water rights in Detroit, forced the issue of water rights, contamination and environmental racism into the 2016 election during the Michigan primaries. Without these efforts, people in New York and Vermont would be having an even harder time getting attention from the government and media.

PFOA IS a synthetic compound discovered in the 1940s by 3M, which began selling the stuff to DuPont for the manufacture of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), commonly known as Teflon--PFOA keeps PTFE from clumping during production.

Teflon is almost frictionless and has a high melting point. Crafty product development teams, sensing a huge opportunity, used Teflon to create nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpet and fabrics, ski wax and even microwave popcorn bags--as well as industrial products such as bearings, lubricants and wire insulation.

Despite plastics industry claims that Teflon isn't carcinogenic unless superheated, it turns out my grandmother was wise to refuse to cook with the Teflon pans my family bought her for Christmas in the 1970s, sticking with her ancient cast-iron skillet.

The literature on PFOA often claims that its effect on the human body are not fully understood, but have been linked to thyroid disease as well as kidney and testicular cancer. There was enough concern that in 2002, the EPA began pressuring 3M and other manufacturers to phase out its use.

But why does PFOA remain unregulated? For that matter, why are there tens of thousands of unregulated industrial chemicals in use throughout the U.S.?

DuPont knew about the dangers of PFOA, but covered it up for decades. Employees first noted PFOA's possible toxicity in 1954, and confirmed it by internal research in 1961, in which very low exposure caused a poison-like reaction in lab animals.

Faced with PFOA's long-term stability as a compound and its tendency to linger in organisms, DuPont couldn't figure out how to dispose of it without incurring high costs or public scrutiny so they buried 200 drums of PFOA waste along the banks of the Ohio River and then dumped barges full of drums at sea.

The practice was finally stopped in 1965, but not before polluting the globe. PFOA is now found in most humans worldwide, with a 2007 analysis confirming that 99.7 percent of all Americans have PFOA in their bloodstream.

DuPont continued and widened its use of PFOA in Teflon production into the 1980s and beyond, even as more studies by 3M showed that exposure could kill lab animals and was probably responsible for endocrine disorders and even birth defects in employees' children.

A 1981 3M report was finally shared with the EPA but it would take decades more to stop DuPont and 3M from using PFOA for Teflon, one of DuPont's most profitable products.

In The Teflon Toxin, an excellent three-part investigation by the Intercept, Sharon Lerner documents the extensive deceptions carried out DuPont and 3M around PFOA that persisted until 2005, when DuPont settled a $343 million class action lawsuit, agreed to fund a study to better understand the health impacts of PFOA, and was fined $10.25 million by the EPA for failing to report the risk to the public.

THERE'S A lot more to worry about than this one chemical, of course. In What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster detail our extensive exposure to pesticides and industrial compounds that, in most cases, are simply not tested or regulated:

There are more than 80,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States, and we do not know the composition and potential harmfulness of about 20,000 of them--their composition falls under the category of "trade secrets" and is legally withheld. According to an editorial in Scientific American, "Of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the U.S., only five have been restricted or banned. Not 5 percent, five. The EPA has been able to force health and safety testing for only around 200."

Why does the U.S. government, seemingly obsessed with the safety of its citizens regarding possible terrorist attacks, allow big industry and agro-giants to pollute our air, food and water with potentially thousands of carcinogens? Why would Rick Snyder endanger so many children in Flint?

The answer is simple: profit trumps safety, especially if the more acutely exposed populations are lower income or minority communities.

These communities are often desperate for good jobs, or at least ones that pay well. The most obvious example are chemical and energy workers who risk their health and sanity for a few highly paid years of working in the Alberta tar sands. But you could point to any number of industries located in poorer urban and rural areas like Hoosick Falls.

In the case of Flint, workers faced considerable risk making automobiles, but were at least well paid. When the auto industry moved away to avoid unions, unemployment soared, and infrastructure began to rot.

Everyone the world over should have access to good jobs and clean water, but that is impossible under corporate rule. Our economic system is based on endless growth and cheap fossil fuels, both of which are exhausting clean water supplies due to global warming, changing weather patterns and the massive drawdown of fresh water from aquifers by large-scale agriculture.

If we want to keep water plentiful and free of lead and carcinogens like PFOA, we should continue the fight to make corporations like DuPont, 3M and Saint-Gobain pay for the mess they created and tax the rich to pay for the rebuilding of public water supply in Flint and beyond.

Further Reading

From the archives