The water you drink has been poisoned. The same goes for the air you breathe, the soil where your vegetables grow, and the lakes where you fish. You may not even notice the effects of this poison for years.
This was not supposed to be known either. And the only reason we know about it now is because of a lawyer named Robert Billot. In 1999, he began to take legal action against chemical manufacturer DuPont for the harm and destruction of communities near one of the company’s factories that produced per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They are known as forever chemicals because they do not break down naturally and cannot be removed from the environment.
Over the course of multiple lawsuits, Billot gained access to a treasure trove of internal documents from DuPont and other chemical manufacturers such as 3M that revealed the companies were well aware of the dangers posed by their products to their workers, customers, environment, and public at large. Not only that, but there was also a concerted effort to cover up their severity of PFAS in order to hide the potential for harm their products posed to the world.
“We now know that PFAS are toxic, and they’re also contaminating everybody,” Tracey Woodruff, professor and director of the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and a former senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told The Daily Beast. There’s some PFAS present in almost everyone in the United States. It’s in the drinking water.”
Woodruff is the senior author of a paper published on Thursday in the journal Annals of Global Health that examined internal documents from DuPont and 3M, the two largest makers of PFAS, and found that the companies used tactics similar to the tobacco industry in order to suppress, obfuscate, and delay public knowledge of the chemical’s toxicity. This happened over the course of decades–starting as early as 1961, and has lasted into the 2000s.
These companies’ actions not only resulted in increased cancer rates amongst its employees, but might have also caused birth defects in at least two pregnant factory workers. These findings highlight the importance of greater regulation in the chemical industry, as well as the risks posed by PFAS.
“We want to understand how the chemical industry hides the truth about harmful chemicals. “So this is the first time that scientists have taken an academic analysis look at internal industry documents.”
The PFAS developed by DuPont and 3M can be found in a wide range of everyday items including kitchen appliances, food products, and even clothing. The chemical that is responsible for Teflon, which you find on non-stick pans, falls into the PFAS group. These chemicals have many benefits, are very difficult to break down and also happen to be extremely toxic.
They’ve been linked to increased rates of kidney, liver, and thyroid cancer; liver disease; immune suppression, and pregnancy complications such as lowered birth weight and birth defects. The effects of PFAS on lab animals have been studied. They show how high levels of exposure to the chemical can adversely affect the health of subjects. Animals exposed to high levels of PFAS even developed tumors in their organs.
Despite knowing the dangers of these chemicals for decades, PFAS manufacturers suppressed knowledge of the harmful effects–directly leading to the contamination of millions of Americans over the years.
“DuPont had evidence of PFAS toxicity from internal animal and occupational studies that they did not publish in the scientific literature and failed to report their findings to EPA,” the study’s authors wrote. “These documents were all marked as ‘confidential,’ and in some cases, industry executives are explicit that they ‘wanted this memo destroyed.'”
The paper outlined several strategies that the manufacturers used to hide their knowledge. This included deciding what and how they would study the impact of their products, suppressing unfavorable research and findings into how their products were causing increased rates of cancer amongst their workers, and distorting public messaging behind their chemicals.
” They had an internal communication where they claimed they would tell their employees that [a PFAS product] was about as toxic to table salt,” Woodruff stated. “They had a number of different documents talking about how they were going to distort what people were saying about it.”
According to the paper, the documents detail an extensive timeline of more than 50 years that show that PFAS manufacturers were well aware of the potential for harm that their products can cause–despite their public messaging stating otherwise. 1961 reports from Teflon’s toxicologist found the materials to be “able to increase the liver size in rats.” The report also warned against skin contact of the chemicals. There was also a memo that revealed that C8, a PFAS product, was found to be “highly toxic when inhaled.”
DuPont and 3M also discovered in 1980 that two of eight pregnant employees who worked in C8 manufacturing gave birth to babies with defects. However, they chose not to tell employees about the discovery, saying in a 1981 internal memo, “We know of no evidence of birth defects caused by C8 at DuPont.”
The manufacturers continued to downplay the dangers of their chemicals despite being well aware of the adverse effects. In a 1991 press release, the company said that “C8 has no known toxic or ill health effects in humans at concentration levels detected.”
The companies have since been sued and have settled for hundreds of millions of dollars due to the harm their chemicals have caused the surrounding communities and employees. In 2004, DuPont was fined $16. 45 million by the EPA for not disclosing their findings on the chemicals.
When asked for comment by The Daily Beast, a DuPont representative said that the current organization “was established as a multi-industrial special products company” after splitting off from the original parent company in 2019. “DuPont de Nemours has never manufactured PFOA or PFOS.”
A 3M spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the company has “previously addressed many of the mischaracterizations of these documents in previous reporting.”
The study’s authors now hope that their paper continues to shed light on the harms caused by these manufacturers and embolden policy makers to take a hardline stance in regulating the processes.
“Accountability is really important,” Woodruff said. “These industries should know that they are going to be held accountable if they lie about the health harms of their products before they’re being released.”
In the end, the study’s authors note that this is largely a failure of industry self-regulation–something we’ve seen happen time and again with industries ranging from tobacco to even Big Tech. The study states that “public agencies relied upon DuPont’s certifications that the exposure to chemicals did not present a health risk to humans because there was so little public knowledge about these chemicals.”
The paper, at least, highlights that lawmakers fail to regulate dangerous industries before it is too late. These problems, unlike some of the chemicals we use, should not last for ever.
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