Dark Waters

Jul. 6, 2020

I watched the movie Dark Waters this weekend, which chronicles Robert Biliott’s investigation of the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. I was shocked to find out that tens of thousands of chemicals were grandfathered after the formation of the EPA and were never tested for their impact on health. I was also shocked to find out that even though DuPont knew the dangers of a particular chemical used in Teflon, not just from studies on rats, but from the health problems of their own workers, they continued production because of profits. Imagine a company putting profits over people. I say that with irony, of course.

This chemical, PFOA or C-8 is found in the blood of every American, generally in the parts per billion range. But the chemical does not break down so it can accumulate over time in our tissues. PFOA is a carcinogen, a liver toxicant, a developmental toxicant, and an immune system toxicant, and also exerts hormonal effects including alteration of thyroid hormone levels. It causes several types of cancer and birth defects. Some of the DuPont plant employees had children with facial deformities and of course, high rates of cancer.

PFOA is detected widely in surface water, and is present in numerous mammals, fish, and bird species. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions, Laysan albatrosses, etc. This insidious chemical has contaminated almost every continent because DuPont dumped it into a river and it spread across the globe.

Then I found out that American industry often avoids the federal government’s chemical safety checks in an unexpected way, by relying on chemicals “grandfathered” by the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The act and regulations grandfathered a total of 62,000 “old” chemicals: manufacturers who use them can largely avoid review and minimize the likelihood of additional safety testing.

As of 2011, approximately 89 percent of the 8,000 chemicals manufactured in or imported to the U.S. in quantities of 25,000 pounds or more were discovered or invented before July 1979, when regulations issued under the 1976 act took hold. They might have assumed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would eventually assess the safety of the common chemicals that had staying power on the market, so that eventually, the EPA would know which grandfathered chemicals were unsafe for consumer products.

And don’t forget that most of these man-made chemicals do not break down. They accumulate and concentrations actually increase in organisms high on the food chain.

That hasn’t happened. With the current head of the EPA, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, I doubt any chemicals are being investigated for their safety. It is quite obvious this administration does not value human life considering the economy was more important than following pandemic protocols. This administration doesn’t value medical facts and expertise, it certainly doesn’t value environmental facts or science in general.

The bottom line: American industry’s continued reliance on “old” chemicals means that Americans are being exposed to thousands of substances that have never been put through the rigors of modern scientific assessment.