Professionalism/DuPont, C8, and Parkersburg, West Virginia
For years, DuPont worked with a toxic chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), or C8, in the manufacturing process for Teflon. This chapter provides an overview of DuPont's improper C8 handling in Parkersburg, WV.
Intro to DuPont and C8Edit
Founded in 1802, DuPont is an American based chemical manufacturing company that synthesizes various polymers, refrigerants, and synthetic pigments. Until 2015, they were also one of the main producers of Perfluorooctanoic acid, an industrial surfactant also known as C8, which is used in the production of Teflon. Teflon is used in non-stick cookware, cosmetics, carpets, water-proofing, and more.
Haskell Laboratories and DuPont's C8 Health FindingsEdit
Haskell Laboratories is an in-house laboratory created by DuPont to handle testing of potentially harmful chemicals. Haskell Laboratories handled many of the studies done on the safety of C8.
In 1969, an internal memo to Haskell’s director John Zapp detailed preliminary studies that indicated that when rats were exposed to low doses of C8, there was a notable increase in the size of rats’ livers.
In 1981, Haskell Laboratories was informed of a 3M study demonstrating that C8 caused birth defects in rats. Specifically, it caused issues with fetal eye development. DuPont quickly transferred all female employees out of positions with risks of C8 exposure. Haskell Laboratories also began tracking the pregnancies of eight female employees. Of the eight pregnancies, two resulted in children born with eye defects, similar to those seen in the 3M study. This was also the first documented case of C8 being transferred from mothers to their children in utero.
Later in 1981, employees exposed to C8 were found to have higher rates of liver function abnormalities. Assistant medical director Vann Brewster suggested that DuPont should conduct further liver test monitoring. Years later, the proposal for a follow-up study was rejected.
In 1988, DuPont classified C8 as a Group C carcinogen, meaning it is a possible human carcinogen.
In 1991, DuPont set their internal safety limit for C8 in water at 1ppb. Tests conducted in the same year found C8 at levels of 2-3 ppm in surface water and 2-5 ppb in groundwater at Dry Run Landfill in Parkersburg, WV. This disparity was not reported to federal regulators.
In 1997, Haskell Laboratories conducted a study regarding the health history of employees and found statistically significant cases of various cancers and heart disease among employees.
The Tennants, Dry Run Landfill, and Rob BilottEdit
After discovering the toxic properties of C8, DuPont looked for a way to dispose of it from their Washington Works facility in Parkersburg, WV, especially after discovering that C8 was contaminating local water supplies in Lubeck, WV. Jim Tennant, a worker at the plant suffering from mysterious health ailments (which may or may not have been related to C8), sold roughly 66 acres of land to DuPont in the early 1980s to pay for medical expenses. This land was used as part of DuPont's newly created Dry Run Landfill, named after Dry Run Creek which ran through the plot. DuPont then disposed of about 14 million pounds of industrial sludge containing C8 into the landfill.
The Tenannt family, including Jim Tenannt and his brother, Wilbur Earl Tenannt (referred to as both Wilbur or Earl in different publications), were also livestock farmers. Jim Tennant moved away from Dry Run due to concerns for his family's health after his daughters developed strange ailments. Wilbur stayed behind. In the 1990s, Wilbur noticed problems with his animals after the creation of Dry Run Landfill. He found that Dry Run Creek, which his cows drank from, was unnaturally green and foamy. His cows became deranged and ill, and were dying at an unprecedented pace. A dissection performed by Jim and Wilbur found that some dead cows' internal organs were green. Suspecting the nearby landfill, Wilbur got in touch with a Rob Bilott, a family friend and environmental attorney, to take legal action against DuPont.
After seeing videos recorded by Tennant, Bilott took the case and filed the lawsuit in 1999. Notably, Bilott and his firm previously worked almost exclusively with corporate clients. Bilott was used to defending chemical companies rather than suing them; taking the case showed that his conscience outweighed his career. In the legal process of discovery, Bilott found references to PFOA/C8 being placed in the landfill in DuPont's documents. He had never heard of it before in his career, and forced DuPont to turn over additional documentation on the chemical. These documents showed DuPont was aware of the toxicity of C8, and DuPont was forced to settle Wilbur Tenannt's lawsuit in August, 2000.
A Class-Action Lawsuit Against DuPont and its ConsequencesEdit
Supported by Rob Bilott and the documents he obtained, other residents of the community led by Joseph Kiger as a lead plaintiff filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont in 2001. The lawsuit was a successful medical monitoring claim against DuPont, and roughly 70,000 members of the class were paid $400 contingent upon receiving a medical examination intended by the legal team to collect evidence of C8-induced harm for future suits against DuPont. DuPont was also forced to fund an independent scientific panel to look into C8 safety. In 2011, the scientific panel found probable links between C8 exposure and six major health problems: testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and high cholesterol.
In 2013, DuPont finally ceased C8 production in the United States. The replacement chemical is known commercially as GenX, which allegedly also poses a health risk if it is discharged into the environment. In 2017, DuPont paid 671 million dollars to settle around 3,500 individual lawsuits backed by the evidence of the scientific panel and medical examinations sponsored by the class-action lawsuit.
Continuing Legal ActionEdit
Lawsuits in the US continue against DuPont and its spin-off, The Chemours Company. The state of Ohio filed a lawsuit in 2018 against DuPont for allegedly discharging C8 into the environment and contaminating Ohio's drinking water. The state of North Carolina filed a lawsuit in 2020 against DuPont for alleged PFAS pollution (PFAS is a class of chemicals including PFOA/C8 and GenX, a C8 replacement). Health officials into GenX are underway in the Netherlands after GenX was detected in local water supplies.
Lessons in ProfessionalismEdit
Karrh vs. BilottEdit
Bruce Karrh worked in DuPont’s medical division from the 1970s to the early 2000s. In public statements, Karrh touted the need for transparency and accountability regarding chemical health hazards. In private, Karrh saw evidence from Haskell Laboratories of health impacts from C8 exposure and failed to report them to the EPA. Rob Bilott was wary of the Tenant case because of the long term risks it posed to his chemical defense firm. While Rob Bilott accepted the Tenant case to protect the public, Karrh put DuPont’s success first. Karrh, a trained medical doctor, lacked the professionalism of Bilott.
DuPont’s misconduct lasted for decades. Employees at DuPont knew their health was impacted by their job. Fever, nausea, and diarrhea, colloquially known as the “Teflon flu,” were common side effects of working in the C8 storage tanks. DuPont workers either didn’t think to question their employer or were powerless to do so. Mere plant workers may have been unable to question DuPont since corporate leaders hid information and their jobs depended on not speaking out. True professionals must both put the public interest above their own and think critically when corporate policies and actions are inconsistent with one another. Corporate DuPont employees and plant workers alike could have gone to the EPA with concerns at risk of their job, but did not.
Advocating is not easy and there are social consequences of whistleblowing. Parkersburg residents are divided on DuPont despite the lawsuits and misconduct. One resident was quoted saying “If DuPont leaves, we're done. This area will be like most other towns in West Virginia; it'll collapse… You take the good with the bad, right?” Not only did individual employees fear losing jobs, the entire community feared losing a company upon which they rely. Whistleblowers felt consequences of social dissonance but did not let that stop them from speaking up. The Tenants were publicly shunned and had to change churches four times. The Kigers felt constantly antagonized in their community for their actions against DuPont. Neither the Tenants nor the Kigers let social consequences stop them from speaking out.
- Boone, Sharon; DuPont. "C8 Ammonium Perfluorooctanoate Fluorosurfactant Strategies and Plans". 1994 September 28. PFAS Collection. The Devil We Know 2018.
- Blake, Mariah, "Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia", The Huffington Post.
- Rich, Nathaniel (January 6, 2016), "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare", The New York Times.
- Cheryl Hogue (April 7, 2019), "The hunt is on for GenX chemicals in people", Chemical & Engineering News.
- Sisk, Taylor (January 7, 2020), "A lasting legacy: DuPont, C8 contamination and the community of Parkersburg left to grapple with the consequences", Environmental Health News.
- State of Ohio v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, U.S. (2018). https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Files/Briefing-Room/News-Releases/Environmental-Enforcement/2018-02-08-DuPont-Complaint.aspx
- Josh Stein (October 13, 2020), "Attorney General Josh Stein Takes Legal Action Against DuPont Over PFAS Pollution".
- State of North Carolina v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, U.S. (2020). https://ncdoj.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Signed-Final-Complaint.pdf
- Maurer, Kevin (Jun 12, 2017), "Dutch health officials investigating GenX", StarNews Online.