The (Non-Stick) Chemicals Between Us

by Kieran Najita


The world is a horrible place filled with terrible things; some we embrace, some we avoid, and some we push back against. Then there are the things, institutional forces and global circumstances, like ubiquitous chemical contamination or income inequality, that cannot be welcomed, evaded, or fought against as individuals, but merely resigned to as realities. You’re Hosed is a new, occasional series of interviews with experts about those things.

The corporate cover-up of chemical pollution at DuPont Chemical’s Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the resulting class-action lawsuit, have recently been the subject of articles in the New York Times Magazine, The Intercept, HuffPost Highline. The lawsuit uncovered a trail of evidence from as early as 1961 that showed a probable link between exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid, better known as C8, and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

While DuPont agreed to voluntarily phase out C8 by last year, it has been a component of Teflon non-stick cookware and other plastic products since the early nineteen forties. Author Callie Lyons, whose book Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8, tracks the history of the chemical, is a journalist in the Mid-Ohio Valley who has documented the C8 controversy from the beginning. I spoke with her over the phone to talk about the scope of C8 pollution, its ubiquity in the general population, and what, if anything, individuals can do about their exposure.

How much Teflon is out there?

It’s really hard to find decent kitchenware that isn’t somehow impacted with Teflon. Almost everything we use in the kitchen these days has got some kind of a coating on it, even if it’s not cookware. We don’t realize, it literally is everywhere; it’s everywhere in our household products. So, you know Teflon just in itself is a big deal, but these chemicals that are dangerous and even lethal are used to make hundreds of compounds like Teflon, resulting in thousands of consumer applications.

So would any Teflon product have the potential to put C8 into your body?

If it was made before this year, it does. This is the first year that the companies globally that use C8 and perfluorinated chemicals have promised the EPA to voluntarily not use it anymore. So up until that, that was not, the compromise wasn’t in place before, you know last year was the goal date for it. So reasonably we can’t expect that anything made before that, you know, wasn’t somehow impacted.

So what you’re saying basically is that if you use most kitchen supplies made between the invention of Teflon in 1951 and 2015, you’re at a risk of consuming C8?

Oh yes, absolutely, especially if you’re cooking with them.

So would you say that everyone has these chemicals in their bodies at this point?

Oh yeah, everybody does. The National Institutes of Health can’t find somebody to test that doesn’t. You just can’t find a person that doesn’t already have C8 in their blood at this point in time. And it’s not just from our direct use, but also, it crosses the placenta, so a mother will pass it on to her unborn child. In fact, it magnifies — there’s a biomagnification there so that the child actually ends up with more than the mother has. The mother’s level will be lower than the baby’s level, and around here, that’s pretty scary, because our moms have got some of the highest levels in the world.

And where are you talking from right now, Ohio?

I live right on the West Virginia-Ohio Border. I can literally walk out on my back porch and almost be able to see DuPont. It’s not far at all. So some plants are far-flung from towns — maybe ten or fifteen miles out or something like that — but residential areas go right up to the plant on all sides. So people are living in there, breathing it — I mean we believe the major contributor is our drinking water, but you can’t deny that it’s also been in the air, the soil and the rain. It’s contaminated our whole environment.

Once it’s in your body, is it in there permanently? Can you get it out?

Well, you can, it just would take a long time of non-exposure, I mean on the order of years. So we are continually being exposed where I live here in the mid-Ohio valley. Our levels are going down but very slowly. So the problem here, the quandary is: How are you to not be exposed? I mean that’s a very difficult question. I don’t usually look at the data on my consumer products, but if I were to pop a bag of microwave popcorn right now, even smelling that could give me a big old dose of C8.

Wow, even smelling it?

Yeah, you know how familiar that smell is — there’s nothing like that warm wonderful smell of hot microwave popcorn — but the stuff that is in the lining of the bag, it is very similar to Teflon. So it’s not stable enough to not leak into your food. The government’s known for some time now that you can get a measurable quantity of C8 in your blood, just based on the number of bags of microwave popcorn you eat.

That means that in order to effectively avoid exposure you would have to be checking your consumer products to see if anything in their process used perfluorinated chemicals?

Oh yeah, which would be a daunting if not almost impossible job. But also then you wanna know what your personal environment is: Is there a plant next to you that maybe does something related to these perfluorinated chemicals? People are still finding out all the time that it’s in the water supply and they have no idea. So part of it is being aware of the kind of manufacturing plants that you’re living near, so that you already know what you’re breathing and drinking.

Because you live so close to the plant, people in your area are much more likely to know about C8. But is it fair to say that many more people have been exposed who do not know and perhaps never will?

Oh yes, that’s exactly right. It’s an unregulated substance. If we wouldn’t have had a particular set of circumstances that came about here, with the Tennants’ cattle farm and them finding a brilliant attorney, if the series of events hadn’t happened exactly like it did, we might still not know that this unregulated, odorless, tasteless chemical has been poisoning our water for fifty years.

So you’ve focused your work specifically on C8 and Teflon and DuPont, but this is just one chemical and one company in a whole movement of industry that’s doing a lot of things like this.

Oh yeah, and where I live, we are in a virtual toxic soup of contaminants. Where we live along the West Virginia-Ohio border, it’s just a heavily industrialized area because of access to the river and also inexpensive labor. So DuPont, for this one chemical, C8, it’s just one of hundreds of chemicals from one plant. I don’t think anybody knows the cumulative damage from all of the plants. I hope somebody is keeping track but I have no evidence to show that that would be true. My kids are growing up being exposed to neurotoxins because we’ve got manganese in the air; we know we have really unhealthy chemicals that cause respiratory and breathing problems at a number of different plants here; and then the C8 issue, that’s just a whole separate drinking water issue for us. It’s coming at our kids from all directions.

Generationally, especially with the bioaccumulative effects, it seems as if without our knowing it, having chemicals in our blood and in our water and in the air has become sort of a new normal.

Well, I hope not. That version of the future really scares me. I hope that we can get a handle on this and start to turn it around for future generations. We’re not going about it in the right way. I think this year we can see in particular where the hopeless failure of the EPA is because they’re actually polluters now.

The Washington Works class-action suit can be loosely categorized as a win. But one lawsuit isn’t going to fix the C8 contamination, so even if a community can stand up for itself and win a lawsuit, how much do they really gain?

From what I’ve been told by experts, it will be in our local environment for two thousand years after we stop using it. But a big part of this is medical monitoring. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the class-action but DuPont has set aside $235 million for medical monitoring so that the residents here can have free screenings to determine if they have any of these conditions that have been linked conclusively to C8. So far nobody is using that program. I mean, $235 million set aside for this, and our population is woefully unaware that they can even avail themselves of this.

But also, let’s say that you’re one of the ones who get sick, like [kidney cancer-survivor] Carla Bartlett, who was the first test case — as you probably know, the jury gave her an award of $1.6 million. Attorney’s fees on this are very close to fifty percent; basically most of the attorneys go with a forty percent agreement plus cost, and I’m sure you know these can be very, very costly cases. She was awarded $1.6 million — she’s lucky to walk away with $800,000. Is that worth kidney cancer? No, I’m not sure that would repay for kidney cancer.

It seems like it’s very difficult for the victims of an environmental catastrophe to get what they’re owed.

Absolutely. Really what they’re entitled to would be clean water, a cleaned up environment. But our environment has been damaged beyond repair. There’s the issue of taking care of people who are sick, but there’s also the issue of everyone here deserves a better quality of life than this.

Even if we were able to stop polluting now, the chemicals will be out there in some form for at least two thousand years. Is there much that can be done to remedy the exposure that has already occurred on such a large scale?

There’s really not much else besides the water filtration. That’s the only thing that’s keeping our water from being polluted still, these state-of-the-art water filtration plants. So there is a temporary remedy for that. It’s not the same as having a clean water supply. I guess we’ll have to see if DuPont is going to go ahead and continue to fund those filtration systems. Some people are concerned about the future maintenance, because it’s very very expensive to change out the carbon as frequently as it needs to be.

The sad thing about medical monitoring is that it ends with diagnosis. I know that everyone’s supposed to have Obamacare, or some kind of insurance, but here in Appalachia, we have the most Obamacare-resistant population, probably of anywhere. People do not doctor, they do not have insurance — and for many, many, many people, a diagnosis of kidney cancer would be a death sentence. They have no means of fighting it, so on the one hand, you wonder, Are they better off to know? That’s one of the things I really am concerned with medical monitoring, that it ends with diagnosis. You’ve gotta survive your disease long enough to sue DuPont if you’re going to recover personal injury claim money against your disease.

There’s a lot of loyalty to the company here, a lot. There are people who would rather just die than find out that DuPont made them sick.

Most people already have Teflon in their homes or have had contact with other products containing C8. What are the possible health effects of smaller concentrations of C8 on the general population?

The most recent research suggests that C8 is harmful at much lower concentrations than we are impacted with here. Concentrations that actually could be seen in the public in a lot of different populations, and that’s pretty disturbing, because we’d like to have this be very neat and scientific like, “How many cigarettes does it take to kill you?”

But everybody’s different, so we have these highly vulnerable populations who just the slightest amount of this chemical is gonna mess with them chemically, their endocrinological systems in a way that they have no tolerance for. But at the same we have plant workers, they have exposures thousands and thousands of times higher and sometimes never see an ill effect.

I read that DuPont is phasing out C8 from their commercial products by 2015, but they’re replacing it with other chemicals with a very similar structure to it. How do we know that these chemicals are safe?

Well I think we’re gonna have to always be very vigilant, and one example of this would be that we don’t have toxicology reports yet for the C8 replacements, so how do we know that we’re not moving to something that’s worse? So far DuPont has not been willing to share the toxicology information.

Is it possible to give up everything we’ve gotten through chemicals?

I’m a single mom of two kids, I need every bit of Teflon I can get in my life. Anything that makes our life easier we’re like, “Oh yes, I need that!” and we don’t think about the consequences. So it’s hard to say if it will actually be able to turn around. My only hope for it turning around is that there are some very bright young people coming up that can try to come up with the answers to these problems, and I think it will take a whole new generation with a whole different approach.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Top photo by Rex Roof; Washington Works photo via Wikimedia