‘Overcoming the Monster’ and DuPont’s Dark ‘Magic’

The Ohio River at Parkersburg, West Virginia, contaminated for decades with C8 used by DuPont to make Teflon

I write science fiction and fantasy. On occasion magic or something that stands for magic enters in.

But that’s my fiction. In my ordinary very real life, I tend to be suspicious of claims of ‘magical’ properties, particularly those that claim to provide great convenience and utility with no expenditure (except money). Perhaps it’s my half-German ethic of good old-fashioned honest work; these claims seem like a big cheat: mops that clean the floor spotless without you ever having to bend over or scrub; carpets that resist spills or clean themselves; non-stick pans where cooked food just slides cheerfully from pan to plate without sticking.

In my experience, I have often found that if something seems too good to be true—like magic—there’s a catch. And just like magic in a good fiction story, it comes with great hidden cost.

Enter DuPont and its dark magic…

DuPont Washington Works facility at Parkersburg, West Virginia

DuPont is one of the richest families in the United States since French aristocrat Irénée du Pont de Nemours fled the French Revolution in 1802 and built a gunpowder mill in northeast Delaware. DuPont soon expanded to bombs and poison gas and over its more than a hundred years of operation DuPont has been linked to dangerous products that have caused health problems, particularly to its own workers. By the 1930s DuPont had created leaded gasoline, which ended up causing madness and violent deaths and life-long institutionalization of workers. Certain rubber and industrial chemicals turned the skin of exposed workers blue. Bladder cancers developed in many dye workers.

Spruce trees damaged by Imprelis

Then there was DuPont’s Imprelis, an aminocyclopyrachlor herbicide to control weeds that caused widespread death of mature trees and created ‘killer compost.’ DuPont failed to submit reports to the EPA about potential adverse effects of Imprelis and sold the product with misleading labelling. When damage reports began to surface weeks after Imprelis was introduced, DuPont simply continued to sell the product until the EPA finally banned its sale and DuPont was charged for negligence and violation of FIFRA. A year after the ban, impact from Imprelis use continues to be reported throughout the northern United States for a range of trees including maples, oaks, honey locust, Norway spruce and white pine (stunted, twisted or curled new growth, bud-kill, delayed leaf-out, stem die-back). Trees that initially experienced minor affects from Imprelis later developed more severe damage (e.g. bud formation and cold hardiness).

Concerned over “the tendency to believe [chemicals] are harmless until proven otherwise,” staff doctor George Gehrmann convinced DuPont to create Haskell Laboratories in 1935. The lab became the first in-house toxicology facility; but, due to its position within DuPont, Haskell Lab also inherited limitations on its ability to conduct and report objective science. Just as self-regulation is a ridiculous concept, self-analysis is feckless and fraught with the potential for omission and false reporting. When pathologist Wilhelm Hueper tried to share his results with the scientific community on how dye chemicals led to bladder cancer, he was gagged and fired, and DuPont went on to use the chemicals for decades after in what appeared to become a common pattern for this company.

Early ad for DuPont’s “Happy Pan”

DuPont developed many astonishing products, mostly for warfare, including nylon, Lycra, Saran wrap and, of course, Teflon—their magic non-stick compound. By the late 1940s, they were producing a wide variety of industrial chemicals, synthetic fibers, petroleum-based fuels and lubricants, pharmaceuticals, building materials, sterile and specialty packaging materials, cosmetics ingredients, and agricultural chemicals worldwide. By the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. This did not deter DuPont from continuing its production line for these products.

Representation of 1950s DuPont “Happy Pan”

By 1954, during the ramp up for the Teflon rollout, DuPont’s toxicologist R.A. Dickison noted possible toxicity of the surfactant C8 (PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid) used to make Teflon. By 1961, the same year they rolled out their Teflon-coated “Happy Pan”, DuPont knew C8 was a toxic endocrine disruptor and caused cancer. DuPont’s chief toxicologist Dorothy Hood cautioned executives in a memo that the substance was toxic and should be “handled with extreme care.” It didn’t stop the roll out. By 1982, DuPont had confirmed the high toxicity of C8 in humans.

Teflon-lined Tefal (T-fal) pan made with C8

From the 1960s well past the millennium, DuPont displayed gross criminal negligence in not reporting their in-house findings of C8 toxicity to the EPA, and doing nothing to protect their workers exposed and working with C8 (and eventually their community when C8 leaked into the water supply). For over five decades, DuPont executives chose to: 1) continue using toxic C8 despite its proven toxicity; 2) expose C8 to their own workers without telling them (and even testing their workers without telling them why); 3) dispose of C8 unsafely, releasing the toxin into the communities and the environment; 4) cover up and deny that they did, when they were caught in the act.

Effects of PFOA (birth defect in Bucky Bailey whose mother was on the Teflon line without protection during her first trimester; blackening teeth from the excessive fluoride, from scene in “Dark Waters”)
DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia

Finally, in 2019—sixty-seven years after DuPont knew PFOA was toxic and did nothing—this forever chemical was banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. Unfortunately, by 2019, PFOA was already literally everywhere on the planet in concentrations considered unsafe. Given its high water-solubility, long-range transport potential, and lack of degradation in the environment, PFOA persists in groundwater and is ubiquitously present in oceans and other surface water around the globe. It is found in remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic (where it was not used or manufactured), no doubt transported there through ocean currents and in the air, bound on particles.

Average surface water levels of PFOA and PFOS by country in 2012 (from Kunacheva et al. 2012)

In 2020, NBC News revealed that DuPont was still avoiding its responsibility to clean up its C8 mess and compensate those harmed by DuPont’s negligence. In 2015, DuPont began a series of complex transactions that transferred its responsibility for environmental obligations and liabilities associated with PFAS (C8) onto other entities such as Chemours, Corteva, and NewDupont. If Chemours becomes insolvent, Corteva will be responsible. Corteva does not have the funds to cover tens of billions in estimated PFAS (C8) costs to their victims.

Timeline for DuPont’s use of PFOA (C8) to 2006 (image from The Intercept)

Their Story…My Story…

In his 2006 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories, Christopher Booker told us that there are seven types of plots in story. One is entitled “Overcoming the Monster,” an underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil to restore safety or order to the land. The evil force is typically much larger than the hero, who must find a way, often through great courage, strength, and inventive cunning, to defeat the evil force. This is the story of David and Goliath, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars, of Jake Sully and Miles Quaritch in Avatar, of Rita Vrataski and the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow. The list goes on…

Miles Quaritch and Jake Sully face off in the film “Avatar”

The “Overcoming the Monster” plot, whether told literally or through metaphor, reflects an imbalance in the world—usually of power—that the hero must right. The true story of DuPont’s evil maleficence reflects the great power imbalance of many large corporations and the evil they enact through willful deception and mischief to increase profit, their god. 

We’ve now come full circle to me and my relationship with magic. For in some terrible way, the story of DuPont is also my story. One of power imbalance, of deception and ignorance. Their deception; my ignorance:

In 1954, the year I was born, DuPont discovered the toxicity of C8 in its Teflon products at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg—and proceeded to roll it out for mass use.

In 1964, I was ten years old and struggling with my Grade 5 teacher who was trying to curb my unique self-expression. I was already aware of environmental imbalance and destruction in the world. My pet peeve was littering because it demonstrated great disrespect for others and the environment; I told environmental stories. That year DuPont had already begun its great deception; having confirmed the toxicity of C8, they simply watched (and recorded) as this cancer-causing endocrine disruptor injured, maimed and killed their own workers. The company did nothing to prevent it and they told no one.

In 1969, I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts and years later the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic assaulting Icaria 5, an enclosed city within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America. The city is run by deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

In the early 1970s, I entered college and contemplated becoming an environmental lawyer; I wrote short stories, mostly eco-fiction, and joined marches protesting environmental destruction by large corporations.  DuPont confirmed that C8 not only persisted in the environment; it bioaccumulated in animals. A 1979 internal memo in which humans exposed to C8 were referred to as “receptors,” DuPont scientists found “significantly higher incidence of allergic, endocrine and metabolic disorders” as well as “excess risk of developing liver disease.”  DuPont withheld this information from EPA.  

In 1981, when I got my first job as a limnologist and environmental consultant in Vancouver, DuPont confirmed that C8 caused birth defects in its own workers—and did not warn its workers; in fact they created false data for EPA and continued exposing women of childbearing age to C8. In 1984, a year after I formed my own consulting company Limnology Services in Vancouver, DuPont staffers secretly tested their community’s drinking water and found it to contain alarming levels of C8. Deciding that any cleanup was likely to cost too much and tarnish their reputation, DuPont chose to do nothing. In fact, they scaled up their use of C8 in Teflon products and bought land to dump their toxic sludge in unlined landfills. Deaths in DuPont workers from leukemia and kidney cancer climbed.

Throughout the 90s, I started teaching college ecology courses in Vancouver; Shared Vision Magazine published my first article “Environmental Citizenship” in 1995. Meantime, DuPont’s Washington Works plant pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA sludge, powder and vapor through stacks and outfall pipes into the Ohio River and surrounding air. By 1996, C8 was in the drinking water of Parkersburg and other communities. Despite what they knew of C8’s toxicity, DuPont kept it a secret (no one else was testing for PFOA because it was unregulated).

In 2007, Darwin’s Paradox, my eco-fiction novel about an environmental pandemic, was published by Dragon Moon Press in Calgary, Alberta.Four years earlier, the law had finally caught up to DuPont, but not before they had dispersed 2.5 million pounds of harmful C8 from their Washington Works plant into the air and water of the mid-Ohio River Valley area. It would be another twelve years before DuPont would stop making C8 (in 2015) and another four years after that when C8 would be banned from use globally (2019). PFOA is still unregulated by EPA; the best they can do is issue a non-enforceable health advisory set at 70 parts per trillion.   

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker face off as Palpatine looks on in the film “Star Wars”

It isn’t the Darth Vaders or Miles Quaritchs we must overcome. Yes, they are monsters, but they serve a greater monster. For Vader it is Emperor Palpatine and for Quaritch it is the RDA Corporation. While Vader and Quaritch may be the face of evil, true evil lurks behind them, orchestrating. It is an evil we must fight internally, because each of us carries that evil inside us—in the urge to cheat on our taxes; in looking for the free ride (there are no free rides); in coveting what others have when what we have is enough; in embracing self-deception through unsubstantiated narratives and choosing to remain ignorant to suit a self-serving agenda.

I only heard of the decades-long environmental dispersal of PFOA (C8) by DuPont in 2022. I’d lived in total ignorance through DuPont’s entire five decades of deception with C8. This past year, I chanced upon “Dark Waters,” the 2019 film starring Mark Ruffalo as lawyer Robert Bilott, who took DuPont to court in 2002. I found out seven years after DuPont agreed to stop using PFOA (DuPont currently uses other PFAS compounds that are unregulated and whose toxicity is unknown).

Lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) investigates leachate-infected cows from nearby DuPont landfill (photo from film “Dark Waters”)

Ignorance breeds complacency and hubris. Both will lead to downfall.

If you think you’re getting away with something … if you think you’re getting a free ride … think again. You’re being taken for one. Short cuts are dangerous. Nature is complex for good reason. Complexity builds in a diverse spider web of safeguards that interact to sustain the greater existential collaborative.

That is the real magic. And we’re not even close to understanding it.  

“Angel of Chaos” and “Darwin’s Paradox” explore human-induced environmental catastrophe

DuPont’s Forever Weapon of Death: Teflon and C8 (PFOA)

Teflon was created in 1938, quite by accident, by Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, who was working on alternative refrigerant gases. Plunkett had stored the gas (tetrafluroethylene) in small cylinders where they were frozen and compressed. The gas had solidified into a waxy white material, which came to be called Polyetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a slippery substance that was non-corrosive, chemically stable and with an extremely high melting point. Through polymer research, PTFE was combined with PFOA to make Teflon, a type of fluoropolymer and telomere-based consumer product. For every two carbon atoms, there are four fluorine atoms attached throughout the entire molecular structure. The fluorine atoms surround the carbon atoms, creating a protective armor, preventing the carbon atoms from reacting when anything comes into contact with them—such as food in a non-stick frying pan. The fluorine atoms also decrease friction, making it slippery.

Chemical formula for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) also called C8

DuPont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and the coating was used in the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb effort. Like DuPont’s other wartime innovations, such as nylon and pesticides, Teflon found its way into the home. In 1951, DuPont started using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) known as C8 in its Teflon production at the Parkersburg factory. By the 1960s, DuPont was producing Teflon for cookware and advertising it as “a housewife’s best friend.” C8 was eventually used in hundreds of DuPont products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Farmer Tennant and lawyer Rob Billot encounter a leachate-infected mad cow in the 2019 film “Dark Waters”

PFOA is a member of a family of over 4,500 synthetic chemicals called PFAS (polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as the Forever Chemicals. Due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily and persist in the environment for decades. PFAS also bioaccumulate, which means these chemicals are absorbed and not excreted and therefore buildup in the body. The higher up the food chain, the greater the PFAS concentrations. Before their manufacture started in the 1940s, no PFAS compounds were present in the environment. Now, thanks to their persistence and bioaccumulation, they exist everywhere in the environment, occupying virtually 99% of all life on the globe.

Currently, PFOA is one of only two PFAS chemicals regulated globally (the other being PFOS, which was banned in 2009, that DuPont replaced with another toxic unregulated chemical, GenX). Over 4,000 other PFAS chemicals remain in use that have not been studied and are not regulated. CHEMtrust, points out that when one PFAS chemical is regulated, “it is replaced in products and manufacturing processes by a similar, unregulated PFAS chemical. Unfortunately, the chemicals’ similarities often extend to their hazardous properties, and the replacement chemical is found to have similar harmful impacts on human health and the environment.”

DuPont’s Washington Works facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia

References:

Ahrens L. 2011. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the aquatic environment: a review of their occurrence and fate.” J Environ Monit 13: 20–31. 10.1039/c0em00373e

Barton CA, Butler LE, Zarzecki CJ, Laherty JM. 2006. Characterizing perfluorooctanoate in ambient air near the fence line of a manufacturing facility: comparing modeled and monitored values.” J Air Waste Manage Assoc 56: 48–55. 10.1080/10473289.2006.10464429

Barton CA, Kaiser MA, Russell MH. 2007. “Partitioning and removal of perfluorooctanoate during rain events: the importance of physical-chemical properties.” J Environ Monit 9: 839–846. 10.1039/b703510a

Busch J, Ahrens L, Xie Z, Sturm R, Ebinghaus R. 2010. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the East Greenland Arctic Ocean.” J Environ Monit 12: 1242–1246. 10.1039/c002242j

Kunacheva, Chinagarn, Shigeo Fujii, Shuhei Tanaka, et al. 2012. “Worldwide surveys of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in water environment in recent years.” Water Science & Technology 66(12): 2764-71.

McMurdo CJ, Ellis DA, Webster E, Butler J, Christensen RD, Reid LK. 2008. “Aerosol enrichment of the surfactant PFO and mediation of the water-air transport of gaseous PFOA.” Environ Sci Technol 42: 3969–3974. 10.1021/es7032026

Paustenbach, Dennis, Julie Panko, Paul K. Scott, and Kenneth M. Unice. 2007. “A Methodology for Estimating Human Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA): A Retrospective Exposure Assessment of a Community (1951-2003)” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health

Prevedouros K, Cousins IT, Buck RC, Korzeniowski SH. 2006. “Sources, fate and transport of perfluorocarboxylates” Environ Sci Technol 40: 32–44. 10.1021/es0512475

Rauert, Cassandra, Mahiba Shoieb, Jasmin K. Schuster, Anita Eng, Tom Harner. 2018. “Atmospheric concentrations and trends of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and volatile methyl siloxanes (VMS) over 7 years of sampling in the Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling (GAPS) network.” Environmental Pollution 238: 94-102.

Velez, M.P., T.E. Arbuckle, W.D. Fraser. 2015. “Maternal exposure to perfluorinated chemicals and reduced fecundity: the MIREC study.” Human Reproduction 30(3): 701-9.

Vierke, Lena, Claudia Staude, Annegret Biegel-Engler, Wiebke Drost, and Christoph Schulte. 2012. “Perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA)–main concerns and regulatory developments in Europe from an environmental point of view.” Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 16

Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. 2005. “A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans.” Mar Pollut Bull 51: 658–668. 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2005.04.026

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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