For every action there is a reaction.
It's a basic scientific fact, yet despite our understanding of ripple effects, we blindly go forward with far too many quick fixes and far too little knowledge of the potential consequences.
This is especially true of the thousands of emerging synthetic chemicals that we introduce and use each day in products like carpet, rain-resistant gear and non-stick cookware, for example. What's worse, we have an unrealistic expectation that our government is keeping us safe from our own bungling.
An article in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday exposed this vulnerability in a story of DuPont's decades of shameful silence about the dangers of one such obscure chemical.
The chemical is known as PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, first used in the production of Teflon beginning in 1946 for non-stick frying pans. It also was an ingredient in ScotchGuard until 2000. Closer to home here in Chattanooga, PFOA for at least 15 years was what made the "stainmaster" in stain-resistent carpet in Dalton, Ga.
When the Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976, PFOA was one of a multitude of untested chemicals allowed to remain on the market. The idea was that the some 60,000 untested new chemicals already out in the world would eventually be tested, but the new law also made it extremely difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to require safety tests or crack down on chemicals. Even now, only a handful have been restricted, and another 20,000 newer chemicals have entered commerce with no tests.
PFOA offers us a view into the shadowy world of how little we know.
The making of trouble
By 1951, DuPont was buying PFOA from 3M for use in the manufacture of Teflon, according to the Times Magazine story. Instead of following 3M's recommendations on how to dispose of waste PFOA by incinerating it or transporting it to a chemical waste facility, DuPont's Teflon plant pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg, W.V., wastewater treatment facility on the Ohio River.
Eventually, in the 1980s, the company built a landfill adjacent to the farm of a man named Wilbur Tennant. In a few year's Tennant's cows became deranged and malformed. Many died. In the late 1990s, Tennant traced the problem to a pipe from the landfill discharging green water with bubbles on the surface. He videotaped it, along with sick, dying or dead cattle, according to the Times story. He took the tape to a corporate environmental attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio — the grandson of one of his neighbors.
Bucking the odds, that attorney, Rob Bilott, took the case, and he ultimately proved that not only did the company pollute the farmer's creek, it did so knowing from its own secret medical studies over four decades that the chemical caused birth defects and cancer in lab animals, as well as possible DNA damage. The company itself also had linked the chemical with worker prostate cancer and learned that PFOA was present in local water supplies. Bilott also was able to show that, despite internal DuPont debate, the company had declined to make any of that information public.
In 2000, DuPont settled with Bilott and the farmer. But Bilott was still mad. He spent months writing a 972-page public brief against DuPont and in 2001 he sent it to directors of state and federal regulatory agencies. It came to be known as the "Famous Letter." DuPont sought a gag order, but a federal court denied it. Bilott sent his entire case file to the EPA.
The letter was not a small thing. It came to be seen as a threat — or a cause for celebration, depending on your view — on the entire floropolymers industry, an industry responsible for the high-performance plastics used in everything from kitchen products and fast-food wrappers to computer cables and implantable medical devices, as well as bearings and seals in cars and planes. Again, PFOA is just one of some 80,000 untested synthetic chemicals that companies have made and released into the world without any regulatory oversight but their own.
"Before that letter, corporations could rely upon the public misperception that if a chemical was dangerous, it was regulated," a fellow attorney told the New York Times.
The letter led in 2005 to DuPont making a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA — less than 2 percent of the profits earned by DuPont on PFOA that year, according to the Times. It also led Bilott to file and win in 2004 a class-action lawsuit on behalf of everyone in the Parkersburg area whose water was tainted. More importantly, because Bilott still wasn't satisfied, he used some of the class-action judgment money for a multi-year epidemiological study that in 2011 found independent scientists releasing findings of a "probable link" between kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.
DuPont ceased production and use of PFOA in 2013, the same year EPA said it would set standards or even ban PFOA and three other types of synthetic chemicals. (We're still waiting for finalization.)
A local connection
So what's the local connection? In Dalton, Ga., a public wastewater treatment system known as a land-application system and once hailed as a state-of-the-art ecological pilot offered PFOA a dripway to the Conasauga River.
Each day for at least 15 years, the sprinklers at the Loopers Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant sprayed 30 million to 40 million gallons of wastewater — 87 percent of it industrial carpet waste — onto the 9,200-acre peninsula of forested land surrounded on three sides by the Conasauga. From Dalton, the Conasauga flows into Murray County toward Calhoun.
The waste from the 1986-built, federally approved sprinkler sewage treatment system was supposed to decompose in the soil, but five years after federal regulators began encouraging changes in the use of PFOA (including a safer substitute to produce a carpet stain-repellent), river researchers found "staggeringly high" amounts of what an EPA advisory board had then labeled a "likely carcinogen."
At the time, former University of Georgia professor Aaron Fisk, who oversaw a graduate student study measuring amounts of PFOA in rivers in 2006 and 2007, said levels of perfluorooctanoic acid and its compounds in the Conasauga were among the highest ever measured in water at a nonspill location.
"Nobody should be eating fish in that Loopers Bend area," he told Times Free Press reporters in 2008. Both Fisk and EPA officials in 2008 said they believed PFOA and its compounds slipped virtually unchanged into the river.
What of tomorrow?
Dalton's carpet industry leaders knew about the EPA's concerns as early as 2004, but they rejected an offer to participate with EPA in local PFOA monitoring in wastewater, solid waste and air, according to EPA records reviewed by Times Free Press reporters. In the file was a May 13, 2004, position statement from the Carpet and Rug Institute board of directors. The document states, "It would be premature to commence PFOA environmental monitoring at this time."
Fast-forward to today — or tomorrow: With bipartisan support, the Senate and the House have passed bills that would go a long way toward preventing such horse-out-of-the-barn tragedies.
The Senate bill, but not the House version, would mandate that the EPA find a chemical safe before it can be marketed.
Let's get it right this time.