Dupont’s Poisonous Profits

For many years after health risks became evident, Dupont continued polluting the environment with PFOA, a suspected endocrine disrupter that appears to cause birth defects, cancer, and other illnesses. This appalling example of American corporate malfeasance, described at length by Nathaniel Rich in The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare (NYT, Jan. 6, 2016), illustrates America’s failure to regulate use of potentially dangerous chemicals.

Rich reports that when threatened by a lawsuit based on the finding that water in districts near Dupont’s plant had PFOA levels several times Dupont’s own internal safety limit, Dupont’s response was to raise its safety limit from one part per billion to 150 parts per billion. (Rich reports that in 2009, the EPA established a “provisional” limit for short-term exposure of 0.4 parts per billion.)

Worse, it appears that Americans have levels exceeding Dupont’s earlier limit not in their water, but in their blood:

Meanwhile the E.P.A., drawing from Bilott’s research, began its own investigation into the toxicity of PFOA. In 2002, the agency released its initial findings: PFOA might pose human health risks not only to those drinking tainted water, but also to the general public — anyone, for instance, who cooked with Teflon pans. The E.P.A. was particularly alarmed to learn that PFOA had been detected in American blood banks, something 3M and DuPont had known as early as 1976. By 2003 the average concentration of PFOA in the blood of an adult American was four to five parts per billion.

For a briefer overview, including a decades-long timeline, see Poisoned Legacy: From Lab Accident to Global Pollutant. What is most disturbing, apart from this evidence of corporate immorality, is that PFOA is just one of countless chemicals introduced into our environment with unknown consequences. According to Rich,

PFOA was only one of more than 60,000 synthetic chemicals that companies produced and released into the world without regulatory oversight. … Under the 1976 Toxic Sub­stances Control Act, the E.P.A. can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the E.P.A. has restricted only five chemicals, out of tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years.
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