A Quiet Town’s Nightmare Heard Around The World
The story of Dupont’s dirty tricks and how the chemical industry is poisoning us
We want to believe the world we live in is a safe place. But is it? Ask Dupont. They’ll tell you it is.
But it’s a lie.
The people living in Parkersburg, West Virginia, thought their world was a safe place. In the 1950s through the 1990s, 1,700 of the towns 30,000 people were more than happy to have a job at the Dupont Chemical plant on the Kanawha River banks. Not only was Dupont the largest employer, but they also invested heavily in the town's athletic and arts programs, building their reputation as a trusted corporate provider.
Except they were knowingly poisoning workers in the plant, dumping toxic waste into rivers and landfills, and causing cancer in thousands of people and their families in the surrounding area. Oh, there’s more. They also made billions on Teflon, using PFOA or C-8, the toxic forever chemical compound in Teflon that has found its way into the blood supply of 99.7% of Americans, if not all humans. It’s also found in polar bears, babies on remote islands, birds, seals, water supplies, and seawater.
Tracy Danzey grew up in the 1980s in a small town near Parkersburg as a competitive swimmer, spending up to eight hours a day in what everyone thought was clean water. In 2000, at the age of 20, her thyroid ceased to function correctly, a known side effect linked explicitly to C-8.
Five years later, she developed osteosarcoma (a rare form of bone cancer), which led to her right hip and leg amputation. Tracy says, “We now know that it (C-8) has caused cancer and other illnesses for many people within my community. Many of my friends and family have been affected or died as a result.”
Tracy is now living across the state in Shepherdstown, where she received her nursing degree in 2004. She’s a mother, wife, and advocate for water protection and has a new battle on her hands.
Rockwool, a Danish company and maker of stone wool insulation, is building a plant over Sheperdstowns’ aquifers with two twentyone story smokestacks that will discharge over 700 tons of organic compounds and nitrogen oxides per year, including benzene and formaldehyde. Rockwool will burn 80 metric tons of coal and 45,000 cubic meters of fracked gas a day. An elementary school is 400 meters away, and three other schools are within four miles. Needless to say, Tracy was not happy.
Rockwool used a secret, fast-track process set up by the state government to secure the rights to build a toxic emitting chemical plant. They grabbed land the community had planned to use for a sustainable housing development.
Rockwool can’t operate a factory like this in Denmark because of strict Danish environmental regulations. But they can in West Virginia, so in 2019, Tracy created Tracy’s Walk to help environmentally-conscious Danes understand what Rockwool was doing in her hometown. She flew to Denmark and walked, on her crutches,70 miles across Denmark, talking to local Danes and telling the story of what Rockwool was doing back in Shepherdstown.
Her time in Denmark, a country committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 75% over the next five years, was eye-opening. She said, “It was stunning for me to see these immense efforts underway, yet there seemed to be no consequences for a Danish company simply exporting their carbon to another country. This made me understand that even countries on the leading edge of environmental innovation and responsibility have weaknesses in their plans.”
The weaknesses of many plans originate in the history of unregulated chemical production. Here’s how the chemical industry poisoned Tracy Danzey, tens of thousands of others, and continues to operate recklessly.
Dupont got started back in the 1800s producing gunpowder in northeast Delaware. By World War I, they were supplying half the world’s gunpowder and manufacturing bombs and poison gas. After allegations of military overbilling, Dupont, through a clever ad campaign, rebuilt its reputation by focusing on consumer products.
The new slogan was “Better Things for Better Living.” Nylon stockings were introduced in 1940, and soon after, in the post-war plastics boom, Teflon was born. Its primary, non-stick agent PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid, C-8, was first produced by 3M in 1947.
C-8 was eventually used to produce stain-resistant carpet, fire fighting foam, dental floss, pizza box paper, microwave popcorn bags, and water-repellent fabrics. As a result, most human beings on the planet have been exposed to C-8 in one way or another.
In 1948 Dupont built the Washington Works plant in Parkersburg. A few years later, it began using C-8 as the primary ingredient in Teflon and other household products, which soon generated billions of dollars a year for Dupont.
The cover-up begins.
But it wasn’t soon after that a group of scientists from Columbia published several papers indicating high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics, like vinyl, Saran wrap, and Teflon. But that didn’t stop the American Chemical Council from launching an aggressive PR campaign smearing any dissenting voices that chemicals in plastics weren’t safe.
They disregarded warnings from the head of the National Cancer Institute, who said exposure to small amounts of cancer-causing chemicals was dangerous. They successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation that deemed any chemicals already in use as safe, no testing required. None at all.
In 1954 Dupont workers in the plant indicated that C-8 might be toxic. Dupont held off marketing Teflon for a short time until a French engineer created a pan called “Satisfry,” using Teflon. Not to be outdone by the French, Dupont successfully received approval from the FDA to begin using Teflon in consumer cookware in 1961. The rest is history — bad history.
However, as corporate greed and coverups continued, and while Teflon pans were heavily marketed to the American public, Dupont’s own chief toxicologist warned Dupont executives a new study had found enlarged livers in rats and rabbits who were exposed to C-8. Her memo was ignored as the “Happy Pan” roll out ramped up even more.
And shockingly, during Teflon pans' launch, Dupont was running its own toxicity tests on humans. Sharon Lerner, a writer for The Intercept, says, “The company even conducted a human C8 experiment, a deposition revealed. In 1962, DuPont scientists asked volunteers to smoke cigarettes laced with the chemical (C-8) and observed that “Nine out of ten people in the highest-dosed group were noticeably ill for an average of nine hours with flu-like symptoms that included chills, backache, fever, and coughing.”
Lobbyists and the unregulated chemical industry.
In the 1970s, Congress asked the EPA to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and recommend regulatory measures. That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull —mobilizing chemical lobbyists to influence Congress to pass the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which again grandfathered existing chemicals without any testing.
New chemicals did require testing, but not the 80,000 that already existed. And guess what? Less than ten chemicals on the market today have ever been thoroughly tested for consumer safety.
The truth starts to emerge.
Concerns about congenital disabilities to babies born from mothers working in the plant began to surface in the late 1970s. In 1981 Dupont started secret monitoring of female workers, testing their blood. Several babies had already been born with severe congenital disabilities.
The data compiled over the next few years showed clear evidence that exposure to C-8 was toxic. It accumulated in the body and wasn’t breaking down. Internal memos from 3M and Dupont warning of toxicity and congenital disabilities were ignored. Employees were not informed about the dangers, and pregnant women continued to work in the plant and on the lines producing Teflon.
At this time, Dupont began to look outside the plant for contamination. They had already been dumping thousands of tons of C-8 waste into the ocean and unlined pits near the plant. Dupont teams began to test the water in the counties surrounding the plant, found contamination, and considered alerting the public but chose not to.
In a 1984 internal meeting, executives decided not to invest in plant equipment to reduce emissions of C-8 into the air. They concluded they were already fully exposed for the past thirty-two years of pollution, and any new investment would not reduce the company’s liability.
In 2000, after a seven-year study on the effects of C-8 on monkeys, 3M notified the EPA they would cease production of PFOS, used in Scotchguard, a cousin chemical to C-8, and began a gradual phase-out of C-8.
The lawsuits begin.
Meanwhile, in 1999, legal action was underway by a local Parkersburg resident, Jim Tenant. Dupont purchased a portion of his land and was dumping toxic waste on it. It leaked into the waterways and was contaminating his animals, who were dying gruesome deaths.
In a 2016 New York Times article, Jim Tenants' story caught the attention of actor Mark Ruffalo. Mr. Ruffalo produced the 2019 film Dark Waters and starred in it, playing lawyer Rob Billot, who relentlessly pursued Dupont and exposed the truth behind C-8 and the coverup. I watched the movie recently. It was eye-opening and heartbreaking.
In 2002 3M shut down all production of C-8. Dupont was ready for this and built a plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to produce their own C-8. In 2004 a class-action lawsuit was settled on behalf of more than 80,000 plaintiffs for $343 million. The EPA fined Dupont $16.5 million, the largest fine they ever imposed up until that time. For Dupont, this was a mere slap on the wrist, considering they were making roughly $1 billion in revenue per year from products containing C-8.
As part of the settlement, Dupont had to clean up drinking water, contribute $70 million to health and education projects, and fund a $30 million research project studying the effects of C-8. This left the door open for more litigation.
In a brilliant move by Rob Bilott, the settlement from the class action lawsuit funded a C-8 research project where 70,000 of the 80,000 plaintiffs were paid $400 each to provide their medical histories and have their blood drawn. An independent panel of scientists studied the data for seven years. It concluded a probable link between C8 and six conditions: testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and high cholesterol.
Finally, in 2017, after almost twenty years of litigation, DuPont agreed to pay $671 million to settle 3,500 pending lawsuits. They admitted no wrongdoing. But it’s not over yet, nor will it be any time soon.
No end in sight yet.
Even though Dupont ceased production of C-8, China produces millions of pounds a year, and Dupont has developed two newer non-regulated chemicals, replacing PFOA and PFOS, for use in Teflon pans and other products, called GenX (C-6) and PFBS. The decay rate of GenX is faster than C-8, but it’s already been found in waterways around the Waterworks plant, and the EPA is already citing Dupont for the release of GenX related chemicals.
According to the Netflix documentary, The Devil We Know, recent studies conducted by DuPont found tumors similar to those seen in rats exposed to C-8, in rats exposed to Gen-X.
And Rob Billot continues to fight. In 2018, on behalf of a firefighter, he filed a class-action lawsuit against 3M, Arkema, and Chemours, alleging they knew for decades that PFAS chemicals (of which there are 4,700 variations) were linked to cancer and other serious health problems while assuring the EPA and other agencies they were safe. Billot’s current lawsuit is not seeking damages. He wants further testing of the short-chain PFAS chemicals, proving their health impact.
In a Time magazine article, Billot says, “What we’re hearing once again from those companies that put those chemicals out there, knowing that they would get into the environment and our blood, is that there’s insufficient evidence to show that they present risks to humans who are exposed. These companies are going to sit back and say, we’re entitled to…use you as guinea pigs, yet those of you who are exposed are somehow the ones who are going to have to prove what these [chemicals] do to you.”
A 3rd congressional hearing was held on September 10, 2019, chaired by Harley Rouda, Democratic Congressman from California, to discuss the PFAS family of chemical contamination and the need for corporate accountability.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Rouda’s said, “If the subcommittee’s last two hearings haven’t made it abundantly clear, we’re dealing with a national emergency here. PFAS chemicals have been linked to serious adverse health outcomes in humans, including low fertility, congenital disabilities, suppression of the immune system, thyroid disease, and cancer.”
Concerning immune system suppression, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental health at Harvard, conducted a study at the National Hospital in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, (located between Scotland and Iceland), on the family of chemicals called Perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs), which include PFOA and the other shorter chain chemicals like GenX, and their impact on the immune system development of babies.
The data was alarming. PFOA and PFOS were found in the bloodstream of 381 babies and indications of reduced antibodies. If contamination is discovered in the babies on remote islands, is there any doubt that this is a global problem?
No, there is no doubt.
Dupont, 3M, and dozens of other well-known chemical companies have poisoned and killed us in the pursuit of making our lives better.
We want to believe the world is safe for us and future generations.
It’s not safe.
What we need.
We need more industry regulation and for chemical companies to be held accountable for their actions. Chemicals already in use need to be tested. Local and state governments need to put their residents’ health and safety first before allowing industrial growth in their communities.
We need more federal legislation to ensure chemical companies test the long term impact of any chemical they are using. All countries need stricter environmental regulations so companies like Rockwool don’t export their carbon footprint where they can get away with it.
- Support the movement to ban PFAS chemicals
- Read more about PFAS chemicals in your food, clothes, and home.
- Read up on healthy living tips from the Environmental Working Group.
- Read more about the impact of Rockwool in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
What you can do to keep yourself and others safe.
I was appalled when I watched Dark Waters, and as I did my research for this article, my disgust with what has been allowed to happen over many years grew. I read about Tracy and discovered a beautiful human being, forever impacted by the unregulated chemical industry, corporate greed, political payoffs, and a lack of genuine concern for human life shown by many chemical companies whose products we all use.
I got in touch with her and learned more about her life and what she’s doing now. She explains the problem quite simply, “The world allows the industry to create first and regulate second. This ought not to be.”
Tracy’s not bitter, and she’s not anti-business. She wants to see economic growth but not at the expense of the safety of those living and working in their communities.
She says, “My work in West Virginia, a state that has historically allowed businesses to operate with nearly no accountability to its citizens, is simply an effort to bring standards, expectations, and laws and regulations up to a level that feels sustainable for the average citizen. We have a long way to go, but it’s worth it, and the people here deserve it.”
Tracy continues her fight for the health of the people in Shepherdstown. It seems to be paying off. Rockwool is now under investigation for political improprieties, air quality, and water quality by the Danish Mediation and Complaints-Handling Institution for Responsible Business Conduct.
When I asked her what she learned during her walk across Denmark, she said, “I learned that people everywhere want the same thing. They want to be able to walk into the future without fear. They want the entities around them to have the same level of responsibility and care they bring to the table. Is that really too much to ask?”
Tracy Danzey is a warrior, and I thank her for standing proud and tall and speaking the truth in the hope others don’t have to endure what she has.