DuPont’s Sinister Brainchild 

Written by: Ashley Koh Yu Xi (21-A1), Katelyn Joshy (21-U1), Aaron Wong Jielun (21-I4), Elizabeth Khoo Yuk Min (21-U1)

Designed by: Lay Kai En, Ashley (21-O1)


An Introduction 

“The system is rigged. They want us to think it’ll protect us.”- Those were the words of Mark Ruffalo’s character, a Cincinnati Lawyer named Robert Billot, in the latest thriller movie, ‘Dark Waters’. It is a corporate exposé, based on true events of the DuPont Teflon scandal, a decades-long case of chemical pollution. The chemical giant had knowingly poisoned 70,000 residents of West Virginia and Ohio since the early 1980s. It dumped toxic chemical, ‘C8-PFOA’ into waterways from its production of Teflon- a chemical used to coat DuPont’s revolutionary non-stick pan invention. Due to DuPont’s influence, they went unchecked until Billot caught on and exposed the truth.

The Revelations 

A scene from the movie, ‘Dark Waters’ when Robert Billot visits West Virginian farmer, Wilbur Tenant’s farm to make a startling discover. Photo credit: Killer Films

The jig was up for DuPont when Wilbur Tenant, a local farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, contacted Billot about the morbid deaths of his cows. Tenant owned 600 acres of farmland, with the remaining property sold to DuPont, who used the plot as a landfill for factory waste. The landfill ran into a creek that Tenant’s cows drank from, and soon the cows got deranged, and Tenant lost 153 animals. Tenant believed DuPont behind this and showed Billot video evidence- A mound of soapy froth in the creek and the abnormal deformities in the animals; staggering bow legged cows with malformed hooves. Billot took the case despite being a corporate defence attorney because: ‘‘There’s something really bad going on here.’’

Timeline Of The DuPont Controversy 

1951: DuPont starts utilising PFOA to manufacture the chemical Teflon. Over decades, DuPont disposes of PFOA into the environment from its landfill facility (Washington Works) in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

1998: Wilbur Tennant contacts Taft’s and Hollisters’ (Taft) lawyer, Robert Billot, to assist in his case against DuPont for dumping chemical waste into the river that his cows drink from, causing them severe health problems.

1999: Billot files a federal suit against DuPont. DuPont responds with a study of the Tennant farm conducted with the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A) that concludes that poor care of the animals is to blame, rendering the company blameless.

2000: Billot successfully requests a court order forcing DuPont to release all documents on PFOA. Incriminating information revealing the harmful nature of PFOA is discovered, leading to the settlement of the Tenants’ case.

2001: Billot drafts a public brief against DuPont and sends it to multiple regulatory authorities. He also files a class-action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of approximately 70,000 West Virginian citizens who have drunk contaminated water for years.

2004: DuPont settles the suit, agreeing to offer an award of $70 million, fund a study to scientifically determine PFOA’s health effects, and install water filtration facilities in affected districts.

2005: DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the E.P.A for violating the Toxic Substances Control Act.

2011: The scientific study findings reveal that PFOA is likely to be linked to negative health effects. As a result, thousands of affected citizens file personal injury lawsuits against DuPont.

2013: DuPont stops producing and using PFOA due to an agreement with the E.P.A.

2017: Billot wins a $671 million settlement for more than $3.5 thousand plaintiffs.

More On C8-PFOA  

Photo credit: American Chemical Society

C8-PFOA is a Perfluorooctanoic acid, known commonly as C8 or PFOA. It is part of a group of at least 4,700 synthetic chemicals that have been in commercial production since the 1940s as an industrial surfactant. Now, PFOA is ubiquitous, found in nearly all consumer products: raincoats, textiles, dental floss- you name it. Moreover, this “forever chemical” is bio resistant- it does not break down in the environment or human body. 

Notable Victims

The case of Bucky Bailey

Photo credits: Philipp Hubert

Bailey’s mother was pregnant when she dealt with C8-PFOA directly while working in DuPont. Unbeknownst to her, the chemical had affected her unborn child, who was born with one nostril, a keyhole pupil and a serrated eyelid. Bucky had undergone 30 surgeries by seven years old yet could never file legal action against DuPont as his deformities seem unlinked to PFOA. Now 35, Bailey is an environmental activist and uses his life experience with toxic chemicals to advocate for their expulsion.

The Scandal’s Impacts  

Social impact:

Levels of PFOA chemicals in local water systems. Photo credit: Environmental Pollution Centers

A study commissioned by Taft found out that over 7.1 million people were affected by the contaminated water across 27 states. These residents suffered health complications after years of poisoning.

According to one of many studies conducted by scientists (commissioned by Rob Bilott and the law firm Taft Stallitus & Hollister), PFOA has been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, liver effects (tissue damage), weakened immunity and many more health conditions. The effects of drinking water contaminated with PFOA are far-fetching, as the chemical not only affects the person drinking the water but future generations, specifically the unborn fetuses inside pregnant women. PFOA has been linked to congenital disabilities in children whose parents have been exposed to the chemical, as seen in the case of Bailey.

Economic impacts:

On the economic side, juries compensated victims $20 million after Dupont lost the only three trial cases brought to court. Afterwards, Dupont and another company that split from it, Chemours, fished out $671 million as general compensation for victims of the chemicals. A less immediate side effect of the scandal was the complete uphaul of Dupont’s economic system, as they began phasing out C8 from their production system and began using other forms of material. 

Environmental impact:

The DuPont Washington Works plant, south of Parkersburg, in October 2015. Photo credits: The Washington Post

The environmental impacts of Dupont’s actions are long-lasting, given that C8 is a “forever chemical”. Dupont’s dumping of the chemical into local waterways ended up killing animals, especially aquatic ones. C8 was circulated throughout the entire ecosystem, resulting in a staggering 99% of Americans having traces of C8 in their bloodstream; even newborn babies are not spared.  Now, there are traces of PFOA all over Earth, including the desolate Arctic.

Stakeholders Reactions 

Local residents:

The class-action lawsuit, which enmeshed 80,000 residents of Ohio and West Virginia, naturally enraged locals. This led to over 3,500 cases regarding personal endangerment by drinking contaminated water being filed and then centralised in the Ohio federal court. Although DuPont eventually agreed to settle these cases in 2017, over a hundred post-settlement cases have emerged due to multiple West Virginia residents developing long-term terminal illnesses and cancers. The first trial in these cases led to a $50 million verdict for a man who developed testicular cancer and a mistrial with a woman who had kidney cancer. 

The E.P.A: 

DuPont’s settlement with the E.P.A concluded that DuPont had failed to disclose its irresponsible disposal of C8 without a permit or interim status. Thus, the E.P.A charged DuPont a $3.195 million civil penalty for this offence and another $3.1 million for violating E.P.A’s chemical accident prevention program.

Justice for Dupont’s actions

Eventually, DuPont reached a settlement in the original class-action lawsuit. It was approved and ratified by the Court on February 28, 2005. In the settlement, DuPont was mandated to provide payment of $70 million for a health and education project for the benefit of those affected by their pollution and pay for the installation of state-of-the-art water treatment technology in the six affected water districts and private wells contaminated with C8, which was worth $20 million. Moreover, DuPont was forced to pay over $30 million to fund a health study to determine whether there are any probable links between C8 exposure and health complications in humans.

Movie Adaptation 

Photo credit: The Cinema At Selfridges

The 2019 thriller was a smashing success, starring Mark Ruffalo as the iconic lawyer himself. However, it was not met without some criticism, and most notably from DuPont itself: 

“[sic] Unfortunately, while seeking to thrill and entertain, this movie misrepresents things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science. In some cases, the film depicts wholly imagined events. We have always – and will continue to – work with those in the scientific, not-for-profit and policy communities who demonstrate a serious and sincere desire to improve our health, our communities and our planet.”

It is now available for streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

In Conclusion 

In the scandal, Billot filed new lawsuits against several other companies:

‘‘Before Billot, corporations relied on public misperception that if a chemical was dangerous, it was regulated.’’ Under the 1976 Toxic Sub­stances Control Act, the E.P.A. can test chemicals only when there is evidence of harm. This allowed chemical companies to regulate themselves, and 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.”

In the meantime, Billot authored a book: ‘Exposure’, capturing his 20-year legal battle with DuPont that continues to this day. 

Bibliography

  1. Blake, M. (n.d.). Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia. Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from: https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/welcome-to-beautiful-parkersburg/
  1. The New York Times. (2016, January 6). The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare. The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html?searchResultPosition=3
  1. The News Journal. (2016, April 2). C8 suspected in birth defects: One woman’s story. Delaware Online. Retrieved from: https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/2016/04/02/c8-suspected-birth-defects-one-womans-story/81473242/
  1. Participant. (2020, February 19). Bucky Bailey | WHY WE FIGHT | Dark Waters

[Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7nV56UTU3I

  1. The Guardian. (2019, April 23). Why you need to know about PFAS, the chemicals in pizza boxes and rainwear. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/23/pfas-everyday-products-toxics-guide
  1. G., & S, A. (2019, December 12). Dark Waters tells the true story of the lawyer who uncovered DuPont’s malfeasance. New Times. Retrieved from: https://www.newtimesslo.com/sanluisobispo/dark-waters-tells-the-true-story-of-the-lawyer-who-uncovered-duponts-malfeasance/Content?oid=9079708
  1. Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS. (n.d.). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 16, 2021, Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/drinking-water-health-advisories-pfoa-and-pfos
  1. C8 Class Action Settlement. (n.d.). Hill Peterson Carper Bee & Deitzler PLLC. Retrieved July 16, 2021, Retrieved from: https://www.hpcbd.com/personal-injury/dupont-c8/c8-class-action-settlement/
  1. Fansided. (n.d.). Is Dark Waters on Netflix? Where to stream Dark Waters.

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