How DuPont may avoid paying to clean up a toxic 'forever chemical'
By Gretchen Morgenson | NBC News | March 13, 2020
Read the full article by Gretchen Morgenson (NBC News)
Robin Andrews of Pedricktown, New Jersey, has been fighting an autoimmune disease and thyroid condition for the past three years, suffering severe dental problems, hair loss and other symptoms. All, she believes, are the result of exposure to drinking water tainted by a group of chemicals called PFAS, used widely for decades in products like Teflon pans, stain-resistant carpets, even cosmetics.
Known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down easily in the body, PFAS increasingly have been linked to conditions experienced by Andrews, 65, as well as birth defects, cancer, obesity and diabetes. People have been exposed to the chemicals by direct contact and from polluted ground and surface water and soil. Potential liabilities associated with the chemicals — both environmental cleanup and ongoing healthcare costs — have been estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.
Now, however, there's a risk that Andrews and other people with illnesses linked to the chemicals could end up with no compensation for their health problems. That's because a major manufacturer, DuPont, recently unloaded its PFAS obligations to smaller companies that do not have the money to pay for them.
For decades, DuPont manufactured PFAS-type chemicals in a plant close to Andrews' home in this tiny South Jersey town on marshy land near the Delaware River. Her grandfather and father both worked at the sprawling plant, known as the Chambers Works, which covers 1,400 acres of riverbank in the shadow of the bridge to Delaware.
In 2017, after she developed unexplained high liver enzymes, her well water tested positive for PFAS; she now runs it through a large filtration system in her basement and has it monitored every three months.
DuPont "could have been a great company and a very good thing for this area had they chosen to take care of people and to be responsible with the way they disposed of these toxins," Andrews told NBC News. "But they weren't. I believe it was an economic decision to put people at risk."
Jeff Tittel, senior chapter director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, has watched DuPont's moves with concern. "They are setting up other companies to take the fall on liabilities that won't have enough money, so even if people win lawsuits, they will get nothing or very little," he said.
PFAS are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act and their side effects are still being understood by scientists and the public. In February, the EPA put out a proposal to regulate two of the most common PFAS chemicals found in drinking water and is asking for comment on how to monitor them.
On Wednesday, the EPA disclosed it "has multiple criminal investigations underway concerning PFAS-related pollution." The agency did not identify the entities being investigated and it could not be determined if DuPont is one of them.
Daniel Turner, reputation and media relations manager for DuPont, said the company had not received an information request from the EPA related to a criminal investigation.
Manufactured between the 1940s and the early 2000s, the chemicals have been associated with high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response, birth defects, pregnancy-induced hypertension and testicular and kidney cancer, according to a 2016 EPA study. The National Institutes of Health concluded in a 2019 analysis that PFAS are in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.
A 2019 study by the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit focused on the environment, identified at least 610 locations in 43 states that are known to be contaminated by PFAS, including drinking water systems serving an estimated 19 million people.