My neighbor is an NPR junkie and always has the radio on. Earlier this evening when I was visiting her, I listened in on their podcast. What grabbed my attention were the words “toxic chemical” and “found in 99% of humans’ blood.”
I, of course, looked up the podcast and downloaded it to listen to it after the original airing ended in order to get the full story. The podcast was about Dupont’s 20-year legal battle over a toxic chemical used to make Teflon, which is a coating used in cookware. The chemical is called PFOA, which is short for perfluorooctanoic acid — also known as C8 — and it’s used as a material feedstock, and also as an industrial surfactant in chemical processes. Dupont has been sued several times over the past two decades over this.
NPR interviewed Robert Bilott, one of the lead attorneys in the earliest cases, because he wrote a book about this toxic chemical and his experiences in the trials. There’s also a movie titled Dark Waters that will be coming out next month based on Robert’s book.
There is a new movie coming out called Dark Waters: https://t.co/se5phn8ySt
It's based on the book Exposurehttps://t.co/uznla0anHL
It tells the true story how Robert Bilott took down Dupont for poisoning 70,000 people in West Virginia with the chemicals used to make Teflon.
— Toby Rogers PhD, MPP (@uTobian) October 11, 2019
Robert describes PFOA as a “completely manmade synthetic chemical. It lasts forever. It doesn’t break down in natural conditions. It’s known as a ‘forever chemical’ because it doesn’t break down.
“We’re talking about a chemical that has basically gotten into the blood of virtually of every living thing on the planet. I think it’s been estimated to be in the blood of 99% of humans in the United States.”
Molly Wood, the host interviewing Robert Bilott, asked him to go back to the beginning of the book to how all of this began. It began with a farmer whose livestock were dying. This was at a time Bilott was a corporate environmental defense lawyer. Molly wanted to know how the farmer convinced Bilott to take the case. Bilott explains that the farmer had over 100 animals that had died on his farm. He thought it was related to a white, foaming water that was coming out of a landfill. Bilott invited him to the office and the farmer brought videos and photos.
“What we saw was pretty disturbing. We could see tumors on the animals, we could see blackened teeth.” —Robert Bilott
When Bilott and his team first started working on the case, they thought it would be pretty straightforward. Pull the permits and check the list of the regulated contaminants in the landfill and find something that was on the list that may have been too much. But they couldn’t find anything. This wound up being a case where they had to keep digging and go to court and one day he finally found a document that talked about a chemical called PFOA. Dupont had been studying PFOA’s effects and its toxicity, its ability to cause cancer.
“What was particularly disturbing was when we found out that it had also been found in the local public water supply. Tens of thousands of people were likely drinking it, but nobody had been told.” —Robert Bilott
The next question Molly asked was what has been Dupont’s position throughout? Bilott says it has been consistent that there has been inadequate evidence that PFOA causes any harm to humans. Bilott explains that thanks to the work of communities in Ohio and West Virginia who had set up these massive human studies, they were able to confirm that drinking this chemical actually was linked to 6 different diseases, including two types of cancers.
In 2004, after the settlement of a class-action lawsuit, the plaintiffs didn’t take payouts but instead used the funds to fund a series of studies. Bilott points out that the reason why was that the communities wanted to know the long-term effects of PFOA being in their systems.
The money went to pay people to be tested. This included bloodwork, their medical history, and more. The goals were to have enough data and sample sizes to turn over to independent scientists to confirm whether or not these health effects were happening. They ended up getting 69,000 people to participate in the study, which ended up being one of the largest ever done. There were 12 different epidemiology studies that spanned over 7 years. Again, the results showed that drinking this water was linked to 6 different diseases — 2 of which were cancers.
In Your Blood
The fact that this chemical could be in my blood, your blood (if you are in the US), or even in my plants or those stray cats running in the empty fields across the street is horrifying. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have some information on how to treat infected water. There are three ways that they are doing this.
Activated Carbon Treatment
This is the most studied PFAS (PFOA falls under the Per- and Polyfluorinated substances) removal process. It adsorbs these chemicals in drinking water treatment systems. Adsorb simply means to accumulate a substance at the interface between liquid and solid phases. Activated carbon is highly porous and provides a large surface area to adsorb contaminants. A type of this is called GAC, which is made from organic materials with high carbon contents (think coal, wood) and it has been shown to effectively remove PFAS from drinking water when used in a flow-through filter mode.
“GAC can be 100 percent effective for a period of time, depending on the type of carbon used, the depth of the bed of carbon, flow rate of the water, the specific PFAS you need to remove, temperature, and the degree and type of organic matter as well as other contaminants, or constituents, in the water,” says EPA researcher Thomas Speth.
Ion Exchange Treatment
Ion exchange resins consist of highly porous, polymeric material that doesn’t dissolve in acid, base, or water. These beads that are the resins are made from hydrocarbons. There are two categories of these resins: cationic (CER) and anionic (AER). CER removes positively charged contaminants and AER removes the negatively charged contaminants. AER is what’s used for PFAS. PFAS falls in love with the AER and that’s where the magic happens. Just like GAC, AER has a 100% removal rate for removing this stuff from our water.
Nanofiltration, or reverse osmosis, has been extremely effective at removing PFAS. Reverse osmosis membranes are tighter than nanofiltration ones and the tech depends on how permeable the membrane is. Research has shown that these types of membranes are more than 90% effective at removing a wide range of PFAS.
Screenshot of interactive map from EWG.
In 2015, the Environmental Working Group published an article about PFOA in our drinking waters and pointed out that 94 public water systems had this toxic chemical. They also have an interactive map where you can click and zoom on the parishes or counties you live in or have lived in (screenshot above).
One of the counties I lived in, in 2008, was Clayton County, GA. Fulton, Cobb, and Dekalb Counties (all four are part of the Metro Atlanta area) were not contaminated. However, Clayton County is red, indicating that it was one of the systems infected with PFOA. Water tests showed one contaminant in 8 samples. In 2018, I had a short stay in Cumberland County, NC, where there were 7 contaminants found in 105 water samples. In my hometown parish Caddo and also Bossier, there were no contaminants detected. Also, in East Baton Rouge Parish, there were no contaminants detected. How about you?
WebMD also points out that almost all of us have small amounts of this stuff in our blood simply because it’s everywhere. It’s in a lot of consumer products we have been exposed to. It can get into the air, water, and soil as byproducts of manufacturing.
“Drinking water can be an additional source in the small percentage of communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies.” — Joel Beauvais, Deputy Assistant Administer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water.