Toxic Waters

Briana Lombard

January 2020

          Dark Waters is the unxpected Hollywood recount of Dupont’s infamous environmental contamination scandal, which took place outside of their Washington Works Plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The film offers audiences an introduction to the chemical PFOA and a look at opposing actors entrenched in the company's cover-up, from Appalachian farmers, to corporate defense attorneys , to the EPA. Today, we’re taking a deeper dive into PFOA and the real-world reasoning behind each turning-point in this David and Goliath story. 


What is PFOA?

   The troublesome compound at the center of the scandal, is PFOA, or Perfluorooctanoic acid. This chemical was used in the production of Dupont’s profitable Teflon non-stick pan. PFOA belongs to a family of chemicals known as PFAS- Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Generally in chemistry, alkyl refers to carbon and hydrogen atoms arranged in a chain- think back to the scene in Dark Waters where the reluctant chemist explains a “franken-chain” structure.  In polyfluoroalkyl substances, the hydrogen atom is partially substituted by fluorine. In perfluoroalkyl substances, the hydrogen in the alkyl chain is completely substituted. PFOS and PFOA are fully fluorinated, as are the two PFASs that have been produced in the largest amounts within the United States.

       These synthetic chains create an extremely durable carbon-fluorine bond. Compared to hydro-carbons, perflorocarbons are especially effective surfactants, which repel oil and water. The repelusion works by weakening the liquid’s surface tension. Surface tension, the process where liquid molecules attract to one another, form bonds that support less-dense objects at the surface. This can be thought of as a supportive film at the surface of water. Surfactants, like PFOA, can break apart the molecular accumulation of water droplets and scatter supported materials resting at the surface, causing water, grease and debris to simply slide off. Other PFAS can break down into PFOA, which is an otherwise non-degradable pollutant, persisting and bioaccumulating in our environment indefinitely. PFOA is hydrolysis, photolysis and biodegradation resistant, and can be released in air, water or soil.

Something in the water

The lawyer who pioneered investigation into PFOA, as shown in Dark Waters, was former chemical defense attorney, Rob Billot. Billot, who turned out to be a dedicated and tactful force, was introduced to the case through his grandmother, Alma White. Alma was a lifelong resident of Parkersburg who had heard about the dying cows on the Tennant property from her acquaintance, Wilbert Tennant.

Tennant was the proprietor of a local cattle farm and the first to question whether there was something in the water. He had noticed a stark decline in the health of his beloved cattle, who had drank from Dry Run Creek. His cows were aggressive and emaciated, and suffered constant bouts of diarrhea. Tennant began performing his own autopsies on dead cows, and found black, abscessed teeth and swollen gallbladders. Local vets refused to offer any help. 


Wlbert had also began filming the suspected culprit; a mysterious sudsy foam running through streams of Dry Run Creek. The creek was suspected to be contaminated from an area known as Dry Run Landfill, where Dupont had been dumping on land purchased from the Tennat family 13 years earlier. Wilbert’s brother was a dupont employee, who had sold off 66 acres of his property in order to pay for medical expenses, after he too fell ill. In the late 1990s, after receiving little attention from the state’s DEP and Division of Natural Resources, that chance connection led Wilbert to Rob. After watching the tapes and visiting Tenants property for himself, Billot, too was concerned.

An Internal cover-up

Billot responded by filing suit against Dupont through the firm where he made partner, Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Through court order, Billot was able to formally request all of Dupont’s internal documents. The release of over 110,000 unorganized documents was, in some ways, a sleuths dream; chock full of misconduct. Key findings hidden within the internal documents revealed that Dupont had set up their own experiments on dogs, primates and humans. In fact, the movie’s 1960s PFOA laced cigarette experiment was real. Dupont had studied C-8 chemicals into the 1950s, and by the mid-sixties, received memos that rats were presenting with enlarged livers. Later internal studies in Dupont’s New Jersey plant revealed workers had this same enlargement, a tell-tale sign of poisoning

Dupont had proceeded with their own data guidelines on exposure limits, and then deliberately sequestered the findings. Company executives knowingly exposed plant workers to the well over internal limits. They disposed of massive quantities of PFOA in barrels set out to sea, before resorting to landfills, like Dry Run, where over seven- thousand tons are thought to have been dumped. Thousands of pounds of chemicals were also released through smokestacks and the greater water supply of rivers like the Ohio.


From the 1950s and into the early 2000s the EPA was not setting regulations on PFAS chemicals, yet businesses including Dupont and 3M were knowingly poisoning the public. Since the EPA was too slow to act, insiders like Billot viewed private litigation as the best bet. This sentiment is illustrated in Dark Waters where Taft corporate defense lawyers remarked, “everyone knows more than the EPA. That’s why they let us regulate ourselves”. 


Nonetheless, after uncovering the scale and toxicity involved in Dupont’s contamination, Billot wrote the EPA. He sent a 927 page brief to the agency in 2001, urging them to investigate the matter. The EPA responded by claiming they would “phase out” PFOA through the PFOA Voluntary Stewardship Program. Then, in 2004 the agency sued Dupont for not disclosing their findings on PFOA and ordered the corporation to pay $16.5 million in fines and clean up the contamination site. They also chose to conduct a study in 2005 to as part of the lawsuit settlement. The agency established an independent C-8 science panel, where each side (Billot and Dupont) agreed upon three recognized epidemiologists as panelists to look at all the data available. This included samples taken from the actual West Virginia contamination site. 

Billot and his team utilized the research funds to incentivise members of the affected community to provide blood samples for study. Each member of the community that provided a blood sample was given $400. In total, roughly 69,000 samples were collected for biomonitoring. These results  came out in 2012, and concluded that exposure to PFOA in humans was strongly linked to thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, testicular cancer,  kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis (which can lead to rectal cancer)  and high cholesterol. As the movie affirms, the study was not only a direct study on those impacted by the compound, but remains the largest epidemiological study of US history. 


The EPA’s initial response following these results was to express a need for or more long-term tests on PFOA, which continue to this day. While no one would call these tests unnecessary, the scale of the Parkersberg study and staggering results give reason to enough people for more action to rid the PFAS compounds from consumer products entirely.

The C-8 panel findings did give Billot the grounds to pursue a class action suit representing the 69,000 people tested near Washington Works. After years of dedicated research, in 2017, Bilott won a $671 million settlement on behalf of more than 3,500 plaintiffs who had contracted illness, including kidney and testicular cancer. 3M, facing a similar situation from the PFOS in their scotchgard tape, recently  settled a PFAS pollution claim made by the state of Minnesota for $850 million. 

In light of growing public awareness regarding the pervasive contamination and health risks associated with PFASs, several chemical manufacturers did end up voluntarily phasing out C-8 compounds. They now instead use shorter chain molecules, like C-4 compounds that include perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA) and perfluorobutane sulfonate. C-4 chained PFASs are considered by many, like researchers at Harvard University  to be a “regrettable substitution” in that they were not studied in depth before arriving on the market. 


existing Exposure limits

The EPA did release a toxicity fact sheet last November stating short chain technology like “Gen X”, which stands for high-performance fluoropolymers, used in non-stick coatings, and PFBS are toxic in animals. Specifically, Gen X was proven to be a carcinogen that impacted blood and immune systems, while PFBS has been linked to serious kidney, thyroid and reproductive system damage. In this same fact sheet, the EPA expresses no plans to regulate these chemicals in any way. 


So what does the EPA say is a safe amount of PFOA? In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory, stating PFOA and PFOS combined concentrations under 70 parts per trillion are safe. However, an 852 page toxicology report in 2018, released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), found that fluorinated chemicals, can endanger human health at levels 7 to 10 times lower than that estimate.  State ground water guidelines vary wildly acrross the US. For example, North Carolina’s standard safety standard on 2 mg/l is 100 times higher than Vermont’s .02 milligrams. What’s more, a study from 2019 estimated that more than 3000 PFASs are currently available in the global market. “Fluorine Detectives”  or groups of scientists are using state funding to identify new trade-secret fluorochemicals all the time. In short, when it comes to exposure, there’s a lot of  uncertainty and a lot of risk. 

Luckily, advocacy groups have been taking their own measures to improve public safety. the Environmental Working Group and North Eastern University teamed up to produce an interactive PFAS map with EPA tested water systems. 

Click on the map link above to gauge the levels found on your own home town.


The chemical in Dark Waters, PFOA is just one of thousands of chemicals with proven toxicity, used widely in consumer products, including Dihydrogen monoxide, Bisphenol A, 

Phthalates and Chlorpyrifos. 


When it comes to solutions, most express that the best defense against exposure is an accountable, independent scientific body and the adoption of the precautionary principle in our quest for miracle chemicals. This means that rather than allow companies to market their products to consumers immediately and assume chemicals are safe until proven otherwise, we should exercise caution on synthetic products and make sure they’re reasonably safe before releasing them into the environment. While few products may be 100 percent safe, the better safe than sorry approach has been used successfully before. Examples include Canada’s prevention of BPA poisoning in baby bottles, and bans on phthalates in the European Union and California. Many argue that chemical companies should also be required to disclose all studies conducted by their own science teams, as opposed to safeguarding them away from the public.


Until 2016, the EPA’s US Toxic Substances Control Act had not been updated since it’s introduction in 1976, and had only ever banned nine chemicals; Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Fully Halogenated Chlorofluoroalkanes (in aerosol cans), Dioxins, Hexavalent Chromium (the chemical from Erin Brocavich) metalworking fluids, and asbestos, although that decision was vacated in 1991. Then came groups like Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition, a group of medical experts and concerned parents held stroller brigades  and lobbied throughout Washington, DC for years to bring about the precautionary principle, and get known toxic substances off the market. 


Efforts from groups like Safer Chemicals Healthy Families paid off somewhat in June 2016, with the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The act is an amendment to the Toxic Substance Control Act, which now requires the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals on the US market with clear and enforceable deadlines. The timing of the Frank R Lautenberg Act and Dark Waters match up very well. Under the act, the EPA had to conduct  safety reviews on 10 high risk chemicals and find 20 more chemicals to review within 3.5 years of enactment. That list came out on December 30th. Additionally, for every safety review completed under the act, the EPA must designate at least one more chemical as either high or low, until they assign a status to every chemical in commerce. 


Key Update:



The most meaningful measure in correcting PFAS contamination, called the PFAS Action Act of 2019 or H.R. 535   will be considered in the house on Thursday, January 9th. The bill will require the EPA to regulate PFAS. It mandates that the EPA designate PFOA and PFOS as toxic under the superfund law, and conduct tests to determine whether other PFASs pose threat to human health within 5 years. The act also requires that the EPA conduct further testing on PFOA and PFOS in water supplies, including testing at least 25 percent in disadvantaged communities, and then award communities with the funds to clean up the contamination. 


The Association of Environmental Advocates supports this measure. 


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