Current lawsuits against chemical giant DuPont allege that its executives were aware of the toxicity of C8 for at least thirty years. However, their suspicions about the company's flagship product go back much further than that. According to information gleaned from internal company reports, scientists and senior executives, DuPont suspected there was something very wrong as early as the 1950s. Furthermore, the company's actions since that time cross the line from civil wrongdoing to criminal conduct.
The origins of C8 go back to the late 1930s, when a chemist at DuPont was conducting experiments on the company's refrigerants such as freon – another DuPont innovation. The result of those experiments was a substance that came to be known as PTFE, or polytetrafluoroethylene. At the end of the Second World War, DuPont file a patent on the new chemical, naming it “Teflon.” Within three years, approximately 1,000 tons of Teflon were coming out of the DuPont factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia on an annual basis.
C8, the scientific name of which is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA for short, was developed in the late 1940s. Its purpose was to act as an emulsifier for the ingredients that went into Teflon, making it smoother. Resembling dry laundry soap, C8 was subsequently used in a plethora of consumer products, including food containers, water-resistant fabrics and electric wiring. There are two significant characteristics of C8 that make it extremely hazardous. First, there is its form – a light, powdery substance that easily escapes into the local environment. Secondly is its chemical stability. C8 never breaks down. Instead, it accumulates in the environment and in the bloodstreams of humans and animals. C8 has been found in the bodies of wildlife as far away as the Arctic, and is present in the bloodstream of nearly everyone in the U.S.
A little more than a decade later, evidence of C8's toxicity began to emerge. DuPont must have been aware that something was wrong, because the company actually started screening its employees for illnesses linked to its products in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, DuPont laboratories ran experiments on test animals, discovering that exposure to C8 resulted in enlargement of the liver. In the wake of those experiments, DuPont's science department asked for volunteers willing to smoke cigarettes containing C8. According to the report, 90% of test subjects with the highest exposure exhibited “flu-like symptoms that included chills, backache, fever and coughing.”
Over the next few decades, DuPont took a number of actions, such as testing local water sources, transferring women employees out of the Teflon division after two of them gave birth to children with congenital defects, and advising its workers to bring their own drinking water. In fact, the company did everything except advise the public and cut back on production. Instead, DuPont doubled down, increasing production of C8, dumping the waste product in landfills, waterways and even the open ocean – while keeping the information a closely-guarded secret. DuPont had no concern for the environmental effects or risks to human health. Instead, the company concluded that environmentally safe methods for disposal were not “economically attractive.”
DuPont went even further: one document revealed that corporate executives were planning to pressure lawmakers to allow greater exposure to C8, even beyond DuPont's own recommendations. In 2001, DuPont's corporate legal counsel wrote in an email: “We need to have an independent agency agree, we are hoping that it will agree to higher levels than we have been saying.”
By that point, the ship had sailed; DuPont was already exceeding its own guidelines for exposure.
This is a textbook case of Corporate America, willfully and with malice aforethought, placing human lives – and the planet itself – at risk for the sake of short-term profits. Unfortunately, while corporations like DuPont are considered “people” under the law, they cannot be given the death penalty – which is what DuPont surely deserves.