For decades, chemical giant DuPont knowingly allowed a cancer-causing chemical (Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA), used in the manufacture of Teflon, to pollute the air and drinking water in West Virginia. Years after the practice was uncovered and made public, the company finally discontinued its use of the toxin.
Yet, the health effects of the replacement chemical are unknown, and DuPont has paid a meager price — in both dollars and publicity — for the harm it has caused and may still be causing.
This story, expertly detailed in the most recent New York Times Magazine, underscores just how crucial is today’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) “movement” and suggests that we cannot continue to rely on government and private lawyers to police corporate behavior.
The DuPont story
DuPont’s pollution finally came to light after the company purchased a 60-acre plot of West Virginia farmland in the early 1980s, which it used as dump for the PFOA waste generated at its Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant.
In the years following that purchase, the cattle belonging to DuPont’s farming neighbors (the Tennants) began to act deranged, appear sickly and turn up dead. (One dead cow’s eyes had turned “a brilliant, chemical blue,” according to the New York Times Magazine report.) An alleged 153 cattle died on the Tennants’ land due to what they could only surmise was DuPont-related pollution.
In a remarkable twist of fate, the Tennants discovered a connection to an Ohio corporate defense attorney named Rob Bilott who, despite making a career defending companies like DuPont, decided to take the Tennants’ case. In 1999, Bilott sued DuPont in federal court.
DuPont and PFOA
Here is a bit of the stomach-turning timeline of what DuPont knew about PFOA and when, which Bilott uncovered in documents he subpoenaed as part of the Tennant lawsuit:
- 1961-1962: DuPont discovers that PFOA can increase the size of the liver in rats, rabbits and dogs.
- 1970s: DuPont finds high concentrations of PFOA in the blood of factory workers at its Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant.
- 1981: 3M, the creator of PFOA and DuPont’s sole supplier of the chemical, informs DuPont that ingestion of PFOA causes birth defects in rats. DuPont tests the children of pregnant employees working in the Teflon division: of seven births, two have eye defects.
- 1984: DuPont discovers that dust emitted from factory chimneys drifts far beyond company property and that PFOA is present in the local water supply.
- 1991: DuPont finds that drinking water in one district contains PFOA levels at three times its own internal safety limit (one part per billion).
DuPont never disclosed any of this, to workers or to the public.
In 1993, DuPont briefly considered using a safer alternative to PFOA (the chemical it is now using in PFOA’s place), but decided against making substitution because, as reporter Nathaniel Rich puts it, “Products manufactured with PFOA were … [too] important … [to] DuPont’s business, worth $1 billion in annual profit,” to justify the business risk of switching over.
Bilott also discovered that, by 1990, DuPont had dumped more than 7,000 tons of PFOA sludge onto the property adjacent to his client (the Tennants), and it did so with the full understanding that the landfill drained into the Tennants’ land, causing the water in their creek to contain a frighteningly high concentration of PFOA. Yet, in keeping with the theme, DuPont never told the Tennants. In fact, the company even went so far as to blame the Tennants’ poor husbandry for the deaths of their cattle.
After it became clear to DuPont what Bilott now knew, the company settled with the Tennants.
Lack of oversight
DuPont was able to get away with this because almost nobody was paying attention. The current environmental regulatory framework is so weak that chemical companies are left to determine on their own which chemicals are safe to use. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “Even if EPA identifies a significant risk from a specific chemical, it is not legally required to take action to address the risk. And [the Toxic Substances Control Act] has proven nearly impossible for EPA to use to ban or restrict chemicals in commerce.”
Because it hasn’t been regulated, we don’t know exactly how much PFOA is safe to ingest. Last June, a joint Harvard School of Public Health and University of Massachusetts-Lowell study found an “approximate” safe level of 0.001 parts per billion. Thanks to DuPont and the EPA, there is surely far more PFOA in many American water systems. The Harvard-Umass study found that the 0.001 threshold had been exceeded, often greatly, in 94 systems in 27 states, “serving more than 6.5 million Americans.”
The result? “By 2003, the average concentration of PFOA in the blood of an adult American was four to five parts per billion.” In other words, we may have as much as 5,000 times more PFOA in our blood than is considered safe to ingest.
In addition to the Tennant settlement, Bilott’s work led, in 2006, to a $16.5 million settlement between DuPont and the EPA. Though the fine was the largest in EPA history at the time, it represented less than 2 percent of the profits earned by DuPont on PFOA that year, Rich wrote in his piece in the New York Times Magazine. (Bilott also brought a class-action against DuPont, which settled in 2004 for $70 million plus certain medical costs for victims.)
DuPont stopped using PFOA in 2013. Yet, last May, 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement, expressing concern about the production of all fluorochemicals, including those that have replaced PFOA. (Want a terrifying read? Peruse the Madrid Statement.) This also isn’t the first time the regulation of one harmful chemical led to the adoption of another.
Meanwhile, PFOA’s presence in the world is now ubiquitous. Research has found the toxin “in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions, and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.”
What this means for CSR
We didn’t need the DuPont case to illustrate the shortcomings of the current environmental regulatory regime, and we have little reason to be optimistic for the future.
No doubt, Bilott and countless plaintiffs’ lawyers have worked tirelessly to deliver justice to victims of corporate malfeasance; yet, what is the result? At best, paltry fines that have no impact on companies’ bottom lines and do little to disincentivize irresponsible behavior.
To me, this all speaks to the need for stronger internal CSR programs. Sure, in a perfect world, company CSR programs would supplement vigorous government oversight and strict regulation. Yet this, as we know, is mere fantasy in America, where regulation’s threat to capitalism far outweighs its benefit to people’s’ livelihoods and the future of our planet.
So, what to do? Whether businesses do so for PR reasons, to placate pesky investors, or because they genuinely care about their impact on the environment and their communities, they must continue to establish and build out their CSR teams. Pressure from the inside can shape corporate behavior, and no company wants to be seen as lagging behind its peers on compliance. Moreover, companies are far more likely to favor internal change than the heavy hand of the government, so internal CSR growth is also our most realistic hope for improving corporate citizenship.
Image credit: Flickr/Richie Diesterheft