The Chemical industry just like the tobacco and oil industries were aware of the dangers of the product they were making but willingly suppressed the knowledge as it would hurt their bottom line, documents have revealed. Previously secret industry papers show that DuPont and 3M, the largest manufacturers of PFAS, the so-called "forever chemicals", have been analyzed revealing that the companies knew of adverse effects at least 21 years before it become publicly known.
“DuPont had evidence of PFAS toxicity from internal animal and occupational studies that they did not publish in the scientific literature and failed to report their findings to EPA as required under TSCA. These documents were all marked as ‘confidential,’ and in some cases, industry executives are explicit that they ‘wanted this memo destroyed,’” the authors wrote in a new paper.
PFAS - Perfluorinated alkylated substances - have a huge range of uses, from non-stick pans to waterproof and stain-proof material, firefighting foam, and even jet engines. They are extremely resilient and don’t degrade, that’s why they gain the nickname "forever chemicals". Since they don’t degrade they can accumulate in the environment and in our bodies, with ill consequences.
The industries delayed public awareness of the health and ecological consequence of PFAS, and they pushed back against regulations of these substances. The documents in this study were the first from the industry to have been studied using methods designed to expose tobacco industry tactics.
The documents span from 1961 to 2006 and were discovered in a lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bilott. He was the first person to successfully sue DuPont for PFAS contamination. He gave them to the producers of the documentary The Devil We Know who then donated them to the University of California San Francisco Chemical Industry Documents Library where they were analyzed.
“These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS and failed to let the public, regulators, and even their own employees know the risks,” senior author Professor Tracey J. Woodruff, director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), a former senior scientist and policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said in a statement.
In 1961, Teflon’s Chief of Toxicology found that Teflon material could increase the size of the liver of rats even in small doses and that "contact with the skin should be strictly avoided". A 1970 internal memo from the DuPont-funded Haskell Laboratory found C8 (one of the thousands of PFAS) “highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested.” They also found that a notorious PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) would kill a dog two days after ingestion.
The evidence gets worse, DuPont and 3M discovered that two employees gave birth to children with birth defects; they were two of eight pregnant people who had worked in C8 manufacturing. After an internal review, they claimed “We know of no evidence of birth defects caused by C-8 at DuPont.”
In 1980 they also told their employees that C8 had toxicity as low as table salt despite decade-old evidence to the contrary. A press release in 1991 from DuPont claimed that “C8 has no known toxic or ill health effects in humans at concentration levels detected.”
The company has also tried to pressure the US EPA to back its claims with an email stating: “We need EPA to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: That consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe and to date, there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA.”
The EPA fined DuPont in 2004 for not disclosing the dangers of PFOAs. The $16.45 million settlement was the largest civil penalty obtained under US environmental statutes at the time. DuPont's revenue from C8 and PFOA in 2005 was $1 billion. Further bills for the company in terms of clean-ups and health costs may be avoided by DuPont completely.
“Having access to these documents allows us to see what the manufacturers knew and when, but also how polluting industries keep critical public health information private,” added first author Dr Nadia Gaber, who led the research as a PRHE fellow and is now an emergency medicine resident. “This research is important to inform policy and move us towards a precautionary rather than reactionary principle of chemical regulation.”
Researchers have found multiple ways to remove forever chemicals from the environment, some even with low-cost approaches that could be applied
The study was published in the Annals of Global Health.