July 21, 2016 — San Diego, CA. Non-stick frying pans. Stain-resistant carpets. Water-proof mascara. These products are ubiquitous in stores across America and they have something in common: They often use the same chemical compound to get their non-stick, strain-resistant and water-proof qualities.
Polytetrafluoroethylene, PTFE, is a man-made chemical belonging to the class of plastics known as fluoropolymers. It is extremely slick and slippery, has a high melting point and is nearly indestructible. PTFE’s ideal properties have ensured its inclusion in thousands of different products from cookware and utensils to insulation for data cables. It is used to make stain- and water-resistant fabrics, carpets and wall coverings, coatings for machine parts and lab equipment resistant to corrosive chemicals.
PTFE is prolific in America’s consumer and industrial products industries, though you may not have heard of it — at least not by its chemical name. You may know PTFE by its infamous trade name: Teflon.
From Nuclear Weapons to ‘A Housewife’s Best Friend’
The plastic material that would eventually become known as Teflon got its start in a New Jersey laboratory nearly 80 years ago.
Roy J. Plunkett was experimenting in DuPont’s Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, NJ in 1938 when he stumbled upon the slippery substance. By 1945, the Wilmington, Del.-based chemical company had trademarked PTFE under the name Teflon.
Teflon was first used by the US military during WWII, which added the newly invented substance to nose cones on artillery shell proximity fuses (the fuse that detonates an explosive automatically when it reaches a certain distance). Teflon even played a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project – the government R&D project that led to the development of the first nuclear weapons.
After the war, DuPont searched for new applications for its innovative product. By 1961, Teflon had made its way into the American home with the introduction of the first non-stick pots and pans. Marketed as “a housewife’s best friend,” Teflon made cleanup a breeze because virtually no food could stick to its ultra-slick surface.
Teflon has now made its way into thousands of different products, both consumer and industrial. Some of these products include computer wires, outdoor apparel, upholstered furniture, school uniforms, dental floss and cosmetics.
DuPont was the sole producer of Teflon from its beginnings in 1938 until 2015, when it spun off its plastics division to create a new, independent company called Chemours.
Teflon’s Toxic Cancer Reigns
Teflon was extremely profitable for DuPont over its 70-year history on the market. The company produced its trademark product in factories across the Northeast, using a crucial component it purchased from 3M Company called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
PFOA is a perfluorinated compound, or PFC, that, like Teflon itself, was prolific in the American consumer and industrial product market. PFOA’s surfactant, or soap-like, quality made it useful in thousands of products from grease-resistant food wraps to household cleaning products. Even some shampoos got their foaming qualities from PFCs, many of which either were PFOA or broke down into PFOA.
PFCs are nearly indestructible and do not biodegrade; instead they build up in the human body and the environment. PFOA specifically has been found in nearly all human blood samples taken from around the world and has been found in dolphins off the coast of Florida and polar bears in the Arctic. Until very recently, the substance was not regulated by the EPA, and even now, those regulations are not legally binding.
PFOA was integral in the production of Teflon and, until 2000, was only manufactured by 3M Company, which used a similar compound called PFOS in many of its own flagship products, including ScotchGard. PFOS eventually broke down into PFOA.
DuPont purchased PFOA (which it sometimes referred to as C-8) from 3M and used it in its own factories, where hundreds of workers were exposed to the substance on a daily basis from the 1950s through the turn of the new millennium.
DuPont earned record profits from its Teflon products. By the 1990s, $1 billion of DuPont’s $30-billion-plus annual profits were coming from products made with PFOA, but the substance’s potential to cause harm had already begun to manifest. In an article published by the New York Times in early 2016, journalist Nathaniel Rich details studies conducted by both DuPont and 3M that revealed the danger of PFOA long before government agencies eventually became involved.
In the 1970s, DuPont found high levels of PFOA in the blood of workers tested at its Washington Works factory in West Virginia. In 1981, a 3M study found ingesting PFOAs caused birth defects in rats. After learning the results, DuPont began testing pregnant employees in its Teflon division and found two of seven babies born had similar birth defects to those of the rats in 3M’s study. Neither 3M nor DuPont notified the EPA or made the information available to the public.
In 1984, DuPont learned that dust created from its West Virginia factory settled well beyond the property line and that PFOA was found in local water supplies. DuPont did not volunteer this finding. In 1991, DuPont scientists set an internal safety limit for PFOA in drinking water at 1 part per billion. The same year, DuPont found a local district near its Washington Works factory had PFOA levels three times that amount. The company did not make this information public. (Facing lawsuits in subsequent years, DuPont would eventually raise that safety limit to 150 parts per billion.)
By the 1990s, the New York Times reported DuPont knew that PFOA could cause cancerous tumors in the testicles, the pancreas and the liver of lab animals. A study on workers also linked PFOA exposure to prostate cancer.
DuPont reportedly began to develop an alternative to PFOA, announced in a 1993 internal memo, but instead of risking a costly replacement, it decided to continue with the status quo. Since the late 1980s, DuPont had been dumping tons of PFOA sludge into a landfill on 66 acres it had purchased from a low-level employee at its Washington Works plant. By 1990, the company had dumped about 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced slime into the landfill dubbed Dry Run.
Dry Run would eventually lead to the downfall of PFOA use in the United States.
David Takes on Goliath – DuPont Lawsuit filed
Downriver from the Dry Run Landfill lived a small West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant. Tennant’s brother Jim was the low-level employee who sold 66 acres to DuPont where the company set up its toxic container.
Dry Run’s PFOA sludge flowed downstream to where Tennant’s more than 200 cows drank and were ultimately poisoned to death from the toxic waste. Video footage of the cows, emaciated from chronic diarrhea and foaming white froth from their mouths, was sent to a high-powered corporate attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio, who, despite his apparent conflict of interest, took on the farmer’s case.
In 1999, Attorney Rob Bilott filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tennant against DuPont.
At the time of the lawsuit’s filing, neither Bilott nor his client knew what PFOA was, let alone that it was responsible for poisoning Tennant’s and the town’s water supply.
Bilott first stumbled upon the term PFOA in a letter DuPont had sent to the EPA. He soon requested a court order demanding DuPont hand over any documents containing information on PFOAs. Dozens of boxes started arriving at Bilott’s office, where he began the months-long task of sifting through 110,000 pages of private internal correspondence, medical and health reports and confidential studies conducted by DuPont scientists, according to the New York Times.
It was in these boxes of unorganized documents that Bilott found what he needed to slam DuPont in court: proof DuPont knew the detrimental effects of PFOA but hid the information from its employees and the public.
DuPont agreed to settle the case in August 2000.
The same year, 3M announced it would stop producing the potentially toxic substance. Shortly after 3M’s announcement, DuPont started producing PFOAs at its own plant in Fayetteville, NC.
EPA Joins the Fight; DuPont Lawsuits Settled
In spite of the settlement Bilott secured for his client, he told the New York Times he was not satisfied. In fact, he was “irritated.” He wanted DuPont to be held accountable for poisoning entire communities with a substance it knew for years was toxic.
Bilott composed a 972-page open brief asking for regulation of PFOA and for the company to provide clean water to those living near the factory. In 2001, he sent the brief to every appropriate regulating authority, including the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice. Shortly thereafter, he sent his entire case file to the EPA and the agency began investigating the potentially toxic substance.
In 2002, the EPA released its preliminary findings, saying PFOA exposure might cause health problems not only to those drinking tainted water but also the general public – for example anyone cooking with a Teflon pan since PFOA fumes could be given off even at normal cooking temperatures.
In 2005, DuPont settled a lawsuit brought against it by the EPA and the Justice Department for $16.5 million over allegations the company violated the Toxic Substances Control Act by not reporting PFOA safety risks to the EPA. 3M settled similar allegations the next year for $1.5 million.
Amid the EPA’s investigation, Bilott brought another lawsuit against DuPont, this time a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the 70,000 people exposed to high levels of PFOA in contaminated drinking water near DuPont’s Washington Works factory. The lawsuit covered not only residents living in Wilbur Tennant’s town of Parkersburg, but residents in six water districts located in West Virginia and Ohio.
In 2004, DuPont settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay $70 million and to install filtration systems in the affected water districts. The company also agreed to fund a scientific study to determine whether there was a probable link between PFOAs and any health conditions. Before any of the 70,000 plaintiffs received their settlement checks, they gave blood samples to members of the scientific panel set up to study the effects of PFOA.
Phase Out of PFOAs Begins
In 2006, the EPA invited eight of the world’s largest chemical companies to phase out the use of PFOAs in the US. The “Stewardship Program” aimed to reduce facility emissions and use of PFOAs, as well as other PFCs that break down into PFOA, by 95% by 2010 and to completely eliminate emissions and use by 2015. DuPont and 3M, as well as six other international chemical and glass companies, agreed to adhere to the voluntary program.
All eight companies reached the program’s goals, according to the EPA. DuPont announced it had eliminated production and use of PFOAs and its sister compounds by 2013, two years before the program’s goal date.
To achieve the phase out, companies stopped manufacturing and importing PFOAs and turned instead to similar chemical compounds for use in their products. These compounds are said to be less detrimental to the environment because they break down more quickly, but their chemical similarities to PFOA have many scientists worried.
In 2015, a group of more than 200 international scientists signed the Madrid Statement raising concerns about the use of other perfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFASs, including those that have replaced PFOA:
“As scientists and other professionals from a variety of disciplines, we are concerned about the production and release into the environment of an increasing number of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). … PFASs are found in the indoor and outdoor environments, wildlife, and human tissue and bodily fluids all over the globe. They are emitted via industrial processes and military and firefighting operations, and they migrate out of consumer products into air, household dust, food, soil, ground and surface water, and make their way into drinking water.”
The scientists’ concerns were not unwarranted. The communities near DuPont’s Washington Works plant learned that at least one PFAS was detrimental when the scientific panel came back with its findings in 2011.
Possibly more concerning is the fact that these chemical compounds are unregulated and, therefore, emissions are legal. Even PFOAs have not been legally banned – manufacturers merely agreed to voluntarily phase out their use.
In May 2016, the EPA released new health guidelines for PFOA and PFOS (the compound that breaks down into PFOA once used in 3M’s ScotchGard products). These guidelines set the health advisory levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion, or 0.07 parts per billion. Again, these health advisories are non-enforceable and not legally binding.
Panel Results Lead to Thousands More PFOA Lawsuits
The scientific panel set up according to the terms of the class-action settlement came back with its results about seven years after the lawsuit settled.
During that time, members of the original class-action suit, who were forbidden from filing personal injury lawsuits against DuPont until the panel announced its findings, were dying from complications of the diseases they developed as a result of drinking PFOA-tainted water.
In Dec. 2011, the panel finally reported its findings: there was a probable link between PFOA exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pregnancy induced hypertension (pre-eclampsia) and ulcerative colitis.
Following the panel’s announcement, roughly 3,500 personal injury lawsuits were filed against DuPont.
Chemours Takes Over Teflon – and Liability?
The 3,500 or so lawsuits have been grouped into a multidistrict litigation, or MDL, in Ohio federal court. Five cases were chosen to be tried first beginning in late 2015.
The first in this series ended in October 2015 with a $1.6 million award to a woman diagnosed with kidney cancer. The second ended in July 2016 with a $5.1 million award to a man diagnosed with testicular cancer. Two days after the jury handed down its verdict, it awarded the man another $500,000 in punitive damages.
Just a few months before the first case was tried, DuPont finalized a deal to spin-off its chemical division into a new, independent company called Chemours Company.
Chemours went public on July 1, 2015, taking on DuPont’s Teflon trademark but not the liability of any lawsuits settled in the coming years. That is according to Chemours, who told the Wall Street Journal that DuPont was the named defendant in the case and was directly liable for any judgment.
DuPont could turn around and claim indemnification against Chemours, according to the WSJ, essentially suing its former self to recoup money lost in the settlements.
It remains unclear who will ultimately be responsible for paying the settlement checks, but the two companies have plenty of time to figure out the terms of their separation. DuPont and Chemours were told to brace for a 40-trial-per-year pace beginning in April 2017, meaning it could take about 90 years to hear all 3,500 cases.
Teflon’s Toxic Legacy Lives On
Chemours is carrying on DuPont’s Teflon brand and continues to produce the PFAS compounds scientists around the world are fighting against. The company boasts it is the “#1 global manufacturer of fluoroproducts,” including PFAS.
Chemours also took over DuPont’s former chemical factories, like Washington Works in West Virginia, which was the first Teflon-producing factory built by DuPont in 1950.
Chemours closed some of the factories it inherited, including one in Niagara Falls, NY and Edge Moor, Del. Other factories, like Washington Works, remain open – for now. Chemour’s newly acquired Chambers Works facility, located in Deepwater, NJ across the river from the company’s current headquarters in Wilmington, Del., is currently listed for sale on the Chemours’ website. It is unclear what the company plans to do with the 1,440-acre facility at this time.
DuPont Teflon Lawsuits continue to mount
DuPont could be facing more litigation regarding its Teflon products and the PFOA contaminants it introduced into the environment.
Lawyers and attorneys across the country are currently investigating possible lawsuits against DuPont and potentially Chemours alleging the company knew or should have known its products could cause harm to the public and environment but failed to warn the proper agencies.
If you or someone you love used a Teflon product and were injured as a result, you may be entitled to financial compensation. There may be large cash settlements from claims filed.
The legal team at Hood National Law Group is currently accepting calls from those injured as part of the investigative process into possible PFOA Teflon lawsuits. Call the Hood National Law Group today at 1-800-214-1010 for a free case evaluation.