Toxic Legacy: 'Teflon' Chemical Sticks Around In Water Supplies
For more than half a century along the Ohio River, the chemical company DuPont provided jobs for thousands of people. One chemical they produced is PFOA, commonly known as C8. It was a remarkably useful compound, used in “Teflon” non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and even in some food wrappers.
Over time, researchers have found that C8 is also toxic. DuPont and other companies phased out U.S. production a few years ago. Now it’s made in China.
But because the chemical can persist in water, communities along the Ohio River — and around the U.S. — are still grappling with the environmental fallout of contamination from C8 and similar chemicals. The ReSource generated a map using water testing data available from the U.S. EPA. It shows 12 water systems in 10 counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia where these chemicals were detected in the water.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory this year for C8 levels in drinking water, and many of the water systems that detected C8 and related chemicals found them at levels lower than the EPA advisory. However, a growing body of science indicates that the EPA advisory level is not sufficiently protective of human health, and many researchers recommend far more restrictive thresholds for exposure.
Communities across the country are dealing with levels of contamination well above the EPA’s new advisory level. One community especially affected by this toxic legacy is Vienna, West Virginia.
Vienna, West Virginia
This summer cars lined up in Vienna, a town of about 10,000 situated along the Ohio River. People were picking up jugs and cases of bottled water. Their tap water had been deemed unsafe – laced with a chemical known as C8. There wasn’t some sudden chemical spill. The chemical company DuPont polluted water here over the course of decades. But the federal government says C8 levels it once overlooked in the water are now considered unsafe.
“Up until the EPA lowered the standard, it really wasn’t an issue for us,” said Vienna mayor, Randy Rapp. “Once they lowered the standard, then it became a problem.”
Rapp was talking about a new health advisory issued by the Environmental Protection Agency this year. It says C8 levels in his and other community’s drinking water are too high.
This problem isn’t new to the people we spoke with in line. They’ve heard about C8 contamination by Dupont for years. But for generations the chemical company has been the biggest employer around Vienna. Many people, like resident Charles Swisher, are quick to defend them.
“It’s not fair to isolate DuPont,” Swisher said, “because a lot of people did things back a few years ago that were unethical, unhealthy. The thing that we need to do now is to be more solution-oriented.”
DuPont isn’t in charge of those solutions. It created a spin-off company, Chemours, which inherited this environmental legacy.
In response to the EPA’s C8 advisory, Chemours is paying for installation, maintenance and monitoring of giant carbon filters. (Think of your home water filter, but on a huge scale.) Vienna Mayor Rapp says he has “no idea” how much cleanup is costing. Chemours also wouldn’t say. But according to the company’s public documents cleanup has already cost millions. And still, the water aquifer is expected to be contaminated with C8 for hundreds of years.
Not everyone is defending the company. Larry Dale grew up around this part of the Ohio River, which is commonly referred to as “Chemical Valley.” His father and uncles all worked in chemical plants.
“My dad told me – and I’ll never forget this,” Dale said, “Find something else to do, but don’t work in a chemical plant.”
Dale listened. He’s a school bus driver and a retired preacher. But he and his family still live in the shadow of the chemical industry.
In his rural back yard outside of Washington, West Virginia, Dale stands on top of a hill next to his greenhouse, and points to the next ridge over, at DuPont’s landfill.
This is where DuPont dumped over 7,000 tons of C8 sludge. It leached out, polluted streams, and killed nearby livestock in the late 1990s. It’s not the only source of contamination. If you ask anyone where the C8 comes from today that has infiltrated the water aquifer the answer is always the same: “Everywhere.”
Where Science Meets Policy
The contamination in this region eventually lead to a broad medical study of affected residents in the early 2000s. Over 30,000 community members were involved. The study linked C8 to multiple health problems from cancer to reduced immune function. A series of additional health studies followed, and further proved that chemical compounds like C8 – which used to be blown out of smokestacks and scattered across the Ohio Valley – are dangerous, even in small doses.
“They stay in the body for a long time,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean of Harvard’s School of Public Health. He’s an expert on health effects of perfluorinated chemicals like C8. One of his latest studies looks at long term effects of these chemicals on the immune systems of exposed children.
“While they harm the immune system today,” Grandjean said, “they probably also will down the road. And that’s exactly what we found.”
Specifically, Grandjean found vaccines don’t work as well in children exposed to C8 at levels similar to those found throughout the U.S.
EPA officials say the C8 advisory levels were calculated to protect fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants, and was based on “the best available peer-reviewed studies.”
But Grandjean says the EPA’s advisory doesn’t go far enough. He worries it could even create a false sense of security.
“The new water limits will essentially maintain status quo or if worse comes to worse, actually increase levels that are typical for Americans,” he said. “If you drink that a lot of that water that is permissible, many Americans are likely to increase their body burden.”
Last year a coalition of scientists from around the world called for limits on C8 production altogether. Health officials in New Jersey are suggesting that C8 levels should be five times lower than what EPA advises (at about 14 parts per trillion). Grandjean’s work and other scientific studies have recommended an acceptable level of 1 part per trillion, which is what the European Union recommends for surface water.
Different Communities, Different Responses
When the EPA issued its advisory level it triggered a range of responses from affected communities. For water systems like Vienna’s, where the levels were above the EPA threshold, action was required.
The city of Martinsburg, in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, shut down one water-filtration plant in May after detecting high levels of PFOS. PFOS is a chemical related to C8 that was used in flame-retardant foams often used at military bases and airports. Martinsburg is home to an Air Force base which is investigating possible sources of pollution.
Many other water systems, however, detected PFAS chemicals at levels that fall somewhere in a range below EPA’s health advisory but well above what scientists such as Grandjean have recommended. These communities include: Louisville and part of Pendleton County, in Kentucky; Gallia County, Ohio; and Parkersburg, West Virginia.
“Whatever the Rules Are”
In Vienna, West Virginia, Mayor Randy Rapp just wants to get city’s water to the EPA’s acceptable level.
“I just try to live by whatever the rules are,” Rapp said. “When they tell us what our water quality has to be, that is what we attain.”
Meanwhile, DuPont’s spin-off company isn’t producing C8 anymore. However, the substitute for C8 It’s using variations of the chemical known to have the potential for many of the same ecological and health effects.
This story is part of Allegheny Front's Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with Allegheny Front.