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EWG and Toxic Fluorinated Chemicals: 20 Years in the Fight Against PFAS
In 2001, attorney Robert Bilott filed a federal class-action suit against DuPont for polluting the drinking water of more than 70,000 people in and around Parkersburg, W.Va., with PFOA, a Teflon chemical known within the company as C8. Bilott also wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency, supplying thousands of documents detailing DuPont’s decades-long coverup of the hazards of PFOA.
The court filing and the EPA docket drew the attention of the Environmental Working Group. Our scientists and analysts began poring through the documents, digging into the scientific literature and publishing reports that were the first to bring national attention to the history, widespread use and worldwide pollution of PFOA and a myriad of other per- and polyfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. These chemicals, now known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and a still-growing list of other health problems.
In her definitive history of the DuPont case – “Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8” – West Virginia journalist Callie Lyons writes:
The public controversy over C8 might have been limited to a discussion of Teflon if not for the efforts of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit science and advocacy group that led the charge for stricter government controls for the entire family of perfluorinated chemicals, including 3M’s PFOS [and] DuPont’s PFOA.... Some of the most definitive evidence on the potential human health risks of C8 would not become public or available to the EPA ... until EWG became aware of the situation.
EWG published its first PFOA report in November 2002, a scientific critique of the inadequacy of the C8 safety limit set by West Virginia environmental officials. The next month, an EWG report revealed that in 1984, DuPont’s secret tests had found PFOA in the drinking water of Little Hocking, Ohio, across the river from the Parkersburg Teflon plant. The report also revealed that in 1981, DuPont had transferred all its female workers from areas of the plant where PFOA was used, after tests found it in workers’ blood and two of the children born to the women had birth defects.
Those reports laid the foundation for our subsequent work. We have continued to uncover evidence, analyze scientific studies, conduct our own investigations, document the spread of contamination and advocate for tougher regulation of this class of ubiquitous hazardous chemicals that pollute the bodies of almost all Americans. Here are highlights of that work:
December 2002. EWG nominates PFOA and PFOS for inclusion in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biomonitoring tests for environmental chemicals in Americans’ bodies. The CDC now includes PFAS in its tests and says the compounds are found in virtually all Americans.
April 2003. After conducting a review of 50,000 documents, EWG publishes “PFCs: Global Contaminants,” a groundbreaking investigation into the chemical industry’s decades of deception, the scope of the chemicals’ use in thousands of consumer products and the resulting contamination even in remote corners of the planet.
May 2003. Tests commissioned by EWG show that when heated on a stovetop, Teflon cookware may emit toxic particles and gases that can kill pet birds and make people sick.
July 2003. After uncovering internal 3M documents warning its researchers that food wrappers could be contaminated with PFAS chemicals, EWG writes to leading fast-food companies, demanding that they disclose whether they use PFAS-treated wrappers.
November 2004. After EWG brings Sue and Bucky Bailey – a former DuPont worker and her son, one of the Parkersburg children born with birth defects – to Capitol Hill to share their story, a report on ABC’s “20/20” tells a national TV audience “The Truth About Teflon.”
July 2005. Tests commissioned by EWG and Commonweal find nine different PFAS chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborn babies, showing that the compounds can pass from a pregnant woman to the developing fetus. Later tests of mother-daughter pairs, minority newborns and women environmental justice activists confirm the near-universal presence of PFAS chemicals in Americans’ blood and urine.
November 2005. EWG brings to national attention the testimony of Glenn Evers, a former DuPont engineer, stating that the company knew PFAS-treated food wrappers could be contaminated at levels far above federal safety standards but chose not to switch to safer alternatives.
December 2005. Acting on a petition filed by EWG, the EPA fines DuPont $16.5 million for its coverup of PFOA’s hazards – a record fine but less than 5 percent of the company’s profits in just one financial quarter. Three months later, under EPA pressure, DuPont and five other manufacturers agree to phase out PFOA and some closely related chemicals by 2015.
June 2008. An EWG investigation reveals that the chemical industry is rushing to market dozens of next-generation PFAS chemicals that may be no safer than the ones subject to the phaseout. We document how the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration are recklessly allowing the use of these compounds with little or no safety testing.
August 2008. EWG’s advocacy secures passage by California legislators of a bill that would have made the state the first to ban PFAS chemicals in food packaging. The bill is vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
January 2009. EWG’s review of water pollution studies in the scientific literature and in government dockets finds that PFOA pollutes tap water supplies in at least nine states and the District of Columbia. It is the first report to show that contamination of drinking water is not limited to the area around DuPont’s West Virginia Teflon plant.
May 2015. An in-depth EWG investigation details how – a decade after the EPA fined DuPont for the PFOA coverup – Americans are still threatened by PFAS and the victims of the company’s heinous actions are still awaiting justice. Released on the eve of the first trial in Rob Bilott’s class-action suit, the report helps spark a series of major news reports on the West Virginia case and the larger problem of nationwide PFAS contamination.
August 2015. EWG is first to report that new research by Dr. Philippe Grandjean of Harvard University and Richard Clapp, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Lowell finds that PFOA is harmful to human health at the tiniest imaginable dose – 1 part per trillion, thousands of times lower than the EPA’s non-binding health advisory level for PFOA in drinking water.
May 2016. EWG’s analysis of EPA-mandated tests finds that PFOA and/or PFOS have been detected at levels above the health advisory level in the tap water supplies of more than 5.2 million Americans in 19 states – the first report on the nationwide extent of PFAS drinking water contamination.
February 2017. EWG scientists are part of a research team whose peer-reviewed study finds that four of 10 samples of packaging from national fast-food restaurants likely have been treated with PFAS.
June 2017. EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, at Northeastern University, publish a nationwide map of known PFAS contamination. The map is based on utility tests that found the compounds in tap water supplies for 15 million Americans in 27 states. Regular updates of the map document a rapidly mounting crisis: As of July 2019, 712 locations – tap water supplies, industrial sites, waste dumps, military bases and military and civilian airports – in 49 states are known to be affected.
May 2018. An EWG analysis of unreleased EPA data – collected with taxpayers’ money but withheld from the public – estimates that up to 110 million Americans may have PFAS-contaminated tap water.
June 2019. EWG and the Environmental Defense Fund obtain and publish FDA presentation slides that reveal the agency found 16 different PFAS chemicals in food samples from eight states.
June 2019. EWG’s analysis of federal and state data identifies nearly 500 industrial sites where PFAS chemicals may have been released into the environment.
July 2019. Congress passes a major defense spending bill that includes important amendments requiring the Defense Department and the EPA to monitor and clean up PFAS chemicals nationwide. EWG worked doggedly to press Congress to act, meeting with hundreds of members and staff, providing reports and maps, testifying at key hearings and bringing PFAS victims to Washington.