Sustainability Now: Episode 1, Dupont’s History with PFAS
This podcast discusses the claim that Dupont made regarding their discontinued use of PFAS chemicals in their facilities. Despite this claim, Dupont’s facilities are continuing to discharge PFAS from their facilities as of the year 2019. I analyze this claim and the evidence refuting it through the lens of Environmental Geopolitics.
Hello everyone and welcome to Sustainability Now. I’m your host, Megan Smith. Today we will be discussing the claim that DuPont is no longer discharging PFOA when in reality, they’ve been continuing to discharge toxic forever chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The claim comes from the agreement that DuPont made in 2015 to stop using PFOA in their facilities. However, the EPA discovered that both DuPont and it’s spin-off company Chemours are continuing to discharge PFOA and other PFAS from their facilities. PFAS is a class of chemicals that are used to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, and PFOA is one of these chemicals. These chemicals have previously been used to make Teflon and other products that have been used in homes across the United States and the world. However, studies have shown that exposure to these chemicals can be harmful and even toxic to humans and animals. There’s still a lot that is unknown about these chemicals and their effects, but what we do know is that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Today, we will analyze Dupont’s claim regarding their practices through the lens of Environmental Geopolitics, which asks three questions about a claim: How are the role and the meaning of the environment described in specified? What is the role of human agency within this time? And lastly, what is the spatial focus of this particular claim? These three questions will help us get a better understanding of what is being included in this claim what is being left out, and why?
First of all, let’s discuss what the term “the environment” means in the context of this story. For the purpose of time, I will be focusing largely on the impacts of PFOA and PFAS on aquatic ecosystems as their contamination is most prevalent there. According to Monica Amarelo with the Environmental Working Group, it is estimated that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water. It is estimated that the concentration of PFAS in these drinking water sources could be at one part per trillion or higher. While the concentration that has been deemed safe for consumption is one part per trillion.
David Andrew, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, has said that when they go looking for PFAS contamination, they almost always find it. Additionally, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, over 450 industrial facilities could be discharging PFAS into the water as of 2019. This is concerning because it means that PFAS has made its way into water supplies across the country and could be having negative effects on human and environmental health. However, the impacts of PFAS in terrestrial ecosystems is still largely unknown. While PFAS poses a larger threat in aquatic ecosystems because it is water-soluble and does not bind soil or sediment, this class of chemicals could be problematic in terrestrial ecosystems due to its indefinite persistence in the environment.
One concerning aspect of this problem is the lack of regulations on PFOA and other PFAS chemicals, which brings us to the subject of human agency within this story. Human agency is something that is often overlooked in stories about environmental contamination and degradation. In the context of environmental geopolitics, human agency can mean a variety of things. However, in this case, the term human agency can be defined as responsibility. In this story, DuPont and the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, are the two organizations with the most human agency. They’re the two actors that have had the most responsibility for the damage done to the environment with PFAS.
While it may be true that DuPont is no longer actively producing PFOA and other PFAS chemicals, it is still concerning that detectable levels of these chemicals are being discharged from their facilities. It is up to Dupont to remedy this problem and ensure that they are no longer contributing to PFAS contamination in the environment. Additionally, the exact amount of PFAS that DuPont has emitted is unknown. But Dupont made and used PFAS chemicals from the 1940s all the way to 2013 when they received pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to switch to an alternative. While DuPont is largely to blame for the pollution of PFAS, it is also important to understand that they were able to profit off the use of these toxic chemicals due to lack of oversight and regulation.
According to Michael Kourabas, a corporate social responsibility lawyer, Dupont was able to get away with this widespread contamination because there was almost nobody paying attention. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, even if a significant risk is identified by the EPA, they’re not required to take action to address that risk. This is just one of the things that has led to the widespread use and pollution of PFAS chemicals. Currently, there are no federally enforced limits on concentrations of PFAS, drinking water, groundwater, or soil, nor are there any requirements to clean up PFAS under federal law. This lack of regulations has allowed companies like DuPont to pollute and contaminate ecosystems throughout the United States, and PFAS has quickly become a worldwide problem.
This brings us to the question of the spatial dimensions of this story. While the focus of this analysis has been and will remain the United States, PFAS is a global problem. According to Melanie Benesh with the Environmental Working Group, PFAS is found in the blood of almost every single person on Earth, even newborn babies. Additionally, DuPont has operations in over 40 countries around the world, and it is very likely that some of these countries have few to no regulations of PFOA and other PFAS.
In the United States, however, PFAS contamination has been detected in every single state and is focused in the East Coast and Ohio River Valley areas. According to a map by the Environmental Working Group, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts have the largest number of sites contaminated by PFAS. These areas are considered hotspots for PFAS contamination and residents of these areas are likely being exposed to PFAS at a higher frequency than individuals in places with less contamination.
To conclude this discussion of DuPont’s claim that they’re no longer discharging PFOA or other PFAS chemicals, let’s recap the main points of the story using the environmental geopolitical framework.
First, we established the role and meaning of the environment in this story as being largely aquatic ecosystems. The environment in this story is aquatic ecosystems because PFAS are most concentrated there due to the fact that they are water soluble and often contaminate groundwater supplies. This is concerning because we do not currently have adequate filtration systems for PFAS chemicals, meaning that PFOA and other PFAS can make their way into the water that we drink on a daily basis. This can cause serious human health problems in addition to the problems that causes in aquatic ecosystems.
The role of humans in stories about the environment is often overlooked, but it is something that is integral to this claim and the story that accompanies it. The two groups with the most human agency in this story are Dupont themselves, as they were the ones that discharged PFOA in the first place, and the Environmental Protection Agency for their lack of regulation and oversight regarding PFAS chemicals. These two organizations share the responsibility of PFAS contamination and also have the obligation to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t continue to happen.
Finally, we discussed the spatial dimensions of the story and talked a bit about where in the United States PFAS pollution is most common. These chemicals are found in the blood of virtually every person on the planet, but are likely most concentrated in these areas where there are many sites of PFAS contamination.
PFOA and PFAS chemicals are pervasive and persistent part of our lives, and they’ve already done irreversible damage to individuals and ecosystems alike. It is up to us now to ensure that these chemicals are no longer discharged into our environment, and we work together to clean up the ones that already have them.
Thank you so much.
“Deep Relaxation” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under CC BY 4.0
Amarelo, Monica. 2020. “Study: More Than 200 Million Americans Could Have Toxic PFAS In Their Drinking Water.” Environmental Working Group, October 14, 2020. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/study-more-200-million-americans-could-have-toxic-pfas-their-drinking.
Benesh, Melanie. 2020. “Why are Dupont and Chemours Still Discharging the Most Notorious ‘Forever Chemical’?” Environmental Working Group, October 26, 2020. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news/why-are-dupont-and-chemours-still-discharging-most-notorious-for ever-chemical.
De La Garza, Alejandro. 2019. “Dark Waters Tells the True Story of the Lawyer Who Took Dupont to Court and Won, But Rob Bilott’s Fight is Far From Over.” Time, November 25, 2019. https://time.com/5737451/dark-waters-true-story-rob-bilott/.
Dupont. 2014. “Dupont de Nemours, Inc. Safety, Health, and Environmental Commitment.” Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.dupont.com/position-statements/safety-health-and-environment-commitment.html
Environmental Protection Agency. 2021. “PFAS Explained.” Accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-explained.
Environmental Working Group. 2021. “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.” Environmental Working Group. Accessed October 4, 2021. https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/map/.
Formuzis, Alex. 2019. “Dupont Made Billions Polluting Tap Water with PFAS; Will Now Make More Cleaning It Up.” Environmental Working Group, December 12, 2019. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/dupont-made-billions-polluting-tap-water-pfas-will-now-make-more.
Hoffman, Kate, Thomas F. Webster, Scott M. Bartell, Marc G. Weisskopf, Tony Fletcher, and Verónica M. Vieira. 2011. “Private Drinking Water Wells as a Source of Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) in Communities Surrounding a Fluoropolymer Production Facility.” Environmental Health Perspectives 119(1): 92-97. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002503.
Kourabas, Michael. 2016. “The Case of Dupont’s Pollution and the Importance of Corporate Social Responsibility.” Triple Pundit, January 11, 2016. https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2016/case-duponts-pollution-and-importance-csr/29241.
Post, Gloria B., Perry D. Cohn, and Keith R. Cooper. 2012. “Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an emerging drinking water contaminant: A critical review of recent literature.” Environmental Research 116: 93-117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2012.03.007.
Rouda, Harley. “Environment Subcommittee to Hold Third Hearing on PFAS Contamination and the Need for Corporate Accountability.” House Committee on Oversight and Reform, September 9, 2019. https://oversight.house.gov/news/press-releases/environment-subcommittee-to-hold-third-hearing-on-pfas-contamination-and-the.
Rouda, Harley. “The Devil They Knew: PFAS Contamination and the Need for Corporate Accountability, Part II.” House Committee on Oversight and Reform, September 10, 2019. https://oversight.house.gov/legislation/hearings/the-devil-they-knew-pfas-contamination-and-the-need-for-corporate-0.