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Almost two decades ago, Carla Bartlett, a then 41-year -old West Virginia secretary and mother of two, was first diagnosed with cancer—what her surgeon later labeled a “garden variety” type of kidney cancer.
“I was scared to death,” Bartlett, now 59, told an Ohio federal jury this fall during hearings in the first of more than 3,500 personal injury and wrongful death suits by West Virginia and Ohio residents against the chemical giant DuPont. “And all I could think of was not being there, not being able to be there for my family.”
Bartlett’s tumor and part of her rib were removed in a surgery in 1997 that, she said, involved cutting her “virtually in half.” Though the cancer hasn’t recurred since, for Bartlett, the harm, both physical and emotional, has lingered. “It’s never out of my mind, because you worry constantly about it,” she said. “And then I have the reminder of the scar, every day, that, you know, this … this is … this was cancer; this could come back.”
On Oct. 7, 2015, after less than a day of deliberations, the jury found DuPont liable for Bartlett’s cancer, agreeing with the defendant that the company had for years negligently contaminated her drinking water supply in Tuppers Plain, Ohio with a toxic chemical formerly used to make its signature brand of nonstick coating: Teflon.
What makes the verdict remarkable is that unlike, say, mesothelioma—a form of lung cancer almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure—the renal cell carcinoma that struck Bartlett is not usually considered the calling card of a specific carcinogen. So it was difficult for her doctors to definitively say what had first made Bartlett sick—it could have been virtually anything. The $1.6 million the jury awarded to Bartlett—the product of decades’ worth of legal battles that unearthed reams of secret DuPont studies and internal emails—came despite the extreme difficulty of connecting common ailments to a specific chemical under the current U.S. legal system.
Proving that DuPont was legally culpable for Bartlett’s kidney cancer required years of extraordinarily innovative lawyering—and at times some plain dumb luck. The very improbability of that verdict demonstrates much that is flawed about the way this country regulates potentially dangerous chemicals. With no mandatory safety testing for the vast majority of the tens of thousands of chemicals used daily in America, doctors and public health officials have little information to guide them as they seek to identify potential health hazards—including the chemical, called C8, that DuPont knowingly allowed to pollute Bartlett’s drinking water. Bartlett’s travails are also a cautionary tale about C8, which has become so pervasive today that it’s found in virtually every American’s blood.
“Part of a diagnosis is: Well, tell me what you’ve been around,” one of Bartlett’s attorneys, Mike Papantonio, told the jury in opening arguments in the case. “Well, I drank my water. That doesn’t sound like a problem. It was a problem”
Teflon was first created, as many miracle chemicals were, in a laboratory accident. In 1938, Roy J. Plunkett, a DuPont chemist, was experimenting with refrigerants when he discovered a white waxy material that seemed very slippery. The material turned out to be an inert fluorocarbon—Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)—that had superior nonstick properties. In 1945, the company patented the chemical and registered it under the trademark “Teflon,” touting it as “the most slippery material in existence.” By 1948 DuPont was producing about 2 million pounds of Teflon a year at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. For DuPont, Teflon, which was used to coat pots and pans, proved to be a gold mine, with sales peaking at roughly a billion dollars a year in 2004, according to the company’s SEC filings.
Starting around 1951, DuPont began using another laboratory-formed chemical known as Perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) acid, or C8 (so called because it contains eight carbon molecules), to smooth out the lumpiness of freshly manufactured Teflon. An unusually durable chemical, C8 first entered the world in 1947 and due to its nonstick and stain-resistant properties its use as a “surfactant” spread with extraordinary speed. The white, powdery compound, often said to look like Tide laundry detergent, would ultimately be used in hundreds of products including fast food wrappers, waterproof clothing, electrical cables, and pizza boxes. (DuPont used to purchase C8 from another chemical company called 3M until 2002, when the company phased it out. DuPont then started manufacturing C8 on its own at a factory in Fayetteville, North Carolina).
The trouble was that the compound—which has since been linked to a variety of health risks including cancer, liver disease, developmental problems and thyroid disease—escapes into the air easily. In fact, C8 was often shipped to factories pre-mixed with water to keep the dust from worker’s lungs.