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Chemical Giant DuPont Covered Up Health Risks of Teflon Contamination Across Globe

The widely-used chemical C8 is highly toxic.

Broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival, we are joined by three guests who personally battled with DuPont and are featured in the new documentary called “The Devil We Know,” that looks at how former DuPont employees, residents and lawyers took on the chemical giant to expose the danger of the chemical C8, found in Teflon and countless household products — from stain- and water-resistant apparel to microwave popcorn bags to dental floss. The chemical has now been linked to six diseases, including testicular and kidney cancers. We speak with Bucky Bailey, whose mother worked in the Teflon division of a DuPont plant in West Virginia while she was pregnant with him, and who was born with only one nostril and a deformed eye and has undergone more than 30 surgeries to fix the birth defects; Joe Kiger, lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against DuPont, and a school teacher in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who suffered from liver disease; and Rob Bilott, the attorney that brought DuPont to court.


AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Nearly 70 years ago, the chemical giant DuPont introduced a product that would transform how people around the world cook: nonstick Teflon pans.

HOME COOK: Oh! Well, good thing it’s Teflon.

NARRATOR: Even burned food won’t stick to Teflon, so it’s always easy to clean. Cookware never needs scouring, if it has DuPont Teflon.

AMY GOODMAN: The chemicals in the product, C8, went on to be used in countless household products, from stain- and water-resistant apparel to microwave popcorn bags to dental floss. But DuPont had a secret it never told the American public or many of its own workers: C8 is highly toxic. But that didn’t stop them from discharging C8 into the waterways around its manufacturing plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. It’s now been linked to six diseases, including testicular and kidney cancers. The chemical has been used so widely, it’s now in the bloodstream of 99 percent of Americans, even newborn babies. And the chemical is bioresistant, meaning it does not break down.

The struggle to discover the truth about C8 and hold DuPont accountable is the subject of a stunning new documentary that premiered here at Sundance. It’s called The Devil We Know. The film is based in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

JOE KIGER: Everybody in this area, in one way or another, is connected to DuPont. You go dealing with somebody’s livelihood, which is their job, which is their insurance and their protection, and you go messing with that, you’re going to have problems.

AMY GOODMAN: The documentary The Devil We Know looks at how former DuPont employees, residents and lawyers took on DuPont.

MIKE PAPANTONIO: They wanted to believe that it was just people in the factory that were affected by all this. But, unfortunately, they had clear information that the levels of exposure for people outside the factory were actually higher than the people who worked in the factory. But when they determined, should we tell people outside the factory, they didn’t. They kept it a secret. Their own scientists, again and again — their own lawyers, in fact — told them, “You know, we really should — we should tell people about this, because they’re drinking it in their water.”

SHARON LERNER: DuPont became aware that the chemical had seeped beyond its plant, and they wanted to figure out how far it had gotten. So a team went out with some jugs, plastic jars, and went to general stores and went miles downriver to collect samples. They didn’t say why they were collecting samples or that they were from the company, but, in testing these samples, found that, in fact, the chemical had gone quite far from the plant.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re joined by three guests who personally battled with DuPont and are featured in the film The Devil We Know. Bucky Bailey’s mother worked in the Teflon division of a DuPont plant in West Virginia while she was pregnant. Bucky was born with one nostril and a deformed eye. He has undergone more than 30 surgeries to fix the birth defects. Joe Kiger was lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against DuPont. He was a school teacher in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who suffered from liver disease. And Rob Bilott is with us, the attorney that brought DuPont to court. In 2016, The New York Times Magazine ran a profile of him headlined “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” In 2017, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. Bucky Bailey, Joe Kiger and Rob Bilott are joining us here at Park City TV in Park City, Utah.

Welcome, all, to Democracy Now! Joe, I’d like to begin with you. Why don’t you tell us your story, when you start to realize something was wrong in your town?

JOE KIGER: Well, I was sitting out in my courtyard, and the wife was watering the flowers and so on. The mail went. She went out and got the mail, opened it up, and there was a bill there from the Lubeck Public Services District, which supplies our water. And she told me, she said, “Honey,” she said, “there’s a letter here from Lubeck Public Service.” I said, “Well, let me see it.” She handed it to me. I read it. It was a form letter. And in that letter, it stated the fact that there was a chemical in our water, and it was called C8, but according to DuPont standards, it wasn’t harmful. So, I didn’t think anything about it, put it down.

But within the next month or so, I started noticing more things: dogs with tumors, people with tumors, people getting ill, getting sick and everything. But the one that really got me was the little girl that had black teeth. Her teeth started turning black.

AMY GOODMAN: Totally black.

JOE KIGER: Yeah, they started at the top, and then they started to — and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. And I told the wife, I said, “You know, we got a letter from DuPont, something about our water, some chemical.” I said, “I just got a gut feeling. I want to look at that.” So, the more I read it and went over it and over it, the more red flags started popping up. I said, “Yeah, something’s not right here.”

So, I started calling the local agencies. First of all, I called DuPont, talked to a lady down there. She didn’t really give me any answers, so I started calling the Department of Natural Resources. I thought, “Well, they’ll surely be…” They blew me off. The Health Department was almost rude. And so, anyway, I called several agencies, to make a long story short, couldn’t get any answer. And I finally, you know — I just — oh, and I called Gerald Kennedy, the head toxicologist from DuPont. He and I talked for probably 45 minutes to an hour, hung the phone up. And the wife said, “Well, what did you find out?” I said, “I was just fed the biggest line of BS I’ve ever been fed.”

So, that, in turn, got me to call the national EPA. I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been at this for about nine months. And called up there and got a hold of a gentleman. He sent me some papers. He told me, he said, “You read them over.” He said, “You may want to contact a lawyer.” And that’s when I got a hold of Mr. Bilott. We put things together, and it started from there.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bucky Bailey, tell us your story. Well, start with your mom.

BUCKY BAILEY: So, my mother worked directly with the C8 chemical, directly on the line of production. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Of Teflon, in particular, the DuPont plant.

BUCKY BAILEY: Yes, ma’am. And she was removed when she was pregnant with me, from the line, stating safety reasons. And after that, she had no inclinations or had no reports from the doctor that I was going to have deformities, and was taken aback by that and began to question, as things began to come together with different things. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me, when you were born, what were the challenges you faced?

BUCKY BAILEY: Many. I wasn’t given a day to live. Doctors came in and told my parents, brutally, “Don’t get your hopes up. He may not make it through the night.”

AMY GOODMAN: What was wrong?

BUCKY BAILEY: I wasn’t breathing properly. My mother was devastated. She was having to sit me up just so I could breathe. The nurses, no one wanted to touch me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe your nose and your eye when you were born?

BUCKY BAILEY: Yes. So I was born with one nostril. Completely, I have a serrated eyelid and a keyhole pupil.

AMY GOODMAN: Which means, a keyhole pupil?

BUCKY BAILEY: My pupil is off to the right. And I have light conception and some image visibility, but I cannot read out of it.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, did she immediately link it to her work at DuPont?

BUCKY BAILEY: At the time, she was bewildered. She did receive a phone call, that gave her suspicion, wondering about my status, not about how she was or anything moving forward, which, at the time, caught her off guard completely, because DuPont was such a great company. It was the status quo to be a part of DuPont.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say it’s fair to say it was a company town?

BUCKY BAILEY: Absolutely. Unequivocally.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to a video that the West Virginia cattle farmer Wilbur Tennant shot on his property in the 1990s, after he sold part of his land to DuPont for what the company had assured him would be a non-hazardous landfill. This is Tennant filming a stream.

WILBUR TENNANT: That water shouldn’t look like that. There’s something a little wrong with this water. This stuff comes on down this stream of water. What effect will this anti-sudsing solution have on the livestock? I’ve taken two dead deer and two dead cattle off of this ripple right here. And they tell me the deer died with hemorrhing disease. Well, he was hemorrhing disease all right. The blood run out of their nose and out of their mouth.

But they’ve never — DNR has never checked into it. They need — the EPA of the state of West Virginia, they’re trying to cover this stuff up. But it’s not going to be covered up, because I’m going to bring it out in the open for people to see.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s video shot by the farmer Wilbur Tennant on his property in Parkersburg, West Virginia, after he sold part of the land to the — DuPont for a landfill. A year later, he filmed what happened to his cows.

WILBUR TENNANT: You can see she’s hemorrhaged out the nose. You call this hemorrhing disease or whatever you want to call it, but this cow died with extremely high fever. You see the discoloration in the hair here on her neck. This is 153 of these animals that I’ve lost on this farm. And the state veterinarian, Doc Thomas, he won’t come up here, do anything about it. And every veterinarian that I’ve called in Parkersburg, they will not return my phone calls, or they don’t want to get involved.

So, since they don’t want to get involved, I’ll have to dissect this thing myself. And I’m going to save the parts of it, and I’m going to start at this head of it. One of the things I’ve noticed right off is the discoloration of these jaw teeth. This is on the top. And here’s his tongue. I don’t know what those little red spots are in there on the bottom part of that thing’s tongue. I don’t know. This is very unusual here. Looks like milk coming up on that meat tissues. And I never saw nothing like this in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s video shot by the farmer Wilbur Tennant on his property in Parkersburg, West Virginia, after he sold part of his land to DuPont for what he thought was going to be a non-hazardous landfill. And, Rob Bilott, that brings you into the picture. How did you get involved?

ROB BILOTT: Well, I got a call from Mr. Tennant. It was back in 1998, just out of the blue, and didn’t recognize the voice on the other end. And then he mentioned that my grandmother, who actually had grown up in that area, my mom’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Your grandmother.

ROB BILOTT: Yes, my mom’s family was from Parkersburg. Mr. Tennant was having trouble getting any lawyer in town to talk to him, because, as you indicated, this was a company town. A lot of people work for the company, work for DuPont. So, he had to reach outside of the local area to find somebody who would talk to him. And he called me and was explaining that he was having all these troubles with his cows. And could he come to our offices and bring videotapes and photographs and show us what he was seeing? So, when I heard that this was coming through my grandmother, I said, “Sure, come on up and bring your materials.” So he came to our offices.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to be clear, they heard you were some kind of environmental lawyer.

ROB BILOTT: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: But you were actually representing corporations.

ROB BILOTT: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had worked with DuPont lawyers.

ROB BILOTT: Right, right. Our law firm had typically done a lot of work for big chemical companies. And, in fact, I had spent the prior eight years of my career working for big chemical companies, doing environmental law, helping with permitting issues. And this seemed like something we could help him with, because what was happening was these cows were drinking white foaming water that was being discharged from a landfill. So, we assumed we could pull the permits, we could find out what was happening. So he brought his videotapes and photographs up to us. We took a look at it, and we realized something really bad was happening here. You could see the white foaming water coming out of a discharge pipe marked “DuPont Company.” So, we agreed to take that case on, back in 1999.

And at that point, we started looking through the — everything that was regulated and listed and permitted in the landfill, and really couldn’t figure out what was causing this problem. It was about a year later, after digging through lots and lots of documents, that we found a document that mentioned something called PFOA. And it was something I had never heard of. So I went to our standard environmental libraries to try to research what this chemical was, and we really couldn’t find any information about it. And it was at that point we started asking the DuPont Company for information about this PFOA chemical, because it was something they indicated had been put it in that landfill.

So, that began the fight. We got a lot of pushback from the company about giving us this information. And after a lot of battling back and forth, we started getting these internal documents from DuPont. And then we started putting the story together about what the company had known about this chemical, how widely it had been used for over 50 years, that 7,000 tons of it had been put into the landfill, that was then discharging into Mr. Tennant’s creek. And, most disturbingly, we learned that not only had the chemical been disposed of in this landfill, it was being pumped into the Ohio River, it was going up the stacks for decades from the plant. And what we saw was that DuPont had known since the early 1980s this was in the drinking water of the entire community surrounding the plant.

We eventually were able to settle the farmer’s case. But at that point we knew the entire community was drinking this and had not been told. So, I put a letter together in March of 2001, putting a lot of these internal documents together, and sent it to the United States EPA to alert them, and to the state of West Virginia: There is a chemical in the water that people are drinking, and it’s even above standards that even though the federal agencies hadn’t regulated, DuPont scientists had said you shouldn’t have it above one part per billion in the water. And it was way above that, in the local water. So we alerted the agencies in 2001, “Please, come in and do something. Start regulating this.”

And the community started to learn about it. That’s how Joe learned about it. And what we saw in these documents were the studies that DuPont was doing internally, including looking at pregnancy outcome, including with Bucky’s mother, and the results of the blood testing and birth defects study that DuPont had done, with Bucky, in the early 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, this is amazing, Bucky. They are following you, but you don’t realize that, and your mom doesn’t realize this. They are not giving you information. They’re just taking information but not giving it to the public.

BUCKY BAILEY: Correct. They denied it to my mom, face to face, over the phone, many times. There was nothing wrong. They weren’t monitoring. It was just standard practice for them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back to hear what the DuPont lawyers were saying, how they helped to really lead a cover-up that would end up polluting the bodies of 99 percent, not only of the people of Parkersburg, but of the United States. Does Gore-Tex ring a bell? Teflon? We’re going to find out the list of products that use C8, and what ultimately happened to C8 and chemicals that are being used today to replace it. This is Democracy Now! The Devil We Know. Stay with us.

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