If Wilbur Earl Tennant’s cows hadn’t died from a mysterious wasting disease during the 1990s, the world might have never learned about the secret history of toxic forever chemicals.
Tennant was a West Virginia farmer whose family owned land near a DuPont factory on the Ohio River where the chemical giant made one of its signature inventions: Teflon nonstick and anti-stain coatings used in carpets, clothing, cookware and hundreds of other products.
The Tennants had sold some of their property to DuPont years earlier. Company officials told one of Tennant’s brothers in person and in writing they planned to turn it into a landfill for office garbage — nothing hazardous. A few years after the sale, Tennant suspected DuPont had filled the landfill with more than just garbage.
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Foam began appearing in a creek that meandered past the landfill before spilling into the Tennants’ pasture, he later testified in a court filing. Cows that drank from the creek had been healthy. Dozens began dramatically losing weight, dying even after Tennant doubled their feed on the advice of veterinarians who couldn’t determine what was killing the animals.
A videotape Tennant shot with a VHS camcorder shows emaciated cows with tumors on their hides. He focuses on the froth-covered creek before the tape cuts to a dissected calf with blackened teeth and oddly colored organs. “There is something wrong with this water,” Tennant says on the videotape. Lawyers in Parkersburg, West Virginia, turned him down when he urged them to sue DuPont, then one of area’s biggest employers.
But friends knew the grandson of one of their neighbors had become an environmental lawyer in Cincinnati. Call him, they suggested. On paper, Rob Bilott didn’t appear to be one of those crusading lawyers in legal thrillers. (He later would be played by actor Mark Ruffalo in the 2019 film “Dark Waters.”
Bilott’s law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, typically represents corporate clients like DuPont in environmental cases, not people like Tennant. “In short, I was playing for the opposite team,” Bilott recalled in his memoir about the lawsuit he ended up filing against DuPont — and the explosive aftermath.
During the years before DuPont settled the lawsuit — paying the Tennants an undisclosed amount without assigning blame for the dead cows — the company sent Bilott boxes of documents he requested through the normal court process. Nothing jumped out in page after page he reviewed, Bilott recalled. But a single letter, sent by a DuPont scientist to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, began unraveling a more alarming story.
The June 23, 2000, letter listed something in the landfill that didn’t appear in the other documents or in Taft’s chemical dictionaries. Nor was it on the list of substances regulated by the EPA. Bilott later determined it was one of the forever chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly referred to today as PFOA.
DuPont appeared to be concerned enough about PFOA that the company tested employees at the Teflon plant and found the chemical in their blood, the letter to the EPA revealed. Revelations by another chemical company gave Bilott leverage to go back into court and request more records from DuPont.
A month before DuPont’s letter about PFOA, the Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M announced it would stop making a chemical with a similar sounding name: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid or PFOS. For decades it had been the backbone of 3M’s Scotchgard brand of stain-resistant products. It turned out 3M also made PFOA and sold it to DuPont, which used the chemical cousin of Scotchgard to keep Teflon from clumping during production.
3M and DuPont have argued in court and in public statements that neither chemical is harmful to people at typical levels of exposure. But two years before 3M announced its phaseout in 2000, the company informed EPA officials for the first time that PFOA and PFOS accumulate in human blood, take years to leave the body and don’t break down in the environment.
Records obtained by Bilott showed DuPont had determined in 1961 that PFOA is toxic in animals. In 1970, a company that purchased 3M’s PFOS-based firefighting foam abruptly halted a demonstration after it killed fish in a nearby stream. Eight years later 3M paused one of its animal studies after every monkey fed PFOS died.
DuPont determined that PFOA passed from pregnant employees to their fetuses. Two of seven babies born to Teflon plant employees in 1981 had facial deformities similar to what 3M had found in newborn rats. Other testing by 3M found the compounds in apples, bread, green beans and ground beef. DuPont detected PFOA in the drinking water of communities near the Teflon plant. None of this information was shared with the public. DuPont and 3M kept the U.S. EPA in the dark for years, company and government records show.
Bilott also discovered that years before he sued DuPont on behalf of the Tennants, company scientists had tested the creek running through the family’s pasture. It was contaminated with high levels of PFOA. DuPont and the family settled the lawsuit soon after Bilott shared that information with one of the company’s lawyers, who had referred to PFOA in an email as “the material 3M sells us that we poop into the river and into drinking water.”