Sue Bailey said a simple job transfer at DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, changed her family forever.
It was April of 1980. Bailey, an entry-level operator at the facility, was moved to the Teflon unit where she came in contact with fumes from perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA or C8, the chemical that gives Teflon its nonstick properties.
Nine months later, Bailey’s son Bucky was born with facial deformities. Many doctors told her they had never seen anything like it before and were not sure he would survive. Now in his mid-30s, he has endured 30 surgeries.
A science panel formed to monitor health risks among Mid-Ohio Valley residents who lived near the plant, did not find a link between C8 exposure and birth defects.
But Bailey and others are not convinced.In a November 1982 memo, DuPont’s chief medical director, Dr. Bruce Karrh, expressed concern over employee exposure to C8. The company then barred women of child-bearing age from working around C8.
While links between C8 and some cancers and other illnesses have been found, there have been very few between C8 and birth defects. A couple, including one that found a connection to congenital heart defects in newborns, were disregarded because the sample sizes were too small.
“There could be lots of effects on subsequent generations, but the work is ongoing,” said Dr. Alan Ducatman, a professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine who has done studies on C-8 exposure. “These things are having an effect on you and me now. They are not inert in what they do to us.”
Bailey’s case is illustrative of the fears among many in the Mid-Ohio Valley about the long-term impact of C8 exposure, specifically what medical science may discover in the future.
It was March of 1980 and Bailey, working the night shift, had a simple job. All she had to do was make sure the machinery worked properly. As long as it did, she had little else to do.
The Teflon unit was a small, windowless room with a concrete floor. In the middle of that floor was a hole about the size of a basketball with a big drain and a pump resembling one used to inflate a bicycle tire, Bailey said. She was told by her foreman to put a ball in the drain hole and then prime the pump to stop the chemicals from leaking into the Ohio River, redirecting C8 to a pond just behind the Washington Works building. Bailey said the pond had no guards and described it as “green, nasty-looking with tar marks running through it.”
About a week after her transfer, Bailey was sitting down when the cylinders feeding the chemicals into the pump began to spill over. She asked her boss what do to and was instructed to squeegee the substance but do not put any water on it. If water was added, the chemical would have become soapy and slick. Bailey did as she was told. She wore no breathing apparatus or other safety clothing. She was never told what kind of chemical fumes she was breathing in the room with no ventilation.
The chemical overflows in the Teflon room would occur from time to time, Bailey said, adding that her skin never came into contact with C8.
Bailey worked in Teflon until the end of May, then was transferred back to the plant’s Lucite division. During her time in Teflon, she became pregnant with Bucky, but did not find out until after she was transferred.
During the pregnancy, Bailey thought something was different . Her hormones were up and down, but there was little to suggest anything was wrong. When the doctor told her about the deformities, she said she was stunned.
The roof of Bucky’s mouth was shaped like an upside-down “V,” which pushed his nose and eyes out of place. It also created breathing difficulties and doctors didn’t know if he would survive the night.
“I was scared to death that he was going to die in my arms,” Bailey said. “I was a basket case.”
He was soon transported to a children’s hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for surgery. When he finally went home, he had to sleep upright in a car seat.
When Bailey returned to work in 1981, she discovered a memo on a bench in the women’s locker room. It detailed a study by 3M, which sold C8 to DuPont, that detailed eye deformities in lab animals whose mothers were fed C8 during pregnancy. Bailey went to the plant’s medical doctor and asked if this is what happened to Bucky. The doctor denied a connection, according to Bailey, but arranged an appointment at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
DuPont maintains no link exists between Bailey’s exposure to C8 and her son’s deformities. Bucky, now 35, is married and expecting his first child later this year. The child will be healthy and free of the medical issues that have plagued his father, according to Bailey, who left the company in 1986.
Lawyers in Parkersburg refused to take her case in the early 1980s, citing fears, she said, of taking on one of the region’s largest employers.
“DuPont kept asking me if I was going to sue, but I said ‘no’ because no one would take my case,” she said.
Bailey is now involved in one of 3,500 lawsuits pending against the company over C8.
Despite the financial costs of Bucky’s surgeries, Bailey said she harbors no bitterness towards DuPont.
“The bitterness will eat you alive,” she said. “I went on with my life.”