A federal jury on Wednesday (Oct. 7) found DuPont liable for causing a West Virginia woman’s kidney cancer by poisoning her drinking water with a chemical used to make Teflon. The jurors ordered the company to pay $1.6 million in damages.
The jury in Columbus, Ohio, held that DuPont was guilty of negligence and infliction of emotional distress for deliberately discharging the chemical – a perfluorinated compound, or PFC, called PFOA – into the Ohio River, landfills and the air, and that the contamination caused the cancer that afflicted Carla Marie Bartlett, 59. Bartlett’s case was the first to go to trial of 3,500 lawsuits against the company for illnesses caused by the pollution of public water systems and private wells near DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, W. Va.
DuPont “made the Ohio River their personal toxic dumping ground so they could make more money on Teflon,” Bartlett’s lawyer, Mike Papantonio, said in closing arguments, as reported by Bloomberg Business. Despite DuPont’s callous disregard for the health of the community and its repeated efforts to hide the truth, however, the jury did not find that the company acted with malice.
Bartlett’s lawyers introduced as evidence internal DuPont documents that showed the company knew for decades that PFOA was hazardous, including a 1981 memo that reported a high level of birth defects in children of women who worked at the plant. DuPont never reported that or other damning information to the Environmental Protection Agency, a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act for which it was fined a record $16.5 million in 2005.
Lacking authority to ban PFOA, the EPA allowed DuPont to phase it out over 10 years. The chemical is no longer made or used in the U.S., but DuPont continues to make Teflon using an alternative nonstick chemical that was rushed to market without adequate safety testing.
In 2006 DuPont settled for more than $300 million a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of 70,000 residents of the region. Under its terms DuPont is paying to filter the water systems of six area towns. The settlement also funded an independent panel of scientists to study the health effects of PFOA.
The scientists concluded there was a probable link between PFOA and kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol, setting the stage for residents with any of those diseases to sue DuPont for personal damages – the cases now on trial. Since the science panel’s work, other researchers have found links between PFOA and low birth weight, early puberty, endocrine disruption, immune problems and other conditions.
In 2005, EWG and the public health non-profit Commonweal commissioned tests of newborns’ umbilical cord blood that showed PFCs can be passed from mother to child in the womb, and recent research has found that they can also be passed on through breastfeeding.
Through its use in Teflon and hundreds of other consumer products, PFOA has spread worldwide and contaminated the blood of virtually all Americans. As EWG reported earlier this year, EPA water testing has found PFOA in the drinking water of 6.5 million people in 27 states, and new science has shown that it is harmful in the tiniest doses – hundreds of times lower than EPA’s non-enforceable heath advisory level. EPA has spent more than a decade studying the health hazards of PFOA but says it won’t even decide whether to set a legal limit for four to six years.
Although DuPont was found liable Wednesday for Bartlett’s cancer, the $1.6 million penalty will be paid by Chemours, a new spinoff company that inherited DuPont’s specialty chemicals business along with its liability for PFOA pollution. DuPont is expected to appeal the verdict.
The next trial is set for Dec. 1. Following a verdict in that case, the remaining lawsuits will be consolidated into one trial, or DuPont and Chemours could offer to settle for a lump sum to be divided among the victims.