POLITICS

‘Profit Over the Public’s Health’: Study Details Efforts by Makers of Forever Chemicals to Hide Their Harms

He was born with only one nostril, and a keyhole-shaped pupil in his right eye covered by a deformed lid. His condition was so grave that physicians warned his mother that he might not survive more than a few hours after his birth. 

He survived, and his early childhood was marked by dozens of surgeries to address the birth defects that his mother, a worker at a DuPont plant in West Virginia, initially struggled to explain.

But still—years after evidence began to emerge that the chemical manufacturer engaged in a cover-up about the dangers of so-called “forever chemicals”—Bucky Bailey, now 42, wondered if the ailments that he and so many other people suffered might have all just been a catastrophic, but unmalicious mistake. Then he began reviewing decades of DuPont’s own confidential files, which were made public through a raft of court proceedings over the past 20 years.

“That was the clinching point for me,” Bailey said in an interview on Thursday. “I was always kind of, like, ‘Well, maybe they just didn’t know. Maybe they really were just saying, ‘This was just an anomaly.’ And to see these documents where they were talking about it, they knew about it, and they chose to completely ignore it….”

Bailey’s voice trailed off.

“They definitely took that same page from the tobacco industry where it continues to be all about money,” he said.

A recent peer-reviewed study has found that Bailey’s comparison is an appropriate one. A group of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco conducted a detailed analysis of hundreds of pages of previously secret documents from DuPont and 3M that outlined the efforts by the companies to hide the risks associated with the group of man-made chemicals commonly known by the acronym PFAS (pronounced: pee-fass) which stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS chemicals are so potent and so resistant to decay that they are commonly called “forever chemicals.” Since their creation in the 1940s, they have become so widespread that they are now believed to be in the bloodstream of virtually everyone on the planet.

Exposure to forever chemicals, researchers say, can increase the risk of cancer and a range of other health problems. The substances, which were often used in the manufacture of non-stick pans, firefighting foam and water-resistant products, are also believed to be present in most of the world’s waterways.

The files concerning PFAS from DuPont and 3M—the two largest makers of forever chemicals—contain internal memos, external correspondence, the results of concealed scientific studies and more stretching over the course of a half century, first came into public view more than 20 years ago.

That’s when the environmental lawyer Robert Bilott secured the documents through a court order and shared his findings with the Environmental Protection Agency in a 19-page letter that described the substances as an imminent threat to public health.

Earlier this year, more than two decades after Billot’s warning, federal officials began taking the first steps to ban the substances.

Officials at 3M, who last year said that they would stop producing the chemicals by 2025, announced Thursday they had reached a $10.3 billion settlement in a series of lawsuits that would require them to remediate PFAS contamination in public water systems.

The 3M settlement came weeks after officials at DuPont agreed to pay $1.1 billion to resolve a similar set of lawsuits that they faced over water contamination.

Researchers who examined the confidential papers of the two companies said that those settlements, while a step in the right direction, should be considered only part of remedying the harms caused by the chemical manufacturer.

Studying the documents from the corporations helps to broaden the understanding of how industry sources manipulate and withhold scientific data for financial gain, the researchers said. It also underscores the importance of greater transparency in crafting regulations.

“The point of this analysis and the work we’re doing is to understand—in the industry’s own words—how they’re manipulating science and the communication of science towards the benefit of profit over the public’s health,” Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and one of the authors of the study, said in an interview. “The ultimate goal is providing sunshine on this—and transparency is an antiseptic to the harms that the industry is promoting.”

That transparency, Woodruff said, can be instructive for both policymakers and the public at large.

“The industry is telling us that they knew about this,” Woodruff said. “It’s not like I’m accusing them of something. I’m just showing that they knew it was harmful and they were lying to their employees and the public about the health harms of this chemical. So what this means from a public policy standpoint is we need to have strong disclosure laws about what types of scientific information the industry knows about the products that they’re making.”

Nadia Gaber, a postdoctoral scholar in reproductive sciences and the study’s lead author, said the documents the researchers examined had been obtained through litigation and donated to the University of California, San Francisco. The university has also made them available to the public through this website. The research by Gaber and her colleagues was published this month in the journal, Annals of Global Health.

Gaber said the researchers compared the statements in the companies’ confidential documents to information that was publicly available to construct a timeline of who knew what and when about PFAS.

She said that by using that method, researchers determined that industry officials had waited at least two decades—from 1970 until the 1990s—before disclosing to the public the harms of forever chemicals.

“Even when they had suspicions that the products were harmful—even to their own employees—they downplayed that,” Gaber said in an interview. “And we were able to kind of both draw out from these first hand documents how they did that.”

For Bilott, a longtime goal has been to ensure that these documents are in the hands of the public, the scientists and the regulators. 

“These are important pieces of information for folks to understand how much was known about the risks from these chemicals and the actions that have been taken to try to cover this up for many, many years,” he said. 

“It just highlights how important it is for information like this to be accessible and available,” Bilott said of the research.

‘I Am the Proof’

One of the DuPont employees who was harmed by those chemicals was Bucky Bailey’s mother, Sue, who in the early 1980s was a worker at the company’s plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. There, she was assigned to work with a chemical known as “C-8” because of the eight carbon atoms that formed the backbone of its structure. The scientific name for “C-8” is perfluorooctanoic acid, which is a forever chemical used in products like Teflon.

“She worked in the same room where the chemical was processed and filtered,” Bucky Bailey said. “She had the task to actually squee-gee this into a big basin where the sump pump pumped it out back to some reservoir. And without any sort of breathing apparatus, no safety gear, really. This was all while she was pregnant with me.”

When Bailey was born, in January 1981, his alarmed mother—who had gotten word that DuPont had been transferring pregnant women out of the Teflon manufacturing division—asked company officials if his birth defects were related to the chemicals she had been working with.

At some point, she’d also learned of a study conducted by 3M officials in which pregnant rats who were exposed to forever chemicals gave birth to pups who, like Bailey, had eye deformities.

“She called DuPont, like, ‘Is this what happened to my baby?’” Bailey said of his mother. “They were like, no, no, no, you know. Rest assured that that’s not what happened.”

The documents studied by researchers include a confidential memo from March 1981 in which DuPont officials describe identifying 50 women at the Parkersburg plant who were exposed to C-8 chemicals.

The university’s files also include a secret document created a month later showing that company officials knew that 2 out of 8 babies born to women employees at Parkersburg had eye defects. Although the children and their mothers are unnamed, that document includes an apparent reference to 4-month-old Bucky Bailey who is identified as “Child—4 months. One nostril and eye defect.”

Bailey, who now lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two children—7 and 4 (he describes them as “whole and healthy”), speaks with an almost matter-of-fact tone when describing how he has had to live out his life defined by the consequences of DuPont’s production of forever chemicals, and its evasiveness and lies about them.

Bucky Bailey, 42, with his wife Melinda and their children Ethan and Ava. Credit: Courtesy Bucky Bailey
Bucky Bailey, 42, with his wife Melinda and their children Ethan and Ava. Credit: Courtesy Bucky Bailey

By his count, he had 30 surgeries before the age of 5 and his face has been reconstructed with a metal plate, rib cartilage and skin grafts. He recalled visiting a group of physicians at George Washington University who told him that they’d never seen someone with the range of deformities that he had.

When Bailey was 25 he met the environmental lawyer Bilott and joined a class-action suit against DuPont that was settled in 2017 for $670 million. A science panel linked C-8 to several diseases, and while Bailey said it helped many people, for him, it wasn’t good news: “They couldn’t assign any of my birth deformities to the chemical,” he said, adding that because of a legal technicality regarding the class action suit, he is unable to pursue any further legal action against DuPont. “And so I kind of pressed on.”

On Bailey’s public Facebook profile, his background image says: “I am the proof.”

“In that whole science panel they couldn’t find any direct link between the deformities, even though their documentation shows there was in the 3M studies,” he said. “I am the proof, all the proof that I need to know that this happened. And you can be the proof—just because you’re a singular case of whatever is happening in your life—you can still stand on that and not be told, you know, it’s not true by someone else.”

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Bailey lauded the work of researchers in the recent study of the secret documents. “Examining it furthermore,” he said of the falsehoods put forth by the chemical manufacturers, “is just only going to pull back the curtain.”

Bailey said he hopes that sharing his personal story is also part of that effort.

“My parents were shocked when I was born and I wasn’t breathing properly,” Bailey said. “The doctors were nervous, the nurses were frantic. And after everything kind of settled down, after I was delivered, the doctors came in and said, ‘Look, he isn’t going to make it past the night, we just can’t stabilize his breathing.’ And, you know, my parents and myself being very centered around our faith in Christ—I’m still here, thank the Lord.”

And he primarily champions one thing now: bringing an end to the production of all forever chemicals for the health of people, animals and our planet.

“Can we just stop making the chemical? It’s everywhere already, you know, Can we just get less of it? Is that okay if we just stop pouring this into our bodies because it’s all around the world and we’ve got to start somewhere.”

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