The Hidden Danger: How the Chemical Industry Knew Their Products Were Harmful, But Kept Silent

The chemical industry, like the tobacco and oil industries, was aware of the harms of the product they produced, but voluntarily withheld knowledge because it would have damaged their profits. Earlier, secret industry documents show that DuPont and 3M, the largest manufacturers of PFAS, the so-called “everlasting chemicals,” were analyzed, revealing that the companies knew about the negative effects at least 21 years before it became public knowledge.

“DuPont had evidence of PFAS toxicity from internal animal studies and professional studies that they did not publish in the scientific literature or report their findings to the EPA, as required under TSCA. All of these documents were labeled ‘confidential,’ and in some cases, industry executives explicitly state that they ‘wanted to destroy that memo,'” the authors wrote in a new article.

PFAS, perfluorinated alkylated substances, have a huge range of applications, from nonstick pans to waterproof and stain-resistant materials, foam suppressant for firefighting and even for jet engines. They are extremely stable and do not degrade, which is why they have been nicknamed “everlasting chemicals.” Because they do not degrade, they can accumulate in the environment and in our bodies, with deleterious effects.

The industry has delayed public awareness of the environmental effects of PFAS and has been busy deregulating these substances. The documents in this study were the first from industry to be examined using methods designed to identify tobacco industry tactics.

The documents span from 1961 to 2006 and were found in a lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bilott. He was the first person to successfully sue DuPont over PFAS contamination. He gave them to the makers of the documentary The Devil We Know, who then gave them to the University of California San Francisco Chemical Industry Library, where they were analyzed.

“These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the harms of PFAS and did not communicate the risks to the public, regulators or even its employees,” said senior author Professor Tracy J. Woodruff, director of the Reproductive and Environmental Health (PRHE) program at the University of California at San Francisco and a former senior scientist and policy adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 1961, Teflon’s chief toxicologist discovered that Teflon material could increase the liver size of rats even in small doses and that “skin contact should be strictly avoided.” A 1970 internal memo from the DuPont-funded Haskell Laboratory found that C8 (one of thousands of PFAS) was “highly toxic by inhalation and moderately toxic by absorption.” They also found that the infamous PFAS, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), killed the dog two days after absorption.

The evidence gets worse, DuPont and 3M found that two employees gave birth to babies with birth defects; they were two of eight pregnant women who worked in C8 production. After an internal review, they stated, “We know of no evidence of birth defects caused by C-8 at DuPont.”

They also told their employees in 1980 that C8 had toxicity like table salt, despite decades of old evidence to the contrary. A press release from DuPont in 1991 stated that “C8 has no known toxic or adverse effects on human health at detected concentrations.”

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