Above the Waterline: How ‘better living through chemistry’ became a national emergency

I am a child of the 1950s, perhaps like many of you, born at the beginning of that post-World War II decade: a transition period from wartime production of industrial products to a peacetime era of mass consumption, when chemical companies and ad agencies combined their efforts to sell “a better living through chemistry.”

America’s chemical industry worked tirelessly to refashion itself for this new era and maintain its revenues. DuPont, Dow, 3M, Formosa and others manufactured new products to support “modern lifestyles,” using petrochemicals, plastics, wood-preservatives, pesticides and more. These products were developed, quickly tested, and then marketed to farmers and the general public. Glitzy media pieces urged consumers to “gladden hearts and lighten labor” through the “wonderful world of chemistry.”

My memories of these so-called miracle products are many. I remember the airplanes flying low over the beach on Florida’s Sanibel Island in the late 1950s and 1960s, spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes; my parents would shout that the planes were coming and my sister and I would run outside to watch them drop their cargo, no doubt breathing the white mist. At home in Atlanta, men walked through the stream behind our house – where I loved to play – spraying the water with mosquito-killing chemicals. At the 1964 World’s Fair, DuPont’s popular pavilion was filled with magical new products for the home and a flashy musical revue that extolled the virtues of man-made chemicals. It was all so exciting!

In the early 1960s, DuPont introduced its “happy pan” to make life easier with Teflon, a new name for the chemical coating that used perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) and its long chains of carbon during the manufacturing process. Like most homemakers, my mother was thrilled at the prospect of not having to scrub pans. As our pans aged, I remember seeing strings of the Teflon-coating peel off the cookware. Was our food being seasoned with Teflon? Was it a safe product? Early studies didn’t reveal any associated health issues and, besides, we believed that the government would protect us from harmful products.

The chemical industry boomed, as sales reached into the millions and then billions of dollars; thousands more chemicals were developed and marketed in the following decades. Passed by Congress in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act required the U.S. EPA to inventory all chemicals produced in this country; it yielded a list of more than 60,000 synthetic substances – all of which, including PFOA, were exempt from the new regulations.

That the science of chemistry has changed and, in many ways, vastly improved our lives is not in dispute. Yet, in the past four decades, we’ve learned a great deal more about the impacts of some of these chemicals on public health and the environment – how they move through the environment (and us) and the risks they pose. Thanks to inquisitive victims, investigative journalists, environmental organizations and public interest attorneys, we have also learned how some companies repeatedly failed to disclose the hazardous nature of products and kept government agencies in their pockets.

The true story of DuPont, PFOA and the cancers and deformities in Parkersburg, West Virginia is told in the new movie “Dark Waters.” It is a deeply troubling – in truth, nauseating – tale of how the company hid evidence that the synthetic chemical was a toxin that could slowly build up in humans and cause kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. The movie traces the efforts of a relentless attorney, over two decades, to obtain justice for people harmed by the chemicals and demand that the federal government take action on PFAS: a group of about 4,700 synthetic substances, now known as “forever chemicals.”

Used in Teflon, ScotchGuard, fire-fighting foam and other products, PFOA has been poisoning land, contaminating drinking water and harming people since the mid-20th century. Based on its own secret medical studies, DuPont knew since the 1970s that their factory workers were being contaminated, ingestion caused birth defects, dust from factory chimneys settled beyond property lines, and the chemical was in local water supplies. The company considered a less toxic alternative in the 1990s, but determined the financial risk to be too great; PFOA-products were an important part of the company’s $1 billion in annual profit.

In 2013, EPA finally demanded, after years of pressure, that DuPont stop making and using PFOA, so the company switched to the “less-toxic” alternative developed ten years earlier, also not evaluated or regulated. EPA then issued a “health advisory” level for PFOA, i.e., a guideline that is not enforceable and cannot be used to demand cleanups. Under the Trump Administration, EPA has become even more timid about taking any action. With the federal government’s total failure to manage this toxic chemical, some states are moving toward regulation, notably Minnesota, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Vermont.

Meanwhile, safety concerns, protests and legal actions are escalating. In Georgia, the city of Rome recently filed a lawsuit against thirty carpet-manufacturing companies that used PFOA and are located upstream of its drinking water supply, where high levels of the “forever chemical” have been found.

How do we ensure that our living is really “better” with chemicals? Make sure that your candidates will fight for a strong, funded EPA. Support the use of public funds for much-needed science and health studies and adequate monitoring of our water supplies. Demand transparency and accountability, so all risk assessment studies and other pertinent documents are made available to the public. Elections matter.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. 

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