Atria, 2019. $28, 400 pages.
PARKERSBURG, West Virginia, 1998. Robert Bilott, a young corporate defense attorney, is approached by a gruff cattle farmer named Wilbur Earl Tennant. Tennant is frustrated by the mysterious death of hundreds of cows, and angry at the lack of response from government or industry. Meanwhile, across town, acres of silver pipes at DuPont’s Washington Works plant grumble and belch as they formulate the company’s flagship product: Teflon.
In Exposure, Bilott narrates the case he and Tennant brought against DuPont, and the much larger class-action lawsuit that followed. The painstaking, decade-long investigation makes a stunning — if sadly unsurprising — indictment of corporate misconduct and government inaction.
Sixty years earlier, a DuPont scientist had stumbled upon a strangely slippery compound of carbon and fluorine. After finding wartime use in the Manhattan Project, the new substance was marketed as a nonstick coating under the brand name Teflon. But Teflon was notoriously difficult to handle, and became practical only with the discovery that a related chemical, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), could be used to manage the slick new material. Soon DuPont was using — and dumping — PFOA by the millions of pounds.
Teflon and PFOA were among the first in a new family of compounds, today called PFAS (perand polyfluoroalkyl substances), which soon blossomed into a wondrous new chemistry. PFAS chemicals produced the unstainable Scotchgard; the unwettable Gore-Tex; slick new lubricants and powerful firefighting foams; pizza boxes that could hold a quattro formaggi without getting soggy. In the commercial euphoria, few noted these compounds were extraordinarily resistant to degradation, persisting almost indefinitely in the environment or human body. Today, virtually everyone on Earth has detectable amounts PFAS in their blood, regardless of their use of PFAS-containing products.
Almost nothing was known of PFOA outside the small circle of scientists at DuPont (and its commercial partner 3M) when Tennant’s cattle began to die. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which enacted feeble restrictions on new chemicals, had essentially exempted the sixty thousand compounds already in use; the identity of PFOA, its structure, even its existence were trade secrets. It may seem that a chemical produced in such volumes would be easy to find, but Bilott succinctly describes the analytical paradox: “A lab,” he points out, “can’t just run a test that tells you everything that’s in the water; you have to indicate what specific things you want analyzed.” Because no one outside the plant knew what they were looking for, there was little hope of finding it.
As late as 2002, after Bilott’s obsessive sleuthing had unearthed PFOA, only one laboratory could test for it — and it operated under an exclusive contract with DuPont. The same catch-22 extended to paperwork. Although the legal process of discovery required DuPont to hand over virtually any document Bilott asked for, he had no way to identify the chemical targets of his requests, instead scouring tens of thousands of documents in his search for clues. Ironically, the useful data that DuPont had about PFOA could have been summarized in a few pages, but DuPont’s defense constructed a towering wall of paperwork around it. By 2015, the wall had grown to 8 million pages.
That DuPont knew about the toxicity of PFOA all along is key to Bilott’s story. In grave, lawyerly prose, he recounts the studies he found in DuPont’s files: the 1962 rat study that found liver, kidney, and pancreatic effects induced by low doses of PFOA; the finding of liver toxicity in beagles a few years later; a 1978 study in rhesus monkeys that resulted in deaths of all the animals in the high-dose group, and a grim follow-up study a decade later. There were human data, too: an internal 1979 review found abnormal — but, conveniently, not statistically significant — changes in liver function in exposed employees; a 1981 survey of pregnant workers identified two defects in only seven births. None of these results were publicly known until Tennant’s lawsuit.
Bilott’s story is not just about PFOA, or Teflon, or DuPont’s malfeasance; he also describes the government’s near-total failure to regulate chemical hazards. EPA, tasked with protecting health, hesitated to act, endlessly delaying its own investigations. And the regulatory system itself was loaded with perverse incentives. Although companies were required to report data on health risks, there was no requirement to undertake any such testing; even if they did, there was always the question of whether the results were important enough to notify EPA. Most often, of course, the answer was no.
“I had always assumed that in the United States, systems were in place to keep us safe from dangerous business practices. As a corporate defense attorney, I saw myself as part of that system,” Bilott writes. It took some time before he began to doubt that system’s integrity, but years of fastidious research eventually led him to become, in the words of the New York Times, “DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” The tale lacks some of the frisson of a true legal thriller, and the linear firstperson narrative — interrupted occasionally when Bilott remembers to check in with his long-suffering family — may have readers sharing Bilott’s frustration about the slow progress of the case.
Although Bilott’s lawsuits end with a string of legal victories, readers are left with the uneasy sense that nothing has changed. True, PFOA has now been banned under international law. But the broader PFAS family encompasses an estimated five thousand chemicals, an unknown number of which are in use; few of these have been studied or even identified. In the book’s last pages, we learn of GenX, DuPont’s polyfluorinated “alternative” to PFOA, which now contaminates the water supply of Wilmington, North Carolina. And beyond PFAS, another eighty thousand or so chemicals are in use — of which about twenty thousand remain so confidential that their names and structures are still unknown.
For DuPont shareholders, however, there is a familiar silver lining. With a gentle reminder that “a variety of contaminants can affect water quality,” DuPont Water Solutions now offers a wide range of water treatment technologies to help meet “the growing demand for purifying water in homes around the world.”
Gregory J. Howard is an environmental health scientist and chemicals policy consultant based in Providence, Rhode Island.