GenX, the new Chemours chemical crisis
DuPont and the C8 legacy[edit | edit source]
The DuPont Company – technically, E.I. DuPont de Nemours –announced the United States approval of its planned merger with Dow Chemical to shareholders on June 15, 2017. That merger of chemical titans, each with a legacy of toxic environmental impacts, was previously approved by the European Union and China, among others. The news has left many environmental activists and public health advocates concerned about both companies escaping from any liability for the decades of damage caused by their products and corporate practices. In the case of Dow, the 1984 Bhopal tragedy in India killed up to 15,000 people following a chemical leak that exposed a half-million people to deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, in what is the world’s worst and still-litigated industrial disaster in history.
Yet DuPont is accountable for what may be an even larger slow-motion disaster, because over decades the traces of its C8 product, also known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have been found in nearly every corner of the globe and every human alive. For decades, the company’s knowledge that a product introduced in 1938 was implicated in a range of human health impacts was hidden from view; the subsequent unraveling of that duplicity and years of lawsuits are well-documented. Less well known are the consequences of GenX, the chemical DuPont developed to replace C8 when it agreed to a phaseout.
DuPont introduced GenX in 2009. The chemical composition was touted as safer in several respects, including a much shorter biological clearance time than C8. The company also promised new “exposure control strategy” to prevent chemical leaks from the processing. Both the mitigation of environmental hazards and public health risks factored into West Virginia’s approval for DuPont to manufacture the chemical at Washington Works, a plant at ground zero of the company’s liability for toxic C8 exposure.
Yet in June 2017, no sooner than the DuPont-Dow merger success was announced, came word of high levels of GenX in waters on the North Carolina coast. It’s also been found in Ohio and West Virginia.
GenX found in drinking water[edit | edit source]
GenX has been found in the approximately 70 miles of the Cape Fear River between the Chemours plant at the Cumberland-Bladen county line and Wilmington, North Carolina. That includes the intake site for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, where officials say it is currently not possible to remove GenX from a drinking water system that serves more than 100,000 people living in and near Wilmington. The chemical is new and unregulated, so there is no reporting obligation to the utility for what one expert says is 13 pounds (5.9 kilograms) of GenX released per day, adding up to more than two tons per year.
As state and local officials vowed to continue testing and monitoring, they urged Chemours – the spinoff company of DuPont now financially and operationally responsible for the upstream GenX plant located in Fayetteville– to remediate the problem. On June 20, 2017, with shares of the company stock taking a hit in volatile trading after news of the GenX contamination, Chemours issued a statement. It said the company will “capture, remove, and safely dispose of wastewater that contains the byproduct GenX generated from fluoromonomers production” with methods that enhance abatement technologies in place since 2013. The problem is that researchers say there has been GenX in the water since 2009, as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists have focused on GenX and C8 replacement products.
The EPA has not set a legal maximum concentration level for GenX or similar replacement compounds, although there is a 70 ppt (parts per trillion) limit on PFOA for drinking water. Samples in North Carolina have been as high as 4,500 ppt; Ohio waters tested 20 miles away from the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, showed concentrations in excess of 100 ppt. A May 2017 University of Cincinnati report found that from Huntington all the way to Evansville, Indiana – more than 400 miles (666 kilometers) downstream – people had higher than normal levels of the discontinued C8. Yet many of the same concerns persist with C8 replacements. More than 200 scientists from 38 countries have signed the 2015 Madrid Statement, demanding that chemical companies like DuPont stop exchanging toxic C8 with fluorinated alternatives in the PFAS chemical class that have similar properties and likely consequences.
Potential public health concerns[edit | edit source]
Despite dubious assurances of safety, given the company’s decades-long deception over C8, DuPont’s own research calls the relatively low risk of GenX into question. According to The Intercept, DuPont submitted 16 reports of adverse incidents related to GenX between 2006 and 2013. They include animal experiments in which GenX exposure led to development of cancers of the liver, pancreas, and testicles. The industry research also tied GenX to reproductive problems and changes in immune responses.
North Carolina officials have downplayed the risks of the drinking water exposure, but given how new GenX is, there is limited data on which to base their decisions. The EPA has noted, however, that GenX has many of the same properties as C8, which warranted hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for people harmed by C8 exposure. The next round of 40 cancer patient lawsuits began in May 2017.
Chemours corporate structure and accountability[edit | edit source]
With the spinoff of the Chemours entity from DuPont came concerns that the company was seeking to evade its staggering C8 lawsuit liabilities. Chemours became responsible for GenX as well, to the degree that DuPont has refused media inquiries about the GenX exposures and referred them to Chemours.
The 2015 spinoff included explicit protections of DuPont against liability for C8, although in February 2017 a class action settlement obligation of USD$670.7 million was divided evenly between the two entities. At least one report has said that Chemours was “designed for bankruptcy.” That report by investor sheet Citron Research was scathing: “After 15 years of publishing, Citron can confidently state that Chemours is the most morally and financially bankrupt company that we have ever witnessed.”
The latest challenge centered on GenX has renewed the fears that Chemours, which began with $4 billion in debt but forged ahead, will fail to meet its obligations concerning an astonishing 174 contaminated C8 sites. Those concerns are amplified by the DuPont-Dow merger, which is designed to create three new corporate entities alongside Dow’s Union Carbide. It’s leaving many to wonder what, if any, corporate entity can be held accountable for the environmental and public health damage of C8, GenX and other products in the future.