How the Chemical Industry Deployed the Disinformation Playbook on PFAS

March 27, 2019 | 2:54 pm
Photo credit: flickr/trein foto
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will convene tomorrow for a hearing on the federal responses (or lack thereof) to the risks associated with the class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, inviting representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Defense, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to testify. It has been encouraging to see Congress conducting oversight on the government’s failures to protect us from PFAS. While the federal government is responsible for its regulatory inaction once it learned of PFAS’ dangers, the companies who created, manufactured, and processed these chemicals and then dumped them unrestricted into our environment—fully understanding their persistence and even toxicity—should be required to answer and pay for their behavior.

Today, we added a case study to our Disinformation Playbook that explores how DuPont and 3M chose to bury unfavorable research linking PFAS to health issues, a decision that staved off regulatory scrutiny and allowed the companies to continue to profit while workers in their facilities, and the rest of us downstream, faced the consequences. This is only one of the strategies from the disinformation playbook that the makers of PFAS, and the chemical industry trade associations that they are part of, have employed to undermine public health.

The Fake

In our new case study, we illustrate how DuPont and 3M used “The Fake” by concealing health studies linking exposure to increased rate of tumors, liver damage, and birth defects:

In the 1960s, for example, DuPont researchers found PFOA could increase liver size in animals. According to the New York Times, other documents revealed that by the 1990s, the company knew that PFOA caused multiple types of cancerous tumors. The company did not share its knowledge with the public, regulators, or even largely its own workers, who faced elevated levels of cancers and the possibility of giving birth to children with birth defects, among other health effects.

DuPont was not the only company to engage in such corporate disinformation. In early 2018, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office released documents showing that the chemical company 3M had also concealed and downplayed the dangers of PFAS for decades. 3M, which invented PFOA and used another variety of PFAS called PFOS in its popular product Scotchgard, had conducted scientific studies in the 1970s that showed the toxicity of the chemicals, but did not turn over any of its science to the Environmental Protection Agency for more than 20 years.

The Diversion

PFAS makers and users have also used “The Diversion,” a strategy to manufacture uncertainty about the science and deceive the public. As the body of evidence linking PFAS exposure to assorted health effects has grown, 3M, DuPont, and the chemical industry trade associations that they are affiliated with have continued to use disinformation to fight off regulations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issued a toxicological profile on PFOA, PFOS and a handful of other PFAS variants and determined that the risk levels for PFAS were 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA’s current health advisory. In 2018, 3M helped form the Responsible Science Policy Coalition, an advocacy group that has cast doubt on the findings of the ATSDR report and other science showing the health effects of PFAS. This organization joins the ranks of scores of other front groups with innocuous-sounding names that promote disinformation and fight tooth and nail against regulation that would protect public health. My colleague, Michael Halpern, described some of their methods in a blog post last year:

In July, the Responsible Science Policy Coalition surfaced at a meeting of the Council of Western Attorneys General where they expressed being “eager to help your state with your issues.” In their presentation to the attorneys general, the RSPC argued that there are “lots of problems with existing PFAS studies” and that these studies “don’t show the strength of association needed to support causation.”

The RSPC also submitted a comment on the ATSDR draft toxicology assessment that extensively detailed why, in their view, ATSDR’s scientific approach was sub-par.

The Fix

The infiltration of state and federal governments by individuals pushing the chemical industry’s agenda has hamstrung further regulation of PFAS to protect public health, in a textbook use of “The Fix.” In West Virginia, several employees at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ended up working for firms hired by DuPont. At the national level, starting in 2003, DuPont’s PFOA strategy for the EPA was led by former EPA deputy administrator Michael McCabe, and his successor at EPA also joined DuPont’s efforts after leaving the agency in 2003. DuPont had access to inside information at the agency and drafted quotes for EPA officials, a practice McCabe later said was “customary.”

In 2006, a draft report by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board found PFOA to be a likely human carcinogen. In response to the report, an internal DuPont email noted that “In our opinion, the only voice that can cut through the negative stories, is the voice of EPA. We need EPA…to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: Consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe.” A few weeks later, EPA issued such a statement. McCabe denied that EPA made the statement in exchange for DuPont’s phase-out of PFOA, while EPA has declined to comment.

Last year, the revolving door between industry and EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention impacted the release of the aforementioned ATSDR report. In May 2018, documents we obtained revealed that the White House and EPA blocked a draft government study on PFAS after a Trump administration official warned the study’s release would lead to a “public relations nightmare.” The Trump administration has close ties with the chemical industry, and EPA employee Nancy Beck—one of the employees involved in the effort to bury the study—worked at the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade association, before joining Trump’s EPA. The documents were released the week before an EPA conference on PFAS in which community members and journalists—but not industry employees—were shut out from attending. In mid-June, after significant bipartisan Congressional pressure, ATSDR finally released its report.

As the disinformation drags on, local action is powerful

As the same players use the same tired old plays to divert attention away from dangerous chemicals and real solutions, the agencies that have promised to keep us safe from PFAS by figuring out how to regulate them and clean them up have been failing to do so. Just last month, EPA released its long-awaited PFAS “action” plan that was seriously lacking in any real action. In lieu of meaningful federal action, states like Vermont, New Jersey, and Minnesota have set enforceable drinking water standards stricter than EPA’s health advisory. Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer yesterday directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to begin the process of establishing standards for PFAS in the state. States have taken the lead not only in setting enforceable drinking water and groundwater standards, and passing legislation that further regulates these chemicals, but also in holding companies accountable for poisoning our waterways and bloodstreams.

Take my home state of New Jersey, in which the governor just this week ordered 3M, DuPont, DowDuPont, Chemours, and Solvay to assess and eventually clean up the very expensive PFAS-related pollution in the state. This comes after class action lawsuits have compelled DuPont and 3M to pay West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan residents for PFAS-related pollution. And as states work to hold companies accountable, grassroots organizations and community members are standing up to fight corporate power across the country.

As Congress continues to consider legislation related to this class of chemicals, it is essential that there are provisions holding companies responsible for polluting, and for spreading disinformation in order to keep on polluting. Companies should be held liable for all of the damage they have done in lives lost and harmed and natural resources destroyed. You can help by contacting your members of congress to urge them to join the recently created PFAS task force (and scientists- you can use your expertise to encourage Congressional oversight here).