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DuPont already knew 30 years ago about extreme PFAS pollution in Dutch groundwater

16-06-2023
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Teflon producer DuPont (now Chemours) in the Dutch city of Dordrecht was already aware 30 years ago that it had seriously polluted the groundwater under its factory and in the surrounding area with huge amounts of toxic and carcinogenic PFAS. This was revealed by confidential company documents, which Dutch investigative television program Zembla has obtained.

These internal documents also reveal that DuPont had huge concerns about PFAS polluting Dutch drinking water as far back as the early 1990s. Experts expressed their concern to Zembla: “DuPont has always known, but there has been a close cover up all these years”, said environmental chemist Chiel Jonker. The PFAS pollution in the areas surrounding the factory is still a problem to this day.

Serious liability consequences

More than 30 years ago, DuPont”s head office in the United States had already considered the possible pollution of the areas surrounding the factory so serious that it should be designated as “highest priority”. The company had appointed a PFAS coordinator in Dordrecht for this reason. The coordinator confirmed that broken and ruptured pipes had led to “large quantities” of PFAS leaking, and that an “involuntary landfill” had formed under the factory.

In 1994, the coordinator issued an internal warning that PFAS pollution was “very hard to control” and that the spread of the toxic substance “may have serious liability consequences”. Emeritus toxicology professor, Jacob de Boer: “At that time, DuPont had a license to discharge PFAS into the river Merwede, but if you pollute the groundwater, you are committing an illegal act.”

This concerns pollution involving large amounts of PFOA, a variant of PFAS that damages the immune system and can cause a number of diseases, including various types of cancer.

Drinking water in danger

Internal company documents show that DuPont had been applying its own drinking water guideline for PFOA for at least 30 years. “You only do this if you know that you are dealing with a highly toxic substance which must absolutely not be present in drinking water”, said Chiel Jonker, environmental chemist at Utrecht University. The drinking water for Dordrecht is obtained from groundwater.

In 1993, DuPont measured concentrations of PFAS in the groundwater in Dordrecht that were 75 times higher than their own standard. Jacob de Boer: “They were extremely shocked, because they discovered that the situation in Dordrecht was even worse than in their factory in America.”

Dark Waters Dordrecht

In 2015, a major environmental scandal erupted in the United States concerning the DuPont plant in Parkersburg when it emerged that DuPont had remained silent about the risks of PFAS to people and the environment for decades. Hollywood produced the movie “Dark Waters” about this scandal in 2019. Chiel Jonker: “These documents clearly show that we have our own Dark Waters story. We are in Dark Waters Dordrecht.”

PFAS in blood, breast milk and vegetable gardens

Strict government regulations on PFOA implemented in 2012 forced DuPont to stop using this substance, but because it barely breaks down in the environment, the area around the plant is still heavily contaminated. High concentrations of this hazardous substance have also been detected in the blood of factory workers

Just last year, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) advised people not to eat fruit or vegetables from gardens or allotments within a one-kilometer radius of the plant. Drinking water companies have also been raising the alarm with the government in recent years because PFAS is difficult to filter out of drinking water.

In 2016, the RIVM set a standard for PFOA in drinking water.

The ethical thing to do

It seems that DuPont was in the mid-1990s also very concerned about the Dordrecht landfills it was using for PFAS waste. Further samples had to be taken to determine whether the hazardous substance was also spreading there, but DuPont”s coordinator wrote that this entailed “political problems”, and that if they were to find PFAS it would “only cost us more”. He emphasized that “the ethical thing to do” would be to take samples at the landfill sites, but this would require “firm backing by management”.

Integrity professor Rob van Eijbergen: “This shows that they were really being put under pressure not to reveal anything. I knew that this was going on in DuPont in America, but it is shocking to find that it also happened here in the Netherlands.”

A million times higher

In internal correspondence, DuPont Dordrecht said that the pollution had to be cleaned up “before 2030”. The documents reveal that they had still not managed to accomplish this in 2003. In that year, the chemical company discovered that PFAS concentrations below and around the plant were even higher than they had been in the mid-1990s.

Environmental chemist, Chiel Jonker: “The concentrations of PFAS measured directly under the plant were a million times higher than the concentrations we are now measuring in the river next to the plant. We think that even these current concentrations are too high, and we do not want them.”

Pollution in perpetuity

A 2016 internal document from the Dutch supervisory environmental protection agency shows that, at the end of the day, attempts to clean up the pollution under and around the plant were a failure. In this document, the supervisor said that it was impossible to clean up the pollution because it was “technically and financially unfeasible.” Instead, a water management system was installed under the factory which must be “maintained in perpetuity”.

1984

Another highly sensitive document is the report of a meeting of the DuPont management at its headquarters in Wilmington in May 1984. By then, DuPont had realized that if they “do nothing”, they could face “incremental liability”. DuPont even wrote that at that point in time, they were already liable “for the past 32 years”.

Rob van Eijbergen: “It is clear from this document that DuPont”s sole concern was not to be held liable. Their entire strategy was focused on this. Not a single word in that document concerns the harm to employees, the people living in the area or the surrounding environment.” During the 1984 meeting, DuPont concluded that they must eventually “eliminate all PFOA emissions,” but in a way that “does not economically penalize the business”.

This was not done until 2012, under pressure from the government.

The PFAS cover-up

Over the past year, Zembla has obtained hundreds of documents detailing how the industry has concealed the danger of PFAS since the 1960s.

The program, “The PFAS Cover-up,” draws upon U.S. court documents, open-source research and confidential documents to reconstruct what went on behind the scenes at DuPont over several decades. Zembla asked DuPont for a comment, but the company referred us to Chemours, which was created as a spin-off by DuPont in 2015, and which took over all PFAS activities. Chemours has not given a substantive response to any of the questions asked despite repeated requests to do so. According to Chemours, Zembla engages in “questionable journalism”. They state: “We have run this plant in a responsible manner and according to the highest standards and we will continue to do so, just as we will continue to good work in the communities in which we operate.”

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