The founder of DuPont Chemicals, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours, left France with his family for the US in 1799, two steps ahead of the guillotine. It might have been far better for the world if that blade had caught up with him. Today, the global corporate behemoth that started out as a gunpowder manufacturer is among the worst corporate polluters on the planet – and we may all wind up suffering the consequences for centuries, if not millennia.

DuPont’s most recent alleged crime against humanity and the planet involves a man-made chemical known as “C8,” or perfluorooctanoic acid. Since it was first developed by 3M in the late 1940s, this toxin has become so ubiquitous that more than 99% of us have it in our bodies. Chemically, it is so stable that it will persist in the environment virtually forever. Removing it is difficult and – of greatest concern to DuPont and its fellow corporate criminals – extremely expensive from a financial standpoint.

Incredibly – but not surprisingly – DuPont knew about the toxicity of C8 as far back as the 1960s. It was in 1961 that tests on mice indicated a link between exposure to the chemical and enlargement of the liver – a sign of toxic exposure. Seven years later, it began showing up in the blood of consumers who had been exposed by contact with products containing C8. Beginning in the 1980s, independent researchers began their own studies on the toxicity of the chemical. However, it was not until 1999 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its own investigation after receiving reports of its presence in the environment and its toxicity.

The following spring, 3M, under pressure from the EPA, announced that it would be phasing out the manufacture and use of C8.  DuPont, manufacturer of many products dependent on C8, picked up the proverbial torch and opened its own production facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2002.

Despite the evidence of C8 toxicity, this chemical has been used in hundreds, if not thousands, of household products, including carpet, upholstery, medical garments, clothing, food containers, dental floss, and teflon-coated cookware. Like asbestos, it has made its way into our food, our water, our soil and our air. While most of us have only trace amounts in our systems, those who have been directly exposed by working at, or  living near a facility producing or using C8, may suffer levels as high as 100 parts per million. According to a study conducted by scientists at Emory University, such people are 300% more likely to develop cancer or chronic kidney disorders (C8 has been shown to concentrate in the kidneys). The chemical has been linked to Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, hypertension in pregnant women, and birth defects.

One of the most appalling aspects of this sordid history: in order to control and enact a ban on such toxic substances, regulators must prove that they are hazardous. In other words, the burden of proof is on the EPA – not the manufacturer. This is one of the major reasons that the production and use of C8 was allowed to continue for so many decades after its toxicity became apparent – and why DuPont denies having done anything illegal. A detailed account of DuPont’s decades-long cover-up, as well as the human costs of C8, is the subject of a new, three-part series, entitled The Teflon Toxin: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception, by Brooklyn journalist Sharon Lerner.

Ms. Lerner also discusses the story with Ring of Fire’s Sam Seder. See the interview below.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.