Understanding the Contemporary Perception of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances)
"PFAS" encompasses thousands of synthetic chemicals and compounds that, historically, have been extremely attractive to manufacturers and consumers alike for their exceptional non-stick properties. Resistant to water, fire. and oil, PFAS became an essential ingredient and pervasive pollutant in non-stick cooking spray, fire retardants, textiles, cleaning products, military training sites and commercial airports. It is almost impossible for modern humans to imagine or live in a world without it. There is, however, a sinister secret its creators would rather you not know; it is a "forever chemical" that never truly biodegrades or disappears. Instead, it builds up in our blood, our water ways, our soil, and even the air; a fact that is now being linked to serious medical consequences, such as cancer, infertility, and birth defects.
As researchers based in West Virginia, we have the unique opportunity to study the lives of those affected by PFAS in the very state it was created. PFOA, a type of PFAS known locally as "C8", was first produced by Dupont Manufactures (now Chemours) right outside of Parkersburg, WV, making the Ohio Valley region a global hotspot of PFAS contamination. While many residents are concerned with the toxicity of PFAS on a physical level, we entered this research focused on the emotional, social, and meaningful consequences of living within this poisoned landscape. Some of our guiding questions include: What is the modern relationship between Dupont (Now Chemours) and Ohio Valley residents? How do locals understand PFAS, and conceptualize the risks? Is there a locally active social and political resistance to PFAS contamination? We contributed to this research by creating a composite of academic resources pertaining to the Anthropology of PFAS, as well as PFAS related media extracted from historic newspapers in the Ohio Valley. Additionally, we travelled to Parkersburg with Dr. Renfrew to interview local activists, visit the original site and surrounding area of Dupont Manufactures, and to engage in photographic visual documentation.
Citation: Levine, Hannah. “Zombie Chemicals–Learning from Our Past to Prevent Haunting in the Future: Why the EPA Should Regulate PFAS Chemical Compounds.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 21, no. 2 (2019): 177–99. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26892904.
"If you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you alreay have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents' blood, your child's blood, your lover's blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water."
Nathaniel Rich, The Lawyer Who Became Dupont's Worst Nightmare, Jan. 26, 2016.
Trip To Marietta, OH and Parkersburg, WV
As with all anthropological research, the best, most thorough and genuine research is derived from being among and with the thing you are studying, what anthropologists refer to as "participant observation." With this in mind, on April 22, 2023, we traveled down to Marietta to engage with local activists and community members alike to discuss living with PFAS.
Eric Engle, Chair of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action. photo courtesy of American Atheists.
Earth Day Celebration
When living in a space marred by toxicity, community reactions are hard to quantify, and are often split based on a myriad of factors. Whether it be socioeconomic dependence on corporations complicit in pollution, or life-long exposure to sacrifice narratives, unity of action against toxic exposures can be a hard fought battle. However, some grassroots organizations, unions, and coalitions of neighbors are still organizing in the face of this adversity. Eager to observe this process ourselves, we travelled two hours south on April 22, 2023, to Marietta, OH, to speak to fellow activists at their annual Earth Day Celebration. Marietta, just a short drive across the Ohio River from where the Dupont Plant is located, shares a sense of solidarity with its sister city, Parkersburg, in its struggles against PFAS.
The Earth Day celebration, located on the historical and quaint High Street of Marietta, is teeming with life. Multiple tents sheltered enthused presenters, who discussed recycling practices, wildlife management, plastic reduction, and miniature lectures on beekeeping. Small children ran around exclaiming with joy, boasting small earth-themed prizes and shaking bags of flower seeds. Here, we met with Eric Engle, Chair of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action group. An impressive figure in his community, kind-hearted and sincere, he is at the forefront of a broader grassroots movement to raise public awareness of climate change, pollution, and PFAS, within the local political landscape. Through our conversation with Eric, we were able to glean insight to the innerworkings of public outreach, and also witness a burst of hope and inspiration. Leading a public program that creates "Climate Ambassadors" within regional high schools, he is striking the iron where it is hot; the youth of the valley. By getting the young generation, already poignantly political, trained in organizing and public speaking, he is working to get these young persons engaged in the public discourse, and preparing them for the action they can take as impassioned adults. Additionally, he writes and heads an editorial in the local newspaper, and as a former employee of Dupont, he has credibility and heart that garners respect statewide. Interactions like this, and our time at the Earth Day Fest, reminds us of where true change begins; inside concentrated groups of concerned neighbors that truly care and assist each other in times of uncertainty.
Factory and Nature Reserve
Last stop on our tour was to visit the Dupont Factory itself, now Chemour Chemicals. Raising like a metal giant from the banks of the Ohio, it is hard to deny the immensity or impressiveness of the structure itself. Even driving past the factory takes multiple minutes, with trucks, power lines, silos, and storage units stretching long across the landscape. When we approached the factory through the public entrance, Lauren whipped out her camera to try to capture the factory up close. As soon as it began, however, it was abtruptly ended; a security guard barked from his window, "Do you have a permission?!". Dr. Renfrew, not shaken from this confrontation, asked if that was required, and where this is visibly stated. The guard, however, offered no more explanation for his assertion, and become all the more aggressive with his demands of our removal. Reluctantly, we drove away to deescalate the rising tensions. This encounter, while short, paints a clear picture of the antagonism and animosity that is bred between this corporation and those outside of it. Whether we were journalists, students, or even supporters, this guard hadn't the slightest clue- yet it was obvious we were not welcome regardless. This is a stark contrast to the smiling faces of children plastered on the check-in building, crowned with words of welcome and goodwill. How does this environment welcome a conversation, or foster a sense of transperency and trust?
Finally, just around the bend, is the Dupont Nature Center; a section of the nearby forest that holds a pond and 1.5 mile trail loop. When we approached, the road adjacent announces the DuPont landfill is further down the way, hidden out of site by the trees. The Nature Center is lush, but strikingly empty. The Bug boxes are have no nesting critters, and the only other humans we can see are volunteers digging a deep trench for an unknown project. The pond has a suspicious oil slick and rainbow sheen, disrupted by the occasional frog splashing its away from our peering gaze. A couple benches and short wooden bridges are marked with signage indicating its completion as part of an Eagle Scout project; a living monument to Dupont's presence in town, and their active role as a conduit of opportunity presented to the townsfolk. But it's hard to feel this nature center is not an afterthought, or bandage, on the immense harm Dupont has inflicted on the landscape. On paper, a nature center provides fantastic optics, but one only needs to visit to understand it is not inspirng further conservation, conversation, or a community growth, but rather is a headturner from the road marked "landfill". Unsettling, still, and remote, spaces such as these should remind us why investigation is crucial, and that taking these things at face value only serves to further our ignorance to the reality of these operations.