Teflon Town: A Toxic Legacy

pfoa exposure

Story at-a-glance -

  • Toxic emissions from ChemFab, a maker of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabrics, have polluted drinking water and soil in North Bennington, Vermont, with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • On average, Vermont residents have PFOA blood levels of 10 micrograms per liter. Among Bennington residents living in the areas of contamination, blood levels of 1,125 micrograms per liter have been detected; hundreds of wells in the area have also been contaminated
  • Residents in Belmont, Michigan, are also facing water contamination, as the area is site to an old dumping ground for Wolverine World Wide, a shoe company that used 3M’s PFOS-containing fabric protector Scotchgard for waterproofing leather shoes
  • Exposure to PFOA and similar chemicals is linked to developmental problems, cancer, liver damage, immune effects, thyroid problems and more

By Dr. Mercola

In the late 1960s, Chemical Fabrics Corporation (ChemFab), a maker of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabrics, the type used on conveyor belting, sports stadium domes and similar structures, opened a factory in North Bennington, Vermont. With promises that "absolutely no pollutants" would be given off by the factory, the company enjoyed explosive growth for decades, eventually expanding its headquarters into Merrimack, New Hampshire, and grossing $126 million in sales in 2000.1

That year, ChemFab was purchased by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which shut down the Vermont plant. Unfortunately, its toxic legacy would remain and continues to poison people living in the area to this day, according to a joint investigation by VT Digger and the Bennington Banner. Those living in the area knew the plant well, some working within its walls or residing within walking distance of its smokestacks.

Resident and former worker David Barber told VT Digger he used to scoop up liquid Teflon in a gallon milk jug from a 30-gallon drum, fishing it out of the toxic soup with his bare arms if it would fall to the bottom. They reported:2

"There were complaints from plant neighbors about the smoke or fumes, he [Barber] said, 'but it wasn't always bad; it was hit and miss. I do know that at night we ran a lot of crap because it would smoke so bad, and they didn't want the neighbors to complain, because you could see the smoke pouring out of the top.'

The odor always seemed the same to him, regardless of the fabric, he said. 'It was just a nasty smell, and it was like a hazy smoke, a blue haze … We all stayed under the fresh air ducts — they pumped in fresh air from outside near each machine.'"

High Levels of PFOA Contaminate Area Residents, Soil and Water Supplies

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is one of the highly toxic chemicals used in the production of the Teflon-coated fabrics (it bonds the Teflon to the fabric). On average, Vermont residents have PFOA blood levels of 10 micrograms per liter. Among Bennington residents living in the areas of contamination, blood levels of 1,125 micrograms per liter have been detected. Hundreds of wells in the area have also been contaminated, some found with more than 2,000 parts per trillion of PFOA in the water.

For comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) health advisory level for PFOA and a similar chemical, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion, but some environmental groups believe even that is still far too high. In Vermont, meanwhile, officials set the limit on PFOA contamination in drinking water at 20 parts per trillion. According to the EPA:3

"[S]tudies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes)."

VT Digger reported the case of Jenny Kelly, a North Bennington resident whose well was found to have a PFOA concentration of 3,500 parts per trillion. She and her family drank the water for six years until they found it was contaminated, and Kelly suffers from hyperthyroidism she believes is due to the contaminated water. According to VT Digger:4

"Unlike other polluted sites across the country where environmental damage has come from fluid spills, in North Bennington toxins from the smokestack exhaust settled on the ground near the factory, and through rainfall traveled through soils to groundwater.

Most of the toxic material is believed to have been deposited over a small area east of the factory — where Kelly's and dozens of other homes are located — as a result of prevailing winds, according to maps in a report Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics commissioned this year.

… An engineer, Dave Hassel, who for decades worked at a plant similar to ChemFab's in New York state, estimates that the factory in North Bennington released about 6 tons of PFOA over the 25 years it operated. Because the carbon-fluorine bonds that make up PFOA are among the strongest compounds, the PFOA dispersed by air currents over a several-mile radius from the ChemFab factory hasn't broken down.

Instead, the chemical, which is toxic in minute quantities, has migrated, often into underground aquifers. Hassel says the 6 tons represents enough PFOA to pollute 10 Lake Champlains worth of drinking water to a concentration above the state's 20 parts per trillion limit."

State Officials Allowed ChemFab to Continue Polluting

Area residents filed hundreds of complaints about a "dirty plastic" odor to local officials, but while state regulators asked ChemFab to test their emissions for toxic chemicals, they never did. And even as emissions violations were recorded, only one enforcement action was taken from 1984 to 2002.  "Instead of requiring ChemFab to meet environmental rules, state officials took a conciliatory approach and repeatedly allowed the company to violate emissions standards without penalty," VT Digger reported, continuing:5

"ChemFab managers misrepresented pollution control standards in other states and pushed Vermont regulators to relax air quality standards based on false claims. For example, the company said New Hampshire allowed competitors and other ChemFab facilities to operate without any pollution control devices on some smokestacks. In response to pressure from ChemFab, Vermont authorities gave the company tax breaks and waived air quality rules."

Residents worry not only for their long-term health but also for their financial futures. Aside from possibly being saddled with PFOA-related health care costs, their property values have taken a hit and the groundwater and soil contamination may prevent them from being able to sell their homes. Many believed their problems were over when the plant initially closed and left town, only to later learn that the contamination would persist long after the company shut its doors.

It's difficult to prove that health effects are related to chemical exposures, even in the case of POFA. However, it's not unheard of. PFOA is already the subject of at least 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, which used PFOA to make Teflon for decades. One woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water was awarded $1.6 million in damages.6

Today, Saint-Gobain is in negotiations with the state of Vermont to provide alternative sources of drinking water for affected residents. "In late July [2017], officials announced a partial settlement with the company, which agreed to fund $20 million in municipal water line extensions to about 200 properties in the western sector of the contamination zone.

Further negotiations and environmental testing are continuing for the eastern sector … and the state hopes to have a similar agreement for those properties by early 2018," VT Digger noted.7

Michigan Private Wells Also Contaminated by PFOA and PFOS

Contamination from polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), which include PFOA and PFOS, can be found throughout the U.S., including in Belmont, Michigan. The area is site to an old dumping ground for Wolverine World Wide, a shoe company (maker of the well-known Hush Puppies brand, among others) that used 3M's PFOS-containing fabric protector Scotchgard for waterproofing leather shoes.

As in Vermont, area wells are testing positive for the toxic chemicals, including one at close to 400 times the EPA advisory level — 4,600 parts per trillion for PFOA and 23,000 parts per trillion for PFOS.

"At 27,600-ppt, the well has the highest combined PFOS and PFOA concentration that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services toxicologists have ever seen before in a drinking water well,' news outlet MLive reported.8 'It's off the scale,' said David O'Donnell, remediation division supervisor at the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] office in Grand Rapids. 'We hope it's an outlier.'"

Whether this is true remains to be seen, however, as not all wells have been tested and investigations at the actual dump site are only in the beginning stages. Worse, the dumping ground is in an area where groundwater flows off in many directions, which means it could be months or years before the full extent of the contamination is known. Along with PFOS and PFOA, more than 20 additional fluorinated chemicals have also been found in the area, including the PFOS replacement chemical perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS).

For now, Belmont residents are experiencing many of the same feelings as those in North Bennington, including fear and frustration that they have likely been drinking heavily contaminated water for decades. Wolverine, meanwhile, along with the DEQ, have been handing out bottled water, grocery store gift cards and under-the-sink water filters to affected residents — a gesture that's far too little, too late.

Millions of Americans Are Drinking Water Contaminated by PFASs

Even if you don't live near a known chemical plant or dumping ground, there's a chance your water could be contaminated with these ubiquitous and highly toxic chemicals. According to a 2016 Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water, and about 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the EPA safety level.9

While toxic water supplies were found in 33 states, 75 percent of the samples with elevated PFAS came from 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois. Not surprisingly, the highest concentration levels of PFAS were found in watersheds near industrial sites, military fire training areas and wastewater treatment plants. Private wells were also found to be contaminated.

As for health risks, those related to PFASs continue to grow. In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:10

Liver toxicity

Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems

Adverse neurobehavioral effects

Neonatal toxicity and death

Tumors in multiple organ systems

Testicular and kidney cancers

Liver malfunction


High cholesterol

Ulcerative colitis

Reduced birth weight and size


Decreased immune response to vaccines

Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty

Filtering Your Water for PFASs and Avoiding Additional Exposures

The existence of chemicals like PFASs, which have no taste or smell, in drinking water is the reason I recommend virtually everyone should filter their water. However, be aware that most common water filters available in supermarkets will not remove PFASs. You really need a high-quality carbon filtration system to do that.

To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.

The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon "or an equally efficient technology" to remove PFC chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS from your drinking water.11 Activated carbon has been shown to remove up to 90 percent of these chemicals. If you know or suspect you have been regularly exposed to PFASs via your drinking water, it would be wise to not only implement the above filtering recommendations to limit future toxic exposures but also consider a detox program.

In addition, everyone would be well served by following the Madrid Statement's recommendation to avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs, which includes most that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. More helpful tips can be found in the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Guide to Avoiding PFCS.12 Among them, avoid:

Items that have been pre-treated with stain repellants, and opt out of such treatments when buying new furniture and carpets

Water- and/or stain-repellant clothing. One tipoff is when an item made with artificial fibers is described as "breathable." These are typically treated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a synthetic fluoropolymer

Items treated with flame retardant chemicals, which includes a wide variety of baby items, padded furniture, mattresses and pillows. Instead, opt for naturally less flammable materials such as leather, wool and cotton

Fast food and carry out foods, as the wrappers are typically treated with PFCs

Microwave popcorn. PFOA may not only be present in the inner coating of the bag, it also may migrate to the oil from the packaging during heating. Instead, use "old-fashioned" stovetop popcorn

Nonstick cookware and other treated kitchen utensils. Healthier options include ceramic and enameled cast iron cookware, both of which are durable, easy to clean and completely inert, which means they won't release any harmful chemicals into your home. A newer type of nonstick cookware called Duralon uses a nonfluoridated nylon polymer for its nonstick coating. While this appears to be safe, your safest bet is still ceramic and enameled cast iron.

Oral-B Glide floss and any other personal care products containing PTFE or "fluoro" or "perfluoro" ingredients.

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