I drink water straight from the tap at home. It’s tasty, it’s refreshing, and it’s healthy. At least I assume it’s healthy.
Carla Bartlett assumed the same. For many years she drank “lots and lots” of iced tea – her favorite drink – made with water flowing from the tap in her home in Coolville, Ohio, a small, working-class town across the river from DuPont’s plant in West Virginia. But what Bartlett didn’t know was that her water supply was contaminated with a carcinogenic chemical, C8, that DuPont used to make one of its signature products: Teflon. Even after she was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1997, Bartlett continued drinking the tap water, because, as she said in her recent court testimony, “They kept saying there is nothing to worry about… it’s safe to drink.”
But, as reporter Sharon Kelly explains in her article (“Teflon’s Toxic Legacy”), DuPont had known since the 1960s that C8 was harmful, yet it kept this knowledge secret, putting its own workers, local residents, and the American public at risk. On October 7, 2015, a federal jury ruled that DuPont was liable for Bartlett’s cancer. The verdict – a culmination of nearly two decades of grassroots and legal activism – may set the tone for thousands of similar cases from people who claim they got sick or had a loved one die from drinking contaminated water or breathing C8-laden air.
The whole saga is outrageous. But sadly, it doesn’t come as a surprise. That’s how accustomed we have become to Big Business’ big lies, to their active disregard for human life – let alone the environment – and to the power politics that allow them to get away with it. Another recent, egregious, example is Exxon’s funding of climate denial despite knowing for decades that fossil fuels were accelerating global warming. Like Exxon’s climate lie, DuPont’s chemical deception, too, has global implications. By now, C8 has spread all across the world. It’s been found in breast milk, in umbilical cord blood, and even in newborn babies. If you live in America, you likely are among the 98 percent of the population with C8 flowing through their veins.
How do we fight back against such massive breaches of public trust that put our lives on the line? There are no new answers to this, just an old one that still holds true: We respond by banding together, by understanding that in diversity lies our strength. As Aaron Mair, Sierra Club’s first-ever African American president told me (“Conversation”) – we need to see the environmental movement as part of a broader struggle for social and economic justice. Building such a diverse coalition is bound to be messy and time-consuming, but it will give us the political clout we need to force corporations to put people before profit, and tap water before Teflon.
Drinking a glass of water shouldn’t be risky business.
After a successful eight-year tenure as the editor of Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark has moved on to new challenges. We will miss his keen intellect and the fearless spirit with which he tackled complex, and often controversial, environmental issues. The Journal team will continue with its tradition of doing hard-hitting, investigative journalism. As Jason likes to say – Onward ever!
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.