In the South Jersey town of Carneys Point, Dr. Mohamed Salem recalled a patient who came to him about a year ago with unexplained symptoms of fatigue and depression and turned out to have high levels of PFAS chemicals in his blood.
The patient, in his late 40s, was a long-term employee of Chambers Works, a 127-year-old chemical factory bordering the town where Salem runs his primary-care practice, and where the toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals once used in Teflon and other consumer products have been found in many private wells.
The man’s symptoms were familiar to Salem, who has been practicing in the town since 1985, and has seen an increasing number of patients presenting with fatigue and lethargy over the past five years.
One hundred years of contamination
He attributed the symptoms to chemical contamination in the water and soil after more than a century of production at the plant where DuPont made Teflon and which is now owned by Chemours, a DuPont spinoff.
“We have more patients now with depression, anxiety, and unexplained fatigue and lethargy than ever,” he said. “It used to be that high blood pressure was the number-one reason that people came to the office. Now, the number-one reason is non-specific fatigue symptoms.”
Salem blames the malaise on environmental contamination by PFAS or other chemicals, whether or not his patients have worked at the plant, which for decades was the town’s biggest employer.
“A lot of them have worked in the plant, and if they have not worked in the plant, they drank the water that is contaminated by the plant. The food is contaminated, the air, everything is just contaminated by what they have dumped into the atmosphere, the water,” he said.
Salem hasn’t tested for PFAS in the blood of his other patients that report the same symptoms because the test is expensive and their insurance may not cover it, but he suspects that, as residents of Carneys Point or surrounding communities like Pennsville, Pedricktown or Pennsgrove, they are likely to be affected by the same environmental contamination.
He said he doesn’t know how to treat people with PFAS in their blood, but advises them not to drink water from private wells and to buy bottled water if they can afford it.
He said there should be an epidemiological study of illnesses such as bladder cancer in the Chambers Works area, but said he was unaware that any had been done. Data from the New Jersey Department of Health for Salem County as a whole shows the age-adjusted death rate for all cancers — 219.1 per 100,000 population in 2017 — was far higher than the statewide rate of 144.6, but does not include town-specific data.
Questions to the Salem County division of environmental health seeking statistics on the Chambers Works area were referred to the Department of Environmental Protection, which said it didn’t keep such records.
A legacy of pollution
Salem’s patients offer a glimpse into a legacy of pollution and ill health that has hung over the community since the plant opened, and which for decades was accepted by local people as the condition for having a dominant local employer that paid generous salaries and pensions, and supported local institutions.
But with a recent decline in the plant’s workforce, the passing of an older generation of workers whose loyalty to “DuPont’s” was unquestioned, and increasing evidence of a legacy of environmental contamination, Carneys Point is fighting back and demanding recompense.
The clearest sign of a more assertive community is a 2017 lawsuit brought by the township against DuPont and Chemours, holding them responsible for dumping some 100 million pounds of chemical waste in the land and water over the plant’s long history, and for a cleanup that would cost an estimated $1.1 billion.
The suit called the contamination a “disaster worse than the Exxon Valdez” which spilled 88 million pounds of oil in Alaska in 1989 and resulted in more than $1 billion in civil and criminal penalties.
The legal action would have been unthinkable a generation ago when hardly anyone spoke out against the company, said John Brandt, a former mayor and four-term town councilman.
“In 1970 in this town if you ran for election to the town council and in your campaigning you said anything bad about DuPont, you wouldn’t get three votes,” Brandt said in an interview in his book-lined office on the town’s main street.
Now, the legal challenge shows that Carneys Point, a community of about 8,000 people, is no longer the company town it once was, and is waking up to the price it paid for more than a century of doing the company’s bidding, he said.
The suit edged closer to a win in February this year when a judge entered a tentative order for summary judgement in the town’s favor on the question of whether DuPont violated a New Jersey law that, among other things, requires the owner of an industrial site to clean it up before selling it. Al Telsey, the town’s attorney, said he expects the order to be finalized late this summer.
If the order is finalized, it will require DuPont to post money to clean up the site, but how much is actually payable will then be subject to further legal argument.
The prospects of an agreement on who should pay for the cleanup dimmed when Chemours accused DuPont, in a suit unsealed in June this year, of “systematically and spectacularly” understating the liabilities it was transferring to Chemours when spinning it off in 2015. Chemours asked a Delaware court to stop DuPont indemnifying itself against the liabilities.
“Chemours was created as a captive subsidiary of DuPont, to be stuffed like a goose with all of Dupont’s environmental liabilities,” Telsey said. “And then Chemours was to be tossed to the world to live or die on its own.”
Breaking the code of silence
In Carneys Point, a code of silence that deterred many townspeople from speaking out is disappearing as old-time DuPont employees die off, and residents consider that the legal system may after all provide them with redress.
“It’s probably the first effort on the part of those who have been concerned about DuPont’s negligence, among many efforts for years and years,” Brandt said of the suit. “People died here, earlier deaths than normal, and the issue has always been, is that because of DuPont or other issues?”
Brandt, whose parents and grandfather all worked at the plant, holds out little hope that anyone will forge a legally provable link between DuPont’s pollution and the community’s many cases of cancer, autoimmune disease, or the fatigue of Salem’s patients.
“That connection is impossible, just about, to make because so many other things could have caused the same cancer,” he said.
But even if a link doesn’t hold up in a court of law, it’s more likely to do so in the court of public opinion, he argued.
“Common sense demands that there’s a probable connection, a real one,” he said. “If you have something that’s toxic in this one acre, and you have people living in the acre next door, sooner or later, you got to say that the bad stuff affected the people in the other area even though it’s possible that they could have died from 85 other reasons, including UFOs.”
Unlike many of his peers who spent much of their working lives in the DuPont plant, Brandt, 77, spent only a month there in the late 1950s, and he got out quickly because he feared for his health.
‘Tales from the Crypt’
“It was like Tales from the Crypt,” he said, referring to the faux-horror TV series from the 1990s. He said he was responsible for emptying powdered dye into 55-gallon containers, an operation in which “you probably breathed enough to kill an elephant.”
Brandt recalled that one of the dyes was “crystal violet,” the base pigment in Bic pens, which would not come out of your shirt if it leaked in your pocket.
“At the end of each shift, the people from ‘grind and mix’ had to shower,” he said. “It was a big open shower room to accommodate, say 20. You’d watch a swirling torrent of multicolored liquid rush to a drain in the center. Most of it went by open ditch to the Delaware River. What didn’t, sunk.”
He said he decided to leave because “I watched the bad effects that it had on people, growing up.”
Even after DuPont started reducing its local workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, people clung to the old idea of the paternalistic company despite dwindling evidence that it remained so, Brandt said.
“People, who were already doused in that Kool-Aid, having grown up through two or three generations of a good regular paycheck, those people didn’t pay attention to that,” he said, referring to the company’s local downsizing. “They’d rather believe in what was there yesterday, it’ll be there tomorrow.”
Francis Faunt, who worked as an environmental scientist for DuPont from 1985 to 1998, was responsible for identifying and disposing of chemical waste at Chambers Works, and watched the company curb its chemical discharges starting in the 1970s in response to tighter environmental laws.
But he said DuPont and its competitors cut their chemical waste only because they were required to.
“Industries like DuPont would only do what they were forced to do because they were driven by return on investment,” he said. “If they can get rid of something by dumping it in the river, then they are going to, but when push came to shove, they would comply with the law when there was no other alternative.”
A DuPont spokesman referred a request for comment to Chemours “as the information and expertise on this matter reside with them.”
Committed to cleanup?
In May this year, Chemours said it’s committed to cleaning up Chambers Works and other former DuPont sites in New Jersey that were contaminated by the parent company.
“We are living up to the commitments we have made with real, indisputable actions and we will continue our ongoing cleanup efforts where more work needs to be done,” the company said in a statement to residents. It said it has spent almost $100 million on cleanup in New Jersey since 2015, not including payments to the Department of Environmental Protection.
The company said its cleanup would not be affected by the state’s “recent action” — apparently a reference to a DEP “directive” in March to five chemical companies, including Chemours and DuPont, to investigate and clean up PFAS contamination around the state — but said it would defend itself against “any misconceptions” about the company.
In the directive, the DEP said 168 of 341 private water wells sampled within five miles of Chambers Works exceeded screening criteria for the PFAS chemicals PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) or PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), and PFOA combined. The tests also found GenX, a chemical that has been introduced by some manufacturers as a substitute for PFOA but which scientists say may be just as toxic as the chemical it is intended to replace.
The DEP accused Chemours of continuing to discharge some PFAS chemicals at Chambers Works, of knowing when it took over the plant that the site was contaminated with PFAS chemicals, and that remediation would be needed.
In response, Chemours and the other companies said at the time that the directive was too broad to be effective, and would be “wildly expensive” to comply with. A DEP spokeswoman said in early July that talks are continuing with the companies over how to resolve the dispute.
On Friday, Chemours said it voluntarily started testing for fluorinated compounds in June 2016 and has now extended the program to a radius of seven miles from the plant’s perimeter. In the three years prior to June 2019, the company said it tested 440 private water wells and installed granular activated filters on 150 of those with “elevated” levels of the chemicals. The company also found GenX in about five wells near the plant.
“The site has low-level GenX emissions and the company recently installed additional emission control technology at the site to further reduce GenX emission levels beyond the already low levels,” it said in a statement.
NJ imposes strict standards for drinking water
Growing concern over the health risks of PFAS chemicals in drinking water near many industrial sites including Chambers Works has led New Jersey to set strict limits on three of them — PFNA, PFOA, and PFOS — in drinking water in the past five years. Some other states have set their own limits, but the federal government has refused to commit to a timetable for regulating the chemicals.
The chemicals were used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, and in firefighting foam which was used by the U.S. military, resulting in widespread contamination of military bases, including New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The substances persist in many locations because they don’t break down in the environment, and so have become known as “forever chemicals.”
While more residents of the Carneys Point area are now seeking compensation from DuPont and Chemours, many are still reluctant to talk about their illnesses and possible causes, said Robin Andrews, a 34-year resident of nearby Pedricktown, about five miles from the plant.
Andrews, 64, said she has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an autoimmune disease); elevated liver enzymes; and symptoms including nausea, hair-loss, slowing metabolism, and reduced bone density because of her conditions and the medicines she is taking for them.
She doesn’t know whether her illnesses were caused by drinking water from her private well for decades until finding out in 2017 that it contained some PFAS chemicals, but she suspects the culprit is the water, and she has been speaking out about it in the hope of building public support for a cleanup.
But Andrews, a pharmacist, has found little support from her neighbors, even those who have conditions such as bladder cancer that are linked to PFAS contamination.
After being alerted to the chemicals’ presence in her well by a contractor testing water for Chemours, she intensively researched the subject and became alarmed by the data on health impacts, and then discouraged by an apparent lack of interest in her community. Her well water is now clear after being fitted with granular activated-carbon filters at Chemours’ expense.
Disheartened by apathy
“I quit researching because I was very disheartened by the fact that there were so many people who would not join me or support any kind of effort to get anything done,” she said. “The more I read, the less I slept, and it was getting to the point where I could not sleep at all, and I just stopped.”
Andrews has no proof that the PFAS contamination in her well came from Chambers Works but argues that there’s strong circumstantial evidence to support the view that it does.
“If you know a lot about the company’s history, you know that they pretty much just dumped stuff,” she said. “They washed their equipment and let the wastewater go into the ground, into the Delaware River. That’s my opinion, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s unlikely.”
The company “could have been a wonderful institution if only they took care of disposing of these things properly,” she said. “Instead, it has become a nightmare.”
Some long-time residents say there’s just too much evidence linking local illness to environmental contamination, even if that idea has not been legally or scientifically confirmed.
Linda Kyle, 56, who was born in Pennsville and lived there until she moved to Florida in 2010, blames the chemicals for her 27-year-old son’s lymphoma (a cancer of the immune system), and fears that her own health will eventually break down because of decades living near the plant.
“I absolutely, positively attribute everything to DuPont because everything is contaminated,” she said. “For myself, I feel like a ticking time bomb after breathing it in for all those years.”
The evidence, Kyle said, also includes her father’s death from liver cancer after working 35 years at the plant; her non-smoking mother’s lung disease; and the green cloud she recalls seeing over the community during her childhood. “I remember breathing in funny smells and everyone would say, ‘Oh it’s just DuPont,’” she said.
It’s easy to understand why no-one spoke out at the time, given DuPont’s dominance, but for some it’s now too late, Kyle said.
“It was a high-paying job that put food on the table,” she said. “They didn’t know all the detrimental effects that it was doing to them. Now, it’s obvious that that place has killed so many people.”
The concern is shared by the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which began a long-running campaign for tougher limits on PFAS in New Jersey by focusing on the Chambers Works plant starting in 2005.
Still drinking poisoned water
While Chemours and Dupont wrangle over who should pay the massive cleanup bill, and regulators move slowly on finalizing statewide health standards for PFOA and PFOS, there’s a risk that people in the Chambers Works area are still drinking tainted water, said DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio.
“As other locations have discovered that their water supplies contain PFAS, attention has shifted away from the original epicenter of New Jersey’s PFAS problems,” she wrote in an email.
Even after the state adopts maximum contaminant limits for the two chemicals, it will be important for private well owners who are not part of a sampling program to have their wells tested, so they can have filtration systems installed and inform the authorities if the chemicals are found, she said.
“DRN considers the site to be an environmental menace because of the ongoing pollution as well as the legacy of pollution caused by activities there,” Carluccio said.
In Pennsville, Donna Jenkins said she can’t blame DuPont for her cancer of the bone marrow because she doesn’t know whether it’s linked to chemical contamination. But whether or not DuPont’s chemicals were the root cause, she’s tempted to believe her illness can be traced to the drinking water.
Jenkins, 79, who has lived in the town for 30 years, worked for a long time in medical records at a local hospital so didn’t come into occupational contact with the chemicals that could have caused her illness. But when she read an article about contaminated drinking water on an activist Facebook page called “WTFDupont,” she began to wonder if that was the cause.
“I’m sure the chemicals leached into the water, and that’s the problem in this area,” she said.
— Map by Vinny Caravano/NJTV News