Dutch court holds chemical factory accountable for leaching PFAS

Chemours/DuPont slapped on wrists for withholding information regarding health risks

During a historic ruling in September of this year, the court of Rotterdam decided to hold Chemours (formerly known as DuPont) accountable for leaching PFAS. This lawsuit was filed by the municipality of Dordrecht, where the chemical factory is located, together with multiple adjacent municipalities. This ruling also opens the door towards compensation proceedings in which the affected municipalities will claim compensation for all financial and health implications due to the PFAS spilling. That would be yet another chapter in a long story that started already in the 1960’s. High time to make a recap of this story in The Netherlands about an emerging contaminant that may foreshadow similar health and legal issues in other parts of the world.

What are PFAS and PFOA?

But before zooming in on the situation in The Netherlands, it is important to understand what PFAS actually are. PFAS is short for ‘Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances’ and forms a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals. One type of PFAS, which was commonly used until its health implications became more widely known, is PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8).

Sources of PFAS compounds in the environment (Design: Cashman 2022 & D Lapworth BGS © UKRI)
Sources of PFAS compounds in the environment (Design: Cashman 2022 & D. Lapworth BGS © UKRI)

These chemicals entered our lives around the 1950s after 27-year-old chemist Roy J. Plunkett, working at the DuPont laboratory in New Jersey, accidentally invented them while researching refrigerants.  

Since then, PFAS have been used for a variety of applications, because they have two very unique and extremely useful characteristics. As PFAS molecules link fluorine and carbon molecules, and these carbon-fluorine bonds are the strongest bond in chemistry, PFAS are virtually unbreakable. PFAS are known for their extremely effective water-repellent properties, and this makes them the ideal compound for water-resistant fabrics like raincoats, umbrellas or outdoor tents. These characteristics combined with the fact that PFAS chemicals can resist extreme high temperatures, make them 'perfect' to be used in kitchenware. When introduced in the 50’s, they were primarily used to create the nonstick TeflonTM layer on pots and pans, but later they were also used in (among others) cleaning products, personal care products, stain-resistant coatings and the firefighter foam used for liquid fuel fires.

Forever chemicals

Unfortunately, it is exactly the unbreakable strength of PFAS that also poses the biggest threat. Their water-resistance and non-degradable nature are advantages for the before-mentioned applications; however, they are also major threats whenever they end up in the air we breathe, the water we drink or the food we eat. Through industrial release to water, air, or soil, or through leaching from landfills, PFAS can enter groundwater resources. 

Being ‘forever chemicals’, PFAS stay intact even when infiltrating the soil and can, through groundwater, be consumed by inhabitants in the surrounding area of the contaminated site. And even once PFAS end up in the human body, they still stay intact, which is where its toxicity comes from.

And this type of exposure to PFAS can have harrowing effects on human health. It increases the risk of thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, and even kidney or testicular cancer. Exposure during pregnancy can cause lower birth weight, delayed mammary gland development or even increased miscarriage risk.    

Effects of exposure to PFASs on human health
Effects of exposure to PFASs on human health (Wikimedia Commons)

Ironically, most of these adverse health effects have been proven in research conducted by the exact same organisation that are currently being sued in this cover-up story. Later we will look into their lab tests dating back as far as the 70s, with detrimental consequences for the tested monkeys and rats.

Sick local residents and former employees

Now that you are more aware of the health risks when exposed to PFAS, it is easy to understand the public outcry whenever PFAS are being discovered in drinking water supplies. Ted van der Vlies, an elderly man from Sliedrecht, a town approximately 1km away from the Chemours factory in Dordrecht, thought he was living the healthiest lifestyle imaginable. For over 40 years, he was growing vegetables, fruits and berries in his own garden, without using any pesticides. He also got his protein from eggs that his own free-range chickens provided him. 

His food was truly organic, but little did he know about the PFAS that were present in the little stream that he used to irrigate those crops. “I had no clue, nobody in the area did”, he says in the documentary ‘PFAS cover-up’ by Zembla.

Chemours Dordrecht, Netherlands (Paul van de Velde, Flickr)
Chemours Dordrecht, Netherlands (Paul van de Velde, Flickr)

Once in 2016, it became apparent that Chemours had consistently spilled PFAS into the water, hundreds of its surrounding inhabitants had their blood checked, including Van der Vlies. When his results came out, he appeared to have 157,9 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). To put this in perspective, the ‘safe’ level is anything below 2 ng/ml, levels between 2 and 20 ng/ml can already have adverse health effects and anything above 20 ng/ml gives an increased risk of health impacts. So, Ted van der Vlies’ was almost 8 times the most critical threshold. He is now suffering both skin cancer and leukemia, and is convinced that this was caused by the PFAS pollution. “If you have this much trash in your blood stream and then get blood cancer, then it must be the cause.”  

Van der Vlies’ story, unfortunately, is not a stand-alone case. The Zembla documentary also interviewed former employees of the Chemours/DuPont factory, who have been exposed for years to PFAS during their daily work and are currently suffering from bad health. One of those former employees is Theo van Ballegooijen, who is suffering prostate cancer and has infections throughout his entire body. After 35 years of work at the factory, he became too ill to work. Sitting in his wheelchair, he is no longer able to walk, he explains that he and his wife sued Chemours over his illness.

Early concerns, without resulting into actions

The Chemours factory in Dordrecht, at the time still DuPont, was officially opened in 1962. And even back then, over 60(!) years ago, there were already concerns about the toxicity of particularly PFOA. These concerns, however, were expressed by the headquarters of DuPont and were never shared with the public. The cause for these concerns was a laboratory experiment, conducted with rats who were being exposed to these substances. Adverse health effects already occurred with exposure to only low quantities of PFOA. The liver started to enlarge. This urged DuPont to communicate, albeit just internally, that PFOA should be ‘handled with extreme care’ and that ‘contact with the skin should be strictly avoided’.

This makes it even more concerning that these strict internal guidelines were not at all reflected in the workplace. The abovementioned former employee Theo van Ballegooijen declares to the Zembla interviewer that when one day a pipe leaked and the substance was sprayed all over his head and body, the managers instantly downplayed the risk of this event. “It is harmless, it is just like shampoo, was all they said”, he says. “They said that you can simply eat Teflon, without any issues, because it is only dangerous when it combusts.” Another former labourer of Dupont, Aart van Os, explains that this was rather common practice. 

“Floor managers rotated every 2-3 years, but each one of them told me the same thing.” When asked what that statement entailed, Van Oort answers briefly: “Safe.” Van Os is now severely ill and has infections throughout his entire body.  

Behind the curtains, DuPont’s managerial ranks continue to discuss their concerns regarding the toxic effects of PFOA. This recently became apparent when the minutes from a meeting between DuPont and 3M, held back in 1975, had surfaced. In this gathering, it was recommended to no longer use PFOA for food products because of these potential toxic effects. Nevertheless, despite this knowledge and concerns, the chemicals continued to be used for another 37 years, even in food-related products like fast-food packaging, pizza boxes or baking tins for cupcakes.  

Proven harm to the immune system

Meanwhile, the research on health effects continued (behind closed doors). Three years after the meeting between DuPont and 3M, the latter decided to perform lab tests with monkeys to investigate the effects on primates. 

In one of these studies, monkeys were subjected to four types of PFOA for a period of 90 days, with one group being injected with 0.5 mg/kg/day, another with 1.5 and the last with 4.5. At least, that was the initial plan. However, the experiment was aborted after only 20 days, because by then all 16 monkeys had died

The higher the dosage of PFOA, the earlier they had passed away. Another outcome was that it had detrimental effect on the monkeys’ immune system. Be that as it may, none of the outcomes from this study was published or shared with the authorities.

Primate research (Animal People Forum)
Primate research (Animal People Forum)

A more recent scientific study, which confirms the severe impact of PFAS on the immune system, took place on the Faroe Islands. For the local population of these relatively remote islands, fish makes up a substantial part of their diet. From PFAS spills into sea from mainland Europe and through the fish they ate, the forever chemicals reached the bloodstream of the Faroese. During a study on the impacts of PFAS and PFOA concentrations on small kids, Philippe Grandjean, a big name in the field of PFAS-related research, came with a shocking revelation. With each multiplication of PFAS concentrations in the blood stream, the child lost 50% of the antibodies produced by vaccines. The higher the concentration of PFAS, the lower the effectiveness of vaccines on kids. Their auto-immune response was severely hindered by these chemicals.

The cover-up continues

A handwritten letter from a DuPont staff member in 1979 regarding the lab experiments on rodents and primates, proves that it was a deliberate choice to not disclose this information. The footer of this letter reads, in capital letters, ‘ONLY TELL THOSE WHO HAVE A NEED TO KNOW’. Other internal documents from the same period, also obtained by the Zembla journalist, confirm this cover-up policy when signing off with ‘please return your draft copy to me for destruction’.

Arguably the most sensitive internal document in relation to these cover-up practices, however, were meeting notes from a gathering of high DuPont officials in Wilmington, USA, in 1984. These minutes captured a statement from these officials saying that “DuPont is already liable for the past 32 years”. It then continues to lay out how to proceed in an attempt at minimizing its legal consequences. 

It recommends eliminating all C-8 (a PFOA chemical) emissions, but only if it does not ‘economically penalize’ the company. The latter concern eventually outweighed the first, because DuPont continued to use PFOA for another 28 (!) years, until a governmental ban on its usage in 2012 put an end to it.

And all this time, the DuPont/Chemours factory in Dordrecht has emitted PFAS, up in the air, but also into the Merwede River. Contrary to what may be thought while reading about arguably the most toxic chemical being released into water resources over the course of 61 years, this action was not the reason for the court trial in September 2023. In fact, the factory has all the necessary permits for these releases. The main issue, however, is that the authorities have never received all the information about the dangers of the chemicals emitted, necessary to make an informed decision about these permits to begin with. The court ruling in September called the PFAO releases prior to the 1984 meeting notes ‘not an unlawful act’. For the period after those notes, on the other hand, the judge did determine the releases to be unlawful.

"Since DuPont (former) did not sufficiently inform the permitting authority and municipalities during this period about the potential risks of these emissions and its own concerns about them, Chemours and DuPont (former) cannot rely on the granted permits for this period." 

Court ruling municipalities (Dordrecht, Papendrecht, Sliedrecht en Molenlanden) vs. Chemours/DuPont, Rotterdam, 27 Sept. 2023

Dordrecht’s dark waters

Dordrecht Watertoren Dupont (Willem Jans, Wikimedia | https://bit.ly/49WyL1i)
Dordrecht Watertoren Dupont (Willem Jans, Wikimedia)

Already in 1993, DuPont detected PFOA in the groundwater below its factory as well as in surrounding areas. Given that Dordrecht also relies on groundwater for its drinking water supply, this posed a direct threat to local residents. A threat, DuPont must have been aware of considering its previous laboratory studies. This is confirmed by the fact that it already formulated a drinking water standard for PFOA in 1993, something that the Dutch authorities only introduced in 2016. The PFOA values found in groundwater during the mid-90s were a staggering 75 times higher than their own drinking water standard.

During a security check in 1994, it became apparent that several pipes had broken or leaked, creating a landfill below the factory and causing the forever chemicals to seep into the groundwater. This internal report called the groundwater situation ‘hard to control’ with serious ‘liability consequences’. These legal consequences could’ve indeed been severe, because the factory had permits for releases into the Merwede, but not for groundwater releases.

Meanwhile, DuPont decided in 1995 to develop a ‘Groundwater Remediation Master Plan’. The main objective of this plan was to accomplish groundwater remediation by 2030. Internal documentation dating back to 2003 show, however, that this plan was a complete fiasco. This report states that 8 years after instating the master plan, the PFOA concentrations in groundwater have in fact even increased compared to the mid-90s. Another internal memo, later in 2016, confirmed the failure of the remediation efforts, labelling it ‘technically and financially unfeasible’.        

PFAS hotspot, worldwide problem

Although this Chemours/DuPont story may be an extraordinary case, PFAS is definitely not just a local problem. Not just because chemicals spilled into the ocean can eventually reach other parts of the world, but also because PFAS spills are unfortunately not a rare site in general. However, despite the previously described timeline with over 60 years of research conducted by DuPont, the general knowledge about the risks that PFAS poses to human health and ecosystems is relatively recently developed. Slowly, more data is being collected and information produced on the scope of this problem.

A major step forward in this process, is the Forever Pollution Project, a collaboration of journalists and media to investigate and map PFAS pollution within Europe. It is initiated by the Investigative Desk Netherlands and is backed by major outlets like Le Monde and The Guardian. The result is a map with over 17,000 sites where PFAS contamination has been detected, 232 industrial sites that use PFAS in their production process, 21,000 presumptive contamination sites and over 2,100 hotspots. Sites are considered a ‘hotspot’ when the concentration of PFAS detected reaches a level that experts consider hazardous for health (100 ng/l). Needless to say, Chemours is one of those hotspots, with a PFAS level of 3,030 ng/l.

The case against the Chemours/DuPont factory in Dordrecht is historical, but not unique or extraordinary. Not even for DuPont in fact. A previous court case in the US even resulted in Hollywood movie: Dark Waters. Earlier this year, 3M settled a lawsuit filed by 300 communities, with a 10.3-billion-dollar payout. The Chemours/DuPont case could become a steppingstone. Not only from a legal perspective, with more groundwater polluters getting sued, but also by more PFAS-related information becoming available. And that will be needed too, because even if pollution has taken place decades ago, PFAS’ nondegradable nature can cause it to still be present in groundwater in the future. In addition, groundwater has a long-residence time and slow renewal rate, compared to for example surface water, which means the PFAS present in groundwater would remain a major groundwater quality issue in the forthcoming years, or even decades. It will therefore be of crucial importance that, unlike the Chemours/DuPont case, groundwater quality data becomes more transparent and is being disclosed early on, to properly handle with these forever chemicals.