The Dark Waters of Parkersburg, WV: A Warning to Us All
Supporting advances in monitoring technologies protects our communities and ourselves.
We humans (read water consumers) need to step up, be proactive, use our voices, and be the change that stops contamination of our water supplies and our bodies. We can start by supporting technology that monitors, and alerts us to, poisons flowing from our taps.
Fiddles Mill Falls, West Virginia. Via Wikimedia Commons
Most drinking water is safe and sanitary, but for some communities its quality can be a hardship, as the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia learned in their fight against Teflon in their water. It was an incident as frightening as, if not worse than, Flint, Michigan because of the “cover-up by the Dupont chemical company, which knowingly contaminated the water supply surrounding its plant with a chemical called PFOA,” a human carcinogen, and an essential ingredient in the formulation of Teflon.
The film, Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo, tells the story of the coverup by Dupont and the fight for justice for the residents. Reporter Nick Brumfield writes that the film takes “the crown for being the best-known case of PFOA contamination, it does not end there as the chemical and others like it are produced all over the world, with contaminations reported in places as far away as China and Alaska.”
Not surprisingly, decisions made back in the day resulted in the consequences of today. On a timeline, they go as far back as the 1950s when, “Dupont dumped perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a toxic chemical used in Teflon products like non-stick pans, into the Ohio River” It is a story that gets darker with each step, almost as if we’re sinking neck-deep in the contaminated waters of Parkersburg.
The pinnacle of the story is the point where lawyer Rob won a sizable class-action suit against Dupont. However:
To avoid liability, DuPont spun off its Teflon divisions into a new company called Chemours in 2015, which still uses PFAS chemicals at the Parkersburg plant. “It’s still being made. They offloaded their debt. They offloaded their problems. And they’re still making it,” said Eric Engle, a Parkersburg activist and chairman of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action group.
Estimates of the number of PFAS-contaminated sites run as high as 110,000. And, as in Newburgh and Hoosick Falls, NY, those West Virginia residents and others around the world may have been drinking carcinogenic PFAS’ for years. Had the technologies for real-time monitoring of PFAS been developed, drinking water consumers could have been protected. Those technologies still do not exist, but with a dedicated innovation push, they could.
Although the outcome of the Parkersburg case was not entirely satisfactory, its example, and Dark Waters, have helped bring a national awareness to this threat:
Several local governments have filed lawsuits against contaminators: Minnesota secured an $850 million settlement from the St. Paul-based 3M chemical company in 2018, and an Appalachian Alabama water authority won a $35 million settlement from the company in 2019
And, more recently, Hoosick Falls won a $65 million settlement against the three companies that contaminated its water supply
At Blue CoLab we believe the public has a right-to-know what is in their water before they drink it. From weather reports to dashboard warnings, we learn of threats before they can harm us. Advanced warning systems about water contamination could save millions of people from exposure to dangerous contaminants. Such innovations can be accomplished by lobbying elected officials and governors to create a policy that establishes technological standards for water monitoring and water warning systems, and funds innovation of real-time water sensing, such as the Blue CoLab conducts in our campus pond.
It can make it appear extremely dark at the end of the tunnel, when we should be seeing the light generated by controversies like Parkersburg. But awareness must continue to build, as must innovation. Few people are aware of what could be in the water they drink each day. As a nationwide water community, we should come together and be the change for future generations, so they do not have to worry about contamination or health threats when they simply grab a drink from the water faucet in their own home.
These stories should bring intolerable feelings that make us sick to our stomachs. If they don’t serve as a warning now, they will if your local water supply becomes contaminated — and then, perhaps, you’ll join the fight for the innovations that can protect all of us.
Joseph Turner ’23, is an Information Technology major in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University.
The Flint, Michigan water crisis alerted the public to how little we know about our drinking water and how late we learn.
Technology-based alerts are commonplace in daily life: storm alerts; car collisions; even asteroid near-misses. But not for water.