PFOA, I’m told, is the slipperiest chemical in existence. Nothing sticks to it, a peculiar quality that found profitable application within the manufacture of plastics. A white, waxy powder first engineered in the 1940s, PFOA helped press Teflon into waterproof fabrics and non-stick kitchenware before being washed away without a thought. PFOA’s unique ability to repel water and grease also came to find widespread use in food packaging, where it lined take-out containers and pastry bags. As shockingly large amounts of this synthetic petrochemical were dumped into the environment, such slipperiness was cast in a more disconcerting light. PFOA resists the forces of decay: as engineered, PFOA is impervious to the ecological jackhammers of microbes, sunlight, heat, and even time. It is heedless of reified boundaries, slipping through physical bodies, national borders, and earthly mediums like storms and aquifers with remarkable ease. PFOA has also evaded regulatory scrutiny for decades despite evidence of its toxicity.
Yet it turns out that PFOA does get tangled up in some things, like organic matter in soils, activated carbon filtration systems, protein receptors in humans, and a growing number of class action lawsuits. In the past few years, a handful of advocates and lawyers have worked to pull the properties of PFOA into scientific and political legibility. Some 75 years after PFOA first entered plastics manufacturing, it may no longer be feasible to remove the toxicant from the environment. Yet these activist groups nonetheless labor to demand accountability from PFOA’s profiteers and minimize harm going forward. Much of this centers on firming up the science of PFOA, whether by inscribing PFOA with a more exacting molecular identity or standardizing detection methods and exposure thresholds. These scientific techniques pull PFOA into something tractable, yet in so doing they often lose sight of the bruising confrontations that first brought PFOA into public view and glide over the practical demands of impacted communities. PFOA is becoming factual, yet these facts all too often stand at safe distance from the destructive logics and wounded lives that first called them into being. What forms of understanding might assail those logics and assist these lives?
Although the engineered properties of PFOA are at the center of my ethnographic work, I neither take them up as metaphor nor reduce them to mere chemistry. Rather, I want to understand how select injuries, tactics, and uncertainties take shape around the emergent properties of PFOA and, in turn, how the properties of PFOA materialize new fields of protest, culpability, and effective knowledge. The dialectical tension between these two orientations – the open-ended nature of the first and the efforts of the latter to pull PFOA into something more solid and prosecutable – works to define PFOA contamination today. While exposure is planetary, the experience of PFOA contamination remains rooted in communities adjacent to plastics manufacturing hubs in the United States and Europe. I happen to live in one of these communities, and I’ve spent the better part of the past four years working with my neighbors as we struggle to understand PFOA. In this work, I’ve often wondered how ethnography can help pull PFOA into sharper scientific and political focus for impacted residents while also remaining attentive to how the problem of PFOA contamination exceeds the given registers of injury and recompense.
A few weeks after the discovery of PFOA in the drinking water of Hoosick Falls, NY, Petersburgh, NY and Bennington, VT in 2016, Bennington College offered a new class on PFOA. This class, free and open to the public, became a place where teaching – the core commitment of the university – was opened to a public desperate for reliable information on an unfolding environmental disaster. Co-taught by a chemist, a geologist, and myself (an anthropologist), this class was attended by state legislators, teachers from nearby high schools, journalists, nurses, concerned residents, and a few Bennington College students. Alongside this class, I helped organize research teams of faculty and students that took up resident’s concerns. We crafted research projects aimed at producing independent data for the community, from PFOA levels in maple sap to suspicions of illegal waste pits. These efforts were responding to a recognition that state agencies are often bound by strict protocols in their investigation of contamination. Questions from impacted residents are often neglected as state agencies focus their research on anticipating and withstanding eventual courtroom disputes. In our work, we learned that collaborations between anthropology and environmental scientists can take residents’ spoken concerns seriously, providing data calibrated not to the prefabricated agendas of the corporation nor the state but to the lived dimensions of resident concerns (Bond, Foley, Schroeder 2018). More broadly, we are concerned that the tactics of the state, while potentially effective at furthering the public interest in the long run, works to diminish and discount the kind of situated curiosity that breathes life into informed citizenship.
Exposure to trace amounts of PFOA has been strongly linked to developmental disorders, immune dysfunction, and a host of cancers, including kidney and testicular cancer. When the New York State Department of Health released a shoddy cancer survey that declared there were testicular cancers in Hoosick Falls – this despite the fact a number of people living in Hoosick Falls had been diagnosed with testicular cancer – I collaborated with a local doctor, environmental engineer, and former EPA regional director to conduct a health survey that would give the communities knowledge of its own health more prominence. Our questionnaire identified and confirmed a handful of cancers in the community associated with PFOA, leading the state to reconsider medical monitoring as part of the settlement they are negotiating with plastics factory (Bond 2018).
Saint-Gobain and others in the plastics industry have continually attempted to muddy the scientific waters around PFOA contamination in the region. This includes purchasing the domain names HoosickFallsWater.com and BenningtonWater.com to showcase corporate responsibility to the community while simultaneously submitting legal filings blaming the community itself for PFOA contamination. In one 7,377 page report, Saint-Gobain argued that residents negligent disposal of household goods containing trace amounts of PFOA likely played a more significant role in contaminating our region than the plastics factory that accepted delivery of PFOA by the truckload and emitted it by the ton annually. At one point, Saint-Gobain threatened to pull funding for water filtration systems if local leaders did not accept their highly truncated (but professionally modelled) assessment of the limits of PFOA contamination attributable to the factory. With students, I worked to pull these corrupt efforts into the light of day and showcase the dubious logic their claims often rested upon (Bond and Rose 2018).
As PFOA’s designation as a hazardous waste becomes inevitable, many states and industries have begun rushing to rid themselves of stockpiles of it. Over the past two years, millions of pounds of PFOA have been burned at a handful of incinerators in poor communities around the US despite there being zero scientific evidence that incineration destroys these toxicants (and good reason to think it does not). I worked with local advocates and residents of a public housing complex located next to a hazardous waste incinerator in Cohoes, NY that has been burning PFOA. In the soil and wetlands and neighborhoods around the incinerator, we found elevated levels of PFOA. Our findings suggest that incineration is not solving the PFOA problem so much as redistributing it into poor and working-class neighborhoods (Bond, Foley, and Schroeder 2020). Our report helped city and state legislators pass bills banning the incineration of PFOA in New York.
In each of these efforts, I have a tried to leverage ethnographic insights on PFOA contamination into activities that will produce real change, whether in media interviews, testifying at state hearings, or in publishing a handful of Op-Eds in local and regional papers. And yet the physical properties of PFOA contamination continue to elude the solutions at hand: contamination is so extensive in many places as to boggle any clean-up effort; PFOA is now detectable in every human population on the planet; and PFOA is extraordinarily durable and exists, as one regulator told me, “on geological timescales.” Environmental advocates have taken to calling PFOA a “forever chemical” for its planetary spread and sheer indestructibility. These properties of PFOA grossly exceed the best measures of compensation and remediation we have available. In my own work, I have often wondered: How can ethnography make PFOA stick within the quite reasonable demands of impacted communities while keeping an eye on all that doesn’t yet fit within our present scales of justice?
For half a century, PFOA slipped through the cracks of scientific objectivity and political liability while causing tremendous harm to factory workers and working-class communities adjacent plastics manufacturing. Today, with an upsurge of outrage in those communities and with the help of scholars, scientists, and lawyers, that is beginning to change. PFOA is getting caught up in forms of scientific and political accountability, and the profiteers of its harm are now being prosecuted. Yet so much of the problem still hovers at the edges of analytical focus and existential imprint. As one leading environmental scientist told me, “With PFOA, we don’t yet know if our actual exposure is increasing or not. What is happening is our knowledge of exposure to PFOA is increasing.” It was sometimes hard, he said, to tell the difference.
PFOA is now found just about everywhere we have thought to look for it: in polar bears and penguins, in snow and rain, in deep aquifers and high mountains, and in just about every form of cellular life on earth. And now corporate defense attorneys for the plastics industry are hard at work nominating PFOA to the welcoming committee of a future of total contamination. It’s a future they cast as inevitable, surprisingly democratic, and without any liable author. This corporate argument finds curious echo in rising currents of anthropological theory that take up contamination as the most piercing lens to view our impending world. Embracing contamination, these projects seize upon the evasive materiality of toxicity to disavow the political present and prefigure a more radical future unmoored from historical struggle. Slippery indeed.
David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder. 2020. Ban All Incineration of PFAS in New York, Op-Ed in Albany Times Union (May 31): D2.
David Bond. 2018. PFOA Victims Deserve Medical Monitoring, Health Care, Op-Ed in Albany Times Union (Aug 21).
David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder. 2018. New Research Suggests PFOA Contamination Far More Extensive Than Originally Thought, Bennington Banner (Aug 2): A6.
David Bond and Jorja Rose. 2018. Saint-Gobain’s Claims Don’t Hold Water, Vermont Digger (May 20).
- Anthropologists are playing an instrumental role in these critical engagements with PFAS chemicals, the perflourinated family of toxicants that PFOA belongs to. Here, I take inspiration from the work of Bill Alexander, Ashley Barham, and Grey Caballero around the social implications of PFAS contamination in North Carolina; Thomas Pearson’s work with communities “on the frontlines of a growing contamination crisis that affects everyone,”; Tim Neale’s work on the new regime of toxic stability introduced by PFAS chemicals in Australia; and the interdisciplinary team at Northeastern that has brought together advocacy groups, government agencies, and impacted communities to shape the national conversation on PFOA.
About the Author
David Bond teaches anthropology and environmental studies at Bennington College. His work describes the disasters of the fossil fuel industry in North America, and what can be done about it.