Toxic tap water: Lessons learned in West Virginia

Man who drank tainted water and has health problems: "There's not a happy ending."

Parkersburg, West Virginia
Parkersburg, West Virginia. (Dec. 6, 2017)


PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WOOD) — Earl Botkin lived down the Ohio River from the sprawling DuPont Co. Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia for years, but never questioned his drinking water.

Then he developed thyroid problems and later ulcerative colitis. Recently, doctors removed his colon.

“It’s right here,” he said of the purse-sized pouch tucked under his shirt that holds his body’s waste. “I don’t like to look at it.”

Now, he’s waiting for his share of a $670 million settlement with DuPont.

“There’s nothing that could compensate you for what happens when they remove part of your body and you have to live with that forever,” Botkin said.

MULTIMILLION DOLLAR SETTLEMENT AFTER DUPONT CONTAMINATION

In the Ohio River Valley, just downstream from the former DuPont plant, those whose lives were changed by decades of PFAS contamination are years ahead of those whose lives are suddenly changing in northern Kent County.

News of DuPont’s contamination started spreading in late 2000. Residents in the Belmont area started learning their wells were contaminated this year. Some just started filing lawsuits against Wolverine Worldwide, accusing it of contaminating their wells with PFAS from the Scotchgard it used to treat shoes and covering it up for years.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation

In Parkersburg, DuPont made Teflon — the stuff to keep eggs from sticking to pans — with a chemical known as PFOA, or C8.

PFOA is a member of the PFAS family of chemicals, along with PFOS, which was used in Scotchgard produced by 3M and used by Wolverine. They’re man-made chemicals known as “C8” because they have eight carbons.

PFOA ended up in the public water supplies for miles down the Ohio River from Parkersburg, contaminating public water supplies.

The EPA fined DuPont $10.25 million in 2005 for covering up possible health risks of PFOA for years.

Botkin is among 3,500 people in the Ohio River Valley area, in Ohio and West Virginia, waiting for their share of the $670 million settlement announced earlier this year by DuPont. Each payout will be based on the damage caused by the water. Botkin should get a lot.

“They remove your colon and you wonder, ‘Do I want to live this way?'” Botkin said. “I mean, let’s get real here. Do you want to live that way? It changes your life.”

Those who’ve lived through contamination in West Virginia said their counterparts in West Michigan are in for a long struggle.

“What happened down here with PFOA, C8, is directly parallel to what’s happening up there,” said Harry Deitzler, a Parkersburg attorney who sued DuPont. “They know there are health problems with it. They know they’ve got it in the water. The only question is who’s going to deal with it?”

WHAT TESTS IN WEST VIRGINIA FOUND ABOUT ILLNESSES

In Parkersburg, Joe Kiger, an elementary physical education teacher, was among the first to sue DuPont as part of a class-action suit filed in 2001 even though he has no medical complications.

“I’m a school teacher and I’ve got 600 little babies out there, and when I look at those children, I think, ‘Oh my God,'” he said.

It took four years for DuPont to settle the class-action suit, agreeing to filter the water and shelling out another $70 million. It also agreed to a health study that became known as the C8 Health Project.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys used the $70 million for testing. They offered $400 cash to anybody who drank the bad water to take a blood test and answer health surveys. They wanted to know how much PFOA was in their blood. More than 69,000 took the tests in 2005 and 2006.

“Virtually the entire population,” said Deitzler, the attorney.

Three epidemiologists used the blood, health surveys and other studies to determine probable links between PFOA and six medical conditions: testicular and kidney cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, high cholesterol and hypertension in pregnancy.

Anyone in the area with those conditions was able to be part of the $670 million settlement.

Deitzler said that among his nearly 2,600 clients, nearly three quarters had high cholesterol, more than half had thyroid problems (some people had more than one condition), nearly 20 percent of women suffered pregnancy hypertension, 6 percent had ulcerative colitis, 6 percent suffered kidney cancer and 4 percent of men had testicular cancer.

“What you’re in for is, to the extent that PFAS causes diseases, people are going to get diseases,” Deitzler said. “Not everybody will. People’s metabolic makeup is different, so some people are going to be more susceptible than others. But we don’t know which people are which.”

Dr. Paul Brooks oversaw the massive blood testing in the Ohio River Valley.

“It’s the most dangerous pollutant that the world’s ever seen,” he said of PFOA. “Every warm-blooded animal on this planet, including the polar bears, have all got it in their blood. Everybody. Everybody.

“It’s everywhere. Some of the highest numbers I saw were in your part of the country,” he told Target 8.

The most tainted water supply on the Ohio River hit 10,000 parts per trillion in the early 2000s. One private well near Wolverine’s old House Street dump in Belmont came in almost four times higher, at 38,000 parts per trillion.

“Oh my God,” Brooks reacted.

>>App users: Interactive map of toxic tap water

KENT COUNTY LOOKED TO WEST VIRGINIA TO CONDUCT STUDY

In Belmont, 30 wells have tested over the EPA’s advisory limit of 70 for drinking water.

Kent County Health Department officials have said they plan to conduct a health survey to determine if the Wolverine contamination has led to cancer and other illnesses. They said they plan to model it after the Ohio River Valley survey, on a smaller scale.

Brooks said Kent County Health Department officials have talked to him about the study.

A Wolverine expert has said there’s no human tests that prove the chemical spreading in West Michigan will make people sick. The EPA says only that it may cause problems, including some cancers.

The experts in West Virginia say health problems on the Ohio River could be different than in Kent County. West Virginia studied just PFOA, which showed up in elevated levels in blood. Water tests in Kent County have found both PFOA and PFOS.

“If you look at them chemically, I don’t think there’s any question,” Brooks said. “They may have a little bit different pathways in the body, they may affect things a little differently, because of the different radicals, but they still will cause disease.”

Brooks said Kent County residents in the Wolverine contamination zones should undergo blood tests and get medical monitoring, including routine cancer screenings.

“Everybody who’s in that area needs to be tested and followed,” Brooks said.

While Wolverine is providing safe water for residents, it has refused to pay for blood tests.

“There’s not a happy ending,” said Botkin, the West Virginia man whose colon was removed. “If they’ve poisoned your water, there’s not a happy ending to this.”

RESOURCES FOR BELMONT RESIDENTS

If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.

Websites with additional information on the contamination: