Has Pittard Road been poisoned?

Pittard road residents say that industrial dumping of toxic chemicals has caused 31 people in their small community to contract cancer in the past few decades, with some losing their lives. The ACC Sustainability Office has spent over a year investigating the issue, but residents are urging the mayor and commission to do more to clean up potential pollution that has not yet been discovered.

Is there any reason to think that Pittard Road has been poisoned? In this article, we’ll first take a look at the available evidence. We’ll also examine the history of so-called “forever” chemicals and the legacy of their widespread use across the country.

Table of Contents

Pittard Road residents speak up
No evidence of contamination

What about the “forever” chemicals?
Next steps

Pittard Road residents speak up

About a dozen Pittard Road residents and other stakeholders came to a recent mayor and commission meeting to demand action and a more thorough investigation of potential environmental contamination in their area.

“Our once thriving neighborhood has been devastated by the illegal dumping of toxic chemicals into the lake by DuPont, resulting in the poisoning of our water supply,” Pittard Road resident Brendan Kenny told the commission on August 1.

Several residents gave similar comments. Some mourned the death of their loved ones from cancer and others expressed fear that they might be next. All pointed to a nearby industrial site, formerly owned by DuPont, then Invista and now RWDC Industries as the source of the potential pollution.

The Pittard Road stakeholders speak at the August 1, 2023 mayor and commission meeting
Pittard Road stakeholders speak at the August 1, 2023 mayor and commission meeting. Some are wearing black shirts that say “Justice 31” which refers to the 31 residents who they say have contracted cancer in recent decades.

“The risk of another toxic leak remains prevalent,” warned Jayana Flint, another resident of the area.

“Our soil and water sources are now contaminated and we are experiencing severe health consequences,” said resident Kiara Trammell. “Today we demand immediate action and justice. We call for a comprehensive investigation.”

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

Commissioner Ovita Thornton, who represents the area, called for the mayor to create a new committee to investigate the concerns of residents and address them however possible. “I don’t think they want to come back and repeat themselves,” Thornton told Girtz at the meeting. “We need a group who is going to take this information and move it forward.”

Other commissioners supported Thornton’s idea, meaning the local government will continue to spend time and resources addressing environmental concerns in the Pittard Road area. But is there actually any evidence of an increased rate of cancer in the area or any toxic leak ever having occurred at the site?

No evidence of contamination

The ACC Sustainability Office has already investigated the issue for over a year with help from Rebecca Davis, an environmental attorney from Atlanta-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw. While they didn’t analyze any physical samples themselves, what they did do is thoroughly examine everything that’s been documented about the former DuPont plant and the Pittard Road area at the local, state and federal level.

They compiled a number of documents during their investigation, which they have made available to the public here.

DuPont is one of the world’s largest chemical companies, and as such is also one of the world’s biggest polluters of the air and water. They’ve been sued and fined repeatedly for numerous violations, which we’ll talk more about below. It may go without saying, but while the company’s reputation as a notorious polluter is relevant to concerns in the Pittard Road area, it is not by itself evidence of a toxic spill.

What did DuPont use the Pittard Road site for?

DuPont began operations at their Athens location in the 1970s, located just to the southwest of Pittard Road at 110 Voyles Road. DuPont operated the site as a textile manufacturing plant until 2003 when it was sold to Invista, who continued using the site for the same purpose until it was finally sold to RWDC in 2019.

While there were undoubtedly some chemicals used in the manufacturing process over the years, the output of the plant – nylon fibers for the carpet industry – was considered nontoxic. DuPont never used the site to synthesize chemicals according to the records we have. There are also no records of any toxic spills at the site that could have affected the groundwater or any neighboring properties. Of course, that doesn’t mean such a spill never happened, only that we don’t have evidence for it.

Do Pittard Road residents have an increased rate of cancer?

If carcinogens or other toxic chemicals were released in an accidental or unregulated way at the DuPont plant at some point, we might expect it to show up as an increased rate of cancer for nearby residents. But according to a cancer cluster investigation performed by the Georgia Department of Public Health in the early 2000s, Pittard Road residents have a statistically-similar cancer risk to the Athens population as a whole, although they are at an increased risk for breast cancer (likely due to genetic factors).

The Georgia Department of Public Health examined the incidence of cancer in this small community of about a hundred residents and found nine individuals from 1987 to 2002 who had contracted cancer. Five were breast cancers and the four others were lymphoma, stomach, lung and colon cancer. Three of the five breast cancers were found in related women. Other women in this family also contracted the disease who had never lived on Pittard Road.

Residents say the number of cancer cases in their neighborhood is much greater than the nine cases confirmed by health officials. They had originally claimed 22 cases when contacting the Northeast Health District for help in 2003 and today the number they cite is up to 31. But despite interviewing 64 residents and sending out surveys to 95 households in the area, public health officials could only confirm nine cases at the time and concluded that residents in the area are not at any elevated risk.

It’s possible their conclusion would have been very different had they been able to confirm more than nine cases, although presumably they had good reason to exclude the cases they did. For example, some of the individuals had only lived in the Pittard Road area for a very short time.

Public health officials also tested homes for radon and analyzed well water for potential contaminants. They did not find any toxic or carcinogenic chemicals in their search. Everything we know points to a completely normal cancer risk level for Pittard Road residents, but unfortunately there’s one glaring omission in the 2003 investigation.

What about the “forever” chemicals?

Two classes of chemicals that public health officials did not search for at the time are per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These are the so-called “forever” chemicals. They’re toxic, do not biodegrade and are linked to cancer and a number of other diseases.

These chemicals have been used in a huge array of products since DuPont invented them back in 1946 with the creation of Teflon. Some examples include things like firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and most relevant to this article: stain-resistant carpeting. 

There may be a lack of evidence, but if Pittard Road has been contaminated due to the activities of the old DuPont plant, PFAS is a likely culprit. So why didn’t health officials check for these chemicals back in 2003?

Well, they didn’t realize they were harmful. There weren’t any federal regulations on their use until as late as 2016.

“At the time, PFAS were just beginning to emerge as an issue and there were no regulations or expectations related to PFAS testing,” ACC Sustainability Officer Mike Wharton told APN. “The dangers of PFAS did not start showing up in research papers until the early 2000s. Regulators are [still] not sure what the full impact of the problem is, what should be tested for, what are acceptable levels and what needs to be done to mitigate any potential dangers.”

The main problem with PFAS – they’re everywhere

For over fifty years, nearly all of us have used PFAS everyday whether we know it or not. Residents of Pittard Road have almost certainly been cooking using PFAS-treated pans, wearing PFAS-treated clothing, walking on carpets treated with PFAS, even flossing their teeth with PFAS-treated dental floss just as the rest of us have.

According to a report by the CDC, 97% of Americans have trace levels of PFAS in our blood. Just as alarming, more than 200 million Americans today could be drinking from water supplies that have been tainted with PFAS according to a study by the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.

While federal regulators may have been unaware of the dangers of PFAS until quite recently, DuPont scientists don’t have that excuse. They knew that PFAS are toxic as far back as 1970, according to a report published in the journal Annals of Global Health. The report also states that the company suppressed evidence of the chemicals’ toxicity and distorted public discourse around the topic using strategies pioneered by the tobacco industry. 

It took nearly 30 years for scientists working in the public sector to catch up to what DuPont knew all along.

Back in Athens, we have no evidence that PFAS were used at the textile plant near Pittard Road, but it’s certainly possible given how widespread these chemicals have been, particularly in the textile industry. 

The Pittard Road-area DuPont plant would regularly clean filters that had been clogged with nylon fabric and spray the wash water out over the fields surrounding the factory. Workers at the plant, of course, believed that the wash water was nontoxic. There’s still no evidence to indicate that it wasn’t. But if this fabric was treated with PFAS to make it stain-resistant, then contaminants could have easily leached out over the several decades the plant was in operation and spread to at least the immediate area. 

In this case, Pittard Road residents would be correct in labeling the site as a toxic waste dump.

Next Steps

So what do we do, moving forward? 

One important factor to consider is that many Pittard Road residents get their water from wells. Those wells were tested for a large array of potential contaminants during the cancer cluster investigation of the early 2000s, but they were never tested for PFAS. It’s probably a good idea that they be tested ASAP.

For everyone reading this who drinks municipal water, you’ll be glad to learn that the ACC Public Utilities Department is on top of it – they recently tested our water supply for PFAS and found no detectable levels of the chemicals. That’s good news for Athens.

Hopefully, Pittard Road residents will be able to test their own wells soon and get equally good results. Mayor Kelly Girtz says he has recently spoken with a lawyer from the Southern Environmental Law Center to see how the local government can help residents going forward. They may be able to offer residents help in testing their soil and water, and they might be able to encourage the Georgia Department of Public Health to do another cancer cluster investigation. 

But responsibility here falls primarily on federal and state environmental regulators, not on the local government.

If a new round of investigations does find contaminants, residents could potentially bring a lawsuit against DuPont or Invista. Recently, there have been a number of these kinds of lawsuits around the country. A few months ago, DuPont and other companies agreed to settle a class action lawsuit regarding PFAS pollution in South Carolina for almost $1.2 billion.

It’s daunting to imagine fighting a large corporation like this, but they can be held accountable with effort. If DuPont contaminated the ground or water near Pittard Road, hopefully that’s what will happen.

Finally, you might want to know about the company currently operating the old DuPont site, RWDC Industries. They are not involved with any of this and do not pose a significant risk of contamination. The company’s website says that they are on a “mission to replace petroleum-derived materials with safe, sustainable alternatives” and are not an emitter of toxic waste. They produce biodegradable plastics which are a type of polyester – these are very different chemicals from PFAS which do not degrade in the environment.

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