The Teflon Time Machine – from the Manhattan Project to the Mid-Ohio Valley
Sep 2, 2023
The years between World War I and World War II were full of innovation, technological advances, and scientific growth. Many modern inventions — or the perfection of modern inventions — take root in that time. And, so it is with Teflon, a specialty plastic or fluoropolymer with some highly desirable properties, and also some deadly consequences.
While the invention of Teflon in 1938 came about by accident in the laboratory of Roy Plunkett, who was working on a refrigerant, being able to safely manufacture the substance took some time. At the intersection of modern chemistry and global history, developing a means to bond carbon and fluorine was seen as a solution to a problem — and one that had little to do with what goes on in the kitchen.
Around this time, prominent U.S. scientists were warning President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany would soon have a nuclear bomb. In response, the U.S. initiated a covert program to stockpile and weaponize uranium and create the atom bomb. This program was called The Manhattan Project.
In order to accomplish such a task, the government needed industry to develop a compound that would be virtually indestructible — one that could withstand the harshest conditions without breaking down. This was fundamental to the production of components necessary for the physical construction of the bomb. While scientists were looking to the bonding of carbon and fluorine for the answer, such a marriage was a dangerous and explosive proposition. First, they needed to develop the technology to merge them safely and in large quantities. In doing so, some of the resultant tech led to processes for making bomb components — and some was licensed by industry.
By 1944, DuPont still faced some difficulties with the mass production of Teflon. This became all too apparent when an accident occurred just before Thanksgiving at the company’s New Jersey facility — ripping apart a building and killing two workers. In the aftermath, the corporation decided to construct a plant specifically for the manufacture of Teflon. They selected Washington, W.Va., as the site of this new endeavor.
A photo of the newborn manufacturing facility kept in the Hagley Digital Archives shows a rather sparse looking place that is nearly unrecognizable as the Washington Works of today.
The rest, as they say, is history. Forever chemicals formed by the bonding of carbon and fluorine are essential to the production of Teflon and thousands of other consumer applications. However, PFAS are so slippery that their release into the environment proved most difficult to control. For decades DuPont used a riverside landfill for the disposal of Teflon waste. In time, a growing awareness of contamination issues led the corporation to relocate the contents of this landfill. They dug it up and moved it to Dry Run.
And, so began the Tennant family’s struggles — and the legendary battle over their cattle and the mysterious wasting disease that killed their entire herd.
Today this is all part of our chemical legacy.
The proliferation of PFAS had a 50-year head start on concerns over health and the environment. Evidence that exposure leads to the development of cancer and other health problems has done little to slow the spread. Industry keeps making new derivatives and putting them into use. PFAS can be found in the environment globally, in every body of water, and in the bloodstream of every human alive — from before birth.
If you are interested in a more thorough, academic exploration of the subject, I invite you to explore “Timebombing the Future” by Dr. Rebecca Altman.
Callie Lyons is the author of the 2007 book, “Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8,” which chronicles the discovery of PFAS or highly fluorinated compounds in Mid-Ohio Valley water supplies and beyond. She is a journalist and researcher for FITSNews and the FITSFiles true crime and corruption podcast.