You don’t have to strain to hear emo revival band The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die name-drop a multi-billion-dollar chemical company on their new record Illusory Walls (October 8, Epitaph Records).
The band excoriates the company in the first lines of their song “Blank // Worker”: “Ohio River stomachache, pray DuPont, our water is safe.”
“I was actually kind of worried about saying DuPont in the song, but then I thought, it’s probably just a matter of public record that they’re this unknowable force that’s harming everyone,” said David Bello, TWIABP&IANLATD’s frontman, in a call before the band hit the road for Portland on their current US tour. “I don’t mind naming names.”
It’s a ballsy move for an indie band, but it’s also not normal to have someone to blame for your mom’s cancer, your grandparents’ cancer, and your hometown’s health in general: “There’s a chemical spill in Parkersburg; the whole highway was overturned,” sings Bello later in the song. “A $400,000 drug versus one more time, my mother’s hug. A private firm of equity dealt cancer into my family.”
Though Bello has been part of TWIABP since 2012, he’s been thinking about Parkersburg, West Virginia, for years. He grew up there.
“My whole life, people were always saying, ‘There’s a really high risk of cancer here’ and it was an always-present thing, the chemical companies on the Ohio River and everything,” Bello said. “The C-8 lawsuits were happening I think when I was in high school [and that] was when it kinda noticed that it wasn’t normal that there’s chemicals in the water and all that stuff.”
To understand the history of DuPont, Parkersburg, and the C-8 chemical that would rocket both into a Mark Ruffalo movie and the TWIABP song “Blank // Worker,” we have to go back to 1938.
In 1938, DuPont scientists accidentally discovered polytetrafluoroethylene, a fluoropolymer that DuPont (now, ostensibly, Chemours) would later market most famously as a coating called Teflon for non-stick pans. To help process materials like Teflon, companies like 3M and DuPont developed a molecule they called C-8.
C-8 is one of over 9,000 compounds in the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) family. Each compound contains electron-deficient fluorine atoms grasping for the electron clouds of the carbons they’re bonded to, creating the strongest bond in organic chemistry.
The carbon – fluorine bond is extremely useful. Because it’s hard to break, it makes PFAS good for high-heat applications like fire-fighting foams and fire-retardant gear. Because it doesn’t want to form bonds to anything else, it can help achieve the perfect over-easy eggs in non-stick pans and can protect carpets and period underwear from stains. The fluorines in these fluorocarbons are so starved for the electrons carbon has that they bunch together even more tightly than atoms in other molecules, forming an electron shield that makes them waterproof and grease-proof, perfect for lining pizza boxes and “compostable” bowls.
But these fluorines also make C-8 toxic.
Outside of a few companies, no one knew much about PFAS before the late 1980s. Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, as long as companies didn’t report probable health concerns linked to new compounds, the US Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t regulate them.
But in 1998, lawyer Robert Bilott took a call from Wilbur Tennant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant’s cows were developing strange organ discolorations and dying, and Tennant knew it had to do with the sudsy green water the neighboring DuPont chemical plant was discharging into the creek next to his property.
This phone call led to Bilott’s landmark set of lawsuits that revealed DuPont had known for decades that C-8 had extremely harmful health effects and had actively covered up the findings of its own internal studies—all while continuing to improperly dispose of its C-8 waste and poison the residents of Parkersburg.
Though Bello wrote about the effects of the opioid crisis hitting West Virginia and the Appalachia region on TWIABP’s 2017 album Always Foreign, writing about this aspect of West Virginia on “Blank // Worker” was a long time coming.
“I’ve been thinking about Parkersburg and how it how it sits in West Virginia and how it’s this well of poisoned land,” he said. “It’s a great place; I don’t mean to sound like it’s all bad, but it’s been treated horribly by DuPont and other companies, and it’s definitely been on my mind for a long time.”
Ohio river stomachache, pray DuPont, our water is safe. If we don’t die out here on the grass, we might one day be middle class.
DB: “I think we wrote [other Illusory Walls song] “Blank // Drone” first, and the lyrics were taking a direction of feeling betrayed by corporations, betrayed by your boss…and then when I was writing the lyrics for the second one, I thought of that first line, ‘Ohio River stomachache…’ that just popped into my head as this more tangible metaphor for all of that, and then the rest just kind of fell into place.”
As distant now as frat parties, a labor strike, a Ferrari; the big house way up on the hill, the workers that its owner killed; my grave, my birth; being on the news, burning money, and feeling loose; thick clouds of foul-smelling air, polluted rivers, thinning hair.
DB: “Those are mostly in there to create those boundaries between different things and they’re all things that I’ve seen in West Virginia that I have mental pictures of in my head: I went to WVU and there’s all these frat parties. I saw somebody drive a Ferrari through the street and everyone on the street was just staring at it like it was from outer space. And there’s a long history of labor strikes in the state and everything, so I was thinking of all these different things from West Virginia that represent it to me. Like not necessarily the Ferrari itself, but the social reaction to the Ferrari, and these people at frat parties, and how different they might be from the people who are doing labor strikes, or the person driving that Ferrari, or the kind of person who’s on the news versus the kind of person who’s got money to burn. All these different things seem so separate to me, but they all are kind of very West Virginia to me at the same time.”
There’s a chemical spill in Parkersburg, the whole highway was overturned.
DB: “I remember a couple times when my parents would be driving me to school or something and there was a news report: ‘Don’t drive on the highway today, there’s a fog there that’s made up of plastic particles or something,’ and it would happen like every couple months. Or you’d go outside and everything kind of smelled like sulfur, or there’s just a weird smell in the air, or there’s strange dust on the cars and everything, and that’s where those images come from, to me. But the highway overturned thing, I was just thinking [of] a sort of fantastical version of that; it’s rooted in that idea of ‘Oh yeah, don’t drive on the highway, there’s was a spill, and now the air is like green and bad for you.’”
From Belpre down to Ravenswood, the trees sapped up with nothing good. Before the sweat dries on our skin, the faucet always burned our hands.
DB: “I think at least every other show, someone’s come up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m from Parkersburg,’ or ‘Hey, I’m from Belpre.’ Somebody from Belpre, Ohio came up to me after a show and was like, ‘Hey, I’m really glad you wrote that song.’
“I’m sure there’s an element of just, you’ve never heard the word ‘Belpre’ in a song before—I can’t think of one…but all these places kind of never get talked about. And even when that movie Dark Waters came out, and there’s attention on the issue there, the chemicals in the water, but it doesn’t seem like enough for how much damage it’s caused. The few people who have come up to me and said that, I think they’re just appreciative that someone who doesn’t currently live in West Virginia but has roots there is acknowledging them.”
“And then the trees sapping up with nothing good—that might be more influenced by fracking-type stuff [that was a big deal when I was in college], because I know it’s pretty bad for trees around where they do that. Aside from just taking the trees away and removing them from a mountain or whatever, a lot of the trees can just get kind of weird.”
A $400,000 drug versus one more time, my mother’s hug. A private firm of equity dealt cancer into my family.
DB: “DuPont’s been on my mind since I was in high school l and since I was a little kid as like this evil corporation, but there’s so many evil corporations, and there’s also evil in small businesses, there’s evil in interpersonal relationships, there’s evil everywhere, and the one that really stuck with me was the one that kind of caused my grandparents, my aunts and uncles to go through chemotherapy and do all this stuff.”
(Medical monitoring studies from the C-8 lawsuits found that there was a “probable link” between exposure to C-8 and six different diseases: pregnancy-induced hypertension, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, and high cholesterol.)
DB: “I’ve always really hated the way that our insurance system is for healthcare, but that was something that really made me mad—just the idea that you can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars of a pill, or 10 milliliters of some radioactive substance, whatever it is that’s going on, and somebody’s driving around in a Ferrari because that stuff cost so much. And somebody’s in debt because it cost so much.”
I saw there was a shadow bank. The landlord pleased, the economy tanked.
DB: “My day job is doing transcription for businesses. I hear all these business calls and I type out what they say, and all the time it’s someone talking to a consultant about what the company can do, whatever company it is, to maximize profits, and do that at the expense of anything—firing people, screwing regulations, shifting the money around, shifting the ownership around so they can just make money, and at any expense, really. The private equity firm is like this shadowy figure. I don’t really know what a shadow bank is—I’ve tried to learn but it’s complicated and I don’t have a good financial or business sense of it—but in my mind, it’s like…a group of old guys in a room trying to figure out how to screw everyone over, and all those [consulting] companies they hire to figure out how to, ‘Oh, well, it’s actually just worth it to poison the water and pay like the $100,000 fee because we’ll save $2 million if we don’t care about dumping that here,’ stuff like that.”
May the lower class remember this and every rich man get what’s his.
DB: “I think for people that haven’t been to Parkersburg or Belpre or Ravenswood or anywhere along there in the Chemical Valley or whatever, I think people who aren’t aware of it, I want them to take away from [this song] the idea that they’re also not safe from companies ignoring regulations, environmental regulations for health, and it could happen anywhere.
“But for people from there who hear the song, I want them to take away from it that we know and we care. Even though I moved out of state when I was 25 or 26, it’s still home to me…”
C-8, today known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is still not regulated in the United States. Meanwhile, studies show that over 98% of tested Americans have measurable levels of PFAS in their blood, and scientists from the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, estimate that over 60% of Americans now have detectable PFAS in their tap water. Work to form a national primary drinking water limit for the PFOA and its related compound PFOS is ongoing through the EPA and its recently announced PFAS Strategic Roadmap.