We spoke with people in communities affected by PFAS contamination around the country as part of our research for the Say Never to Forever Chemicals campaign targeting corporate giant 3M. We were inspired by these fierce activists and are pleased to share their stories with you. Courtney Markham-Abedi grew up in West Virginia, in an area heavily contaminated with PFAS. After her breast cancer diagnosis, she began to explore the links between PFAS and her disease. What she learned not only made her angry, it made her active, and now she is determined to get the word out about environmental toxins and the toll they’ve taken on her neighbors and her own family.
I grew up in a small town in West Virginia where the Ohio and Kanawha rivers meet. My town is best known for the Mothman, a legendary creature with large wings and glowing eyes that many people claimed to have seen in the area. After high school, I left the state for college and then returned and graduated from West Virginia School of Medicine. After medical school, I moved again to complete medical training in Kentucky, but West Virginia will always be my home.
In 2005, my mom mentioned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was paying residents $400 dollars to complete a questionnaire and provide a blood sample. I knew that the government’s willingness to pay for blood samples was not a harbinger of good things, but I gladly enrolled and received the money.
Several years later I got a letter in the mail saying the levels of PFOA in my blood were very high. PFOA, also known as C8 (perfluorooctanoic acid), is just one of a huge class of chemical compounds known as PFAS, first developed by 3M and dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment. The letter explained there would be more studies but at the time there was no consensus on the health effects of PFOA. I remember looking at my husband and saying, “Looks like I will get cancer.” With really no information other than an elevated blood level, I stored this information somewhere in the back of my mind.
When the findings of the EPA’s C8 panel were published several years later, I read them and became aware of the link between PFOA and prostate cancer, renal cancer, and a number of other diseases, but how my exposure would affect me personally was unclear. Fast forward to 2019: a routine mammogram, subsequent biopsies, and surgery revealed ductal carcinoma insitu – stage zero breast cancer. After completing radiation, I posted about my experience on social media and received a message that a childhood friend had a similar story. I decided to look up the EPA study I had participated in 10 years earlier to see if breast cancer was looked at in our cohort. The panel and studies identified no link between C8 and breast cancer. I concluded that my condition was unlikely related to my exposure to PFOA-laden water.
Still, the idea nagged at me through the following weeks, so I started to research PFOA and other cohorts and studies related to breast cancer. I found that mouse models show PFOA exposure is linked to changes in the mammary gland. I also read about the Inuit and Danish cohorts which have also suggested links between PFOA and breast cancer. My anger has steadily grown as I have become convinced that I am a victim of exposure to environmental toxins.
Testing Ground for Environmental Toxins
I guess you could consider my family a legacy of the chemical industry’s lack of concern for the lives of the people in the state I love. My grandfather was a long time employee of Union Carbide in South Charleston, West Virginia. The company was at one point the largest employer in the area. In 2001, the company was purchased by Dow Chemical Company, which merged with DuPont in 2017, only to dissolve the merger two years later. My grandfather was part of a settlement for black lung during his employ at Union Carbide, based on environmental toxins he was exposed to in the workplace. However, I don’t think my family realized that the chronic leukocytic leukemia that ended his life in 1990 may have been linked to ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide was one of the main chemicals used in the plant in the production of antifreeze and other compounds, and those exposed have higher rates of breast cancer, leukemias, and lymphomas. My grandfather was a victim of environmental toxins, at very least because of black lung, but it seems very likely that the illness that killed him was caused by his occupational exposure as well.
The Appalachian region has been a testing ground for environmental toxins. Our rivers and streams have been receptacles for a poisonous cocktail of chemicals for decades. These toxins were pumped out by plants that were part of our communities, that employed many of our friends and family members, all the while slowly poisoning us.
Most egregious of all: in the case of 3M, the company knew that PFOA was causing cancer in animal models, possibly as far back as the 1960’s. We are their collateral damage – and we can no longer be silent.
The C8 panel has completed its work and disbanded. What about us? Who is responsible for the continued study and monitoring of those affected? Why are there no prospective studies being conducted on my cohort and others like it? Human life and health are not an acceptable cost of doing business.
This is my call to become active. I am going to continue raising awareness of the ramifications of environmental pollutants on our health. I am going to reach out to the C8 monitoring program and demand answers and call on companies like 3M to stop practices that place humans in harm’s way.
Will you join me?
Courtney Markham-Abedi M.D. was born and raised in West Virginia. She graduated from medical school at West Virginia University and completed her residency in psychiatry. She has been practicing adult psychiatry, is married and the proud mother of three children, and living with breast cancer.