3M’s Toxic Legacy

By Courtney Markham-Abedi

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.

Forever Chemicals 

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.

Collateral Damage

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.

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16 Responses to 3M’s Toxic Legacy

  • Mahreen Hashmi says:

    Yes- I support Courtney Markham on this mission to elucidate the harmful effects of these chemical toxins

  • Carmen Archer says:

    I am also involved with the C8 project. I have done all of my screenings required so far. They said I have low amounts, but to me any amount can and will cause cancer eventually.

  • Hi Courtney! Good article! I’m sorry to hear about your breast cancer. I think I too may be somewhat impacted by the C8 exposure. I don’t have cancer, but I no longer have a thyroid gland; it died. I keep wondering why this has happened. As you know the thyroid gland is essential for the body to run effectively. If the C8 is responsible for my thyroid issue, I want to know! I agree with you! We all need to be proactive!

  • Debby Vandergrift says:

    No more PFAS!

  • Jamie Swartz says:

    My Dad died of cancer and is also from same town as Courtney Abedi.

  • Becky peck says:

    My son had blood work it was elevated also but has never been notified he has been having problem with his hands as and feet has been to several doctors they have ran test but cant give him any answers what’s wrong this all started during the c8 testing is there anyone or any thing he can do to try find out what this is his hands and feet get red burn and hot has trouble using hands and walking

  • Sherri skoien says:

    Stop using chemicals that you KNOW cause cancer! I’m a breast cancer survivor, and it’s you guys wake up!

  • Lisa Riddle says:

    I am with you !!

  • Betina Leslie says:

    Well written I was told I had the highest C8 levels my doctor saw at the time of the studies. It is always in the back of my mind that I will eventually get cancer. Fortunately I’ve only succumbed to an autoimmune disorder and not cancer. I grew up in Mason County and lived there over 40 years. Thanks for your work.

  • Melody Bell Wilkes says:

    Good luck to you. I don’t know how to stop this madness in our environment. The chemical companies control our government with their $$$$ lobbyists. We are all victims. Europe is a model of caring for the environment and has banned many chemicals plus keeping antibiotics and hormone injections out of the meat industry or at least limiting the use. Greed has taken over the lawlessness here as science continues to prove the health of our environment is failing and we as a society are suffering along with it. The US should be the role model in the world but we are not. There’s too much money at stake. It should make everyone sick to their stomach – and one day it probably will — literally.

  • Sharon Nunnery says:

    I have experienced some of the health issues related to C8 lists I have seen. I have thyroid issues, cholesterol elevation, and several autoimmune diseases, including Sjorgrens and pigment loss. My list may grow, and some are, probably, not related to C8. I did participate in the study but not the lawsuits.

  • Dusty Smith says:

    My mom has thyroid problems and my dad had prostrate cancer

  • Pat Elder says:

    See the data from the California Water Board on PFAS contamination in water in Corona, CA where 3M has a manufacturing plant.

  • Jeffrey Mayerich says:

    F$@& yeah, i’m with you. No more polluting our water supply and earth. I’m originally from Weirton, WV, and i’ve had it with corporations abusing the land, water, and residents of not only WV, but everywhere.

  • Tammy Snyder says:

    Well done. I am also from Point Pleasant and so proud of the work that you have done. We all live here knowing little pieces of the puzzle but you have put them together. It is mind blowing to think of how many lives near and dear to us has been touched by this pollution.

  • Jeffrey Collins says:

    I have never had my blood serum tested for PFOA ( C8) but I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s just miles from ground zero ( DuPont in Parkersburg WV) where Teflon was born. I too have been diagnosed with breast cancer but unlike you I am a man. The lifetime risk for a man to get breast cancer is about 1/1000 or less than 1 percent. Like you I was tested for genetic links and all tests came back negative. It had to be environmental. I drank tons of that water. I am excited to see Dark Waters because that is basically about my childhood. A supposed independent panel could not link breast cancer to C8 exposure but keep in mind that was just one study. Statistical studies can never say null is true. It is assumed true in hopes statistical significance can demonstrate null is false. So hopefully with more studies we can get statistical significance one day. I am convinced my cancer is caused by C8 exposure. I have some other health concerns as well. I had 9 colon polyps of which 3 were pre-cancerous. I also have Barrett’s Esophagus which is also pre-cancerous. I have an enlarged liver and diabetes. So I believe C8 is indeed in my blood and wreaking havoc slowly on my body. I can most certainly relate to your anger. Whether breast cancer will ever be linked to C8, the cover-ups, the lies, the greed, the willful neglect of the lives of so many is enough to make anyone angry.

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