from AEON Website
the DuPont Washington Works plant
in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Photographed on 28 October 2015.
Photo by Maddie McGarvey
Washington Post via Getty Images
have become an evolutionary force,
altering human biology
and the web of life...
The capsule was
long, made of Pyrex glass and alloyed copper (called Cupaloy), and
shaped like a torpedo - a long, thin metal shaft with a cone-shaped
Pendray was the publicist for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and his time bomb was a 'master stroke' of public relations, a clever scheme to retool Westinghouse's image as forward-thinking, and to best its rival, General Electric, founded by the showman-scientist Thomas Edison.
Within, he noted, they would find a light bulb, a safety pin, a slide rule, a telephone, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, $2.91 in cash, a plastic Mickey Mouse cup, the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica inscribed onto acetate film, and also 75 samples of the era's most advanced materials, including technologies such as Tungsten filaments, asbestos shingling and DuPont's just-invented synthetic fibre, Nylon.
Millions visited the time capsule, peering by periscope into what Pendray called its 'immortal well'.
On the autumnal equinox of 1940, the month before the fair closed, Westinghouse sponsored a private send-off. Speeches were made. A gong sounded.
At high noon, 500 more
pounds of hot sealant - a proprietary blend of pitch, mineral oil
and a chemical compound called chlorinated diphenyl, known today as
polychlorinated biphenyls (or
PCBs) - were poured into the well.
PCBs are everywhere, and by design, they endure.
Banned by international
treaty, they nonetheless live on in relic electrical equipment such
as light ballasts and transformers, in riverbeds, and even in
creatures of the extreme deep. Scientists now call most PCBs legacy
contaminants - enduring poisons from the past.
The geneticist Hermann Muller, recipient of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, reprised the term 'time bomb' in his essay 'Time Bombing Our Descendants' (1948).
A bomb will kill 'more in the future' than when it explodes, Muller wrote.
introduced a new kind of legacy, one read into the body and carried
there through time.
Other new phrases in the nuclear lexicon included,
As the Chemical Age dawned, environmental science adapted this language to explain its emergent understanding of 'a new kind of fallout', as Rachel Carson put it the 1960s.
Then, during the 1990s, the phrase 'legacy contaminants' entered the vernacular alongside concerns over the health of the Great Lakes of North America. The area's wildlife was in decline due to PCBs and other out-of-production compounds.
But PCBs weren't behaving in the ways that toxicology expected.
Exposures borne by one
generation manifested differently down the line, causing subtle
shifts in fertility, metabolism, immunity, cognition and
development. The PCBs were interrupting the fine-tuned work of
hormones, biology's biochemical messengers, and thus interfering
with critical communications across a host of networks orchestrating
In time, Colborn's work
became the basis for unraveling the process of endocrine disruption,
now understood as another suite of biological mechanisms - this one
involving hormones - by which one generation time-bombs another.
the biochemical composition
of the food web and
the interior of
the human body..
Other legacy contaminants now include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), the chemical behind stain-repellent textiles. The same United Nations treaty - the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants - that banned PCBs has since added PFOS.
The fluorocarbon cousin of PFOS - PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which was removed from US production in 2015 - could soon be added to the Convention as well, joining PCBs and PFOS as chemicals that should no longer be made, though they will remain in environmental circulation indefinitely.
PFOA and PFOS both belong
to a family of compounds called PFASs, short for per- and
polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or what chemists once called
After the war, fluorocarbons became the silent enablers of the 20th century's greatest technological achievements - the bomb and also Teflon, the stuff of convenience cookware, spaceflight and implantable medical devices.
fluorocarbons persist as legacy chemicals prevalent in water systems
serving hundreds of millions of people
around the world. So extreme
is their persistence that science has yet to determine an
environmental half-life - the point at which the environmental load
would otherwise halve.
These have been swift,
sweeping changes over the course of just three or four generations,
too quick for the slow-grinding machinery of human evolution to
The presence of PCBs
alone shapes how humankind reproduces itself, how our young develop,
and even whether subsequent generations will be susceptible to
certain cancers or resilient against disease.
Subtle alterations barely perceptible today could mean profound changes in the lives of Pendray's futurians and beyond.
designed to endure, imagined as the stuff of an everlasting archive,
will be read into the rock layer that marks our geological epoch. It
is a vision that now reads as parable.
During Simons's graduate
student days at the University of California, Berkeley, he began
working with fluorine, a yellow-green and lethal gas. The
element was known to burst into flames upon contact with water, and
could burn through glass, steel, copper, silver, gold and even
The only way to procure CF4 was to make it, and the only way to make it was to react fluorine with carbon, inviting an explosion.
Simons built his own
equipment to contain the blast, and hired a former football player -
'fast and broad-shouldered' - to run the process, teaching him to
flee before the whole apparatus detonated.
Eventually Simons realized that an old pipe, salvaged from a neighboring lab, had been caked with mercury. The mercury had changed the chemistry so that the reaction yielded a breed of fluorocarbons that seemed inert and unassailable.
To Simons, it meant that
'chemistry's hellcat' could finally be tamed for development in the
The US at once undertook
a covert program to stockpile and weaponize uranium, and make the
bomb that could split atoms in a chain reaction of world-changing
from the university's windows,
corroding the metalwork
its iconic climbing ivy..
Like culling wheat from chaff, U-235 had to be separated from uranium's more prevalent isotope, U-238.
For this, Urey and his colleagues - in what would become known as the Manhattan Project - devised five different methods, the most promising:
This required uranium, a metal, to be converted into a gas, uranium hexafluoride, that could be streamed through the barrier, its surface designed to allow U-235 to pass through more readily.
But to make uranium hexafluoride required combining uranium with the element that most chemists still feared: fluorine. And with no practical way to contain either fluorine or uranium hexafluoride, which was also as dangerous and reactive, the undertaking seemed like a long shot.
Even Urey was skeptical.
In short, what he needed was a class of never-built-before materials
made to suit the harshest industrial environment yet conceived, and
produced at a scale thought unfathomable.
Simons had only ever eked
out a couple of cubic centimeters, less than a teaspoon. But it was
enough to confirm that his compound could withstand both gases.
Those preliminary results encouraged
the Manhattan Project to
believe that they could harness fluorine into fluorocarbons, and
develop fluorocarbons into sealants, gaskets, pipes and other
Fumes wafted from the university's windows, corroding the metalwork and shriveling its iconic climbing ivy.
Meanwhile, Simons would split his time between Oak Ridge - the secret Atomic City that the Manhattan Project built in eastern Tennessee - where he worked on fluorinated war gases, and Pennsylvania, where he endeavored to develop a safer method for producing fluorocarbons.
He worked in parallel with the Manhattan Project, and at a fever pitch, as if the future of humanity hung in the balance. His kids rarely saw him. His health would soon plummet.
What he achieved didn't
look like much, just a covered cauldron - a clunky, awkward metal
vat 'about as unimpressive as a washtub', as Popular Mechanics put
it. But it could brew up complex batches of fluorocarbons to help
By 1944, the company had
licensed it, and readied it for factory production in Hastings,
Minnesota, along the upper Mississippi River.
Like Simons's fluorocarbons, PTFE had been an inadvertent innovation.
The DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett had been studying refrigerants, looking for an alternative to Freon, when in the spring of 1938 one candidate, a fluorocarbon called tetrafluoroethylene (TFE), spontaneously polymerised in Plunkett's storage canisters.
The molecules that made up the gas had self-assembled into a solid,
Follow-up revealed that it had remarkable properties - durable and inert.
The next year, the company moved PTFE into development at its former plastics division across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in Kearny, New Jersey, near the Meadowlands. But it proved a difficult material to fabricate, and the young chemist tasked with scaling production, a trombone-playing Midwesterner named Malcolm Renfrew, recalls the tragedy that ensued.
An explosion at the
company's PTFE unit just before Thanksgiving of 1944, during an
understaffed, overnight shift, tore off one side of the building and
killed two people.
But then it was exited
into the river, released into the air or sent to area landfills,
where it entered the water supply.
By the time the World's Fair returned to New York's Flushing Meadows Park in 1964, fluorocarbons had fanned out across the economy.
At the Fair, 3M's PFOS-based stain-repellent Scotchgard was showcased on the seats of Ford Galaxies.
DuPont made a cabaret out of the company's performance polymers:
And, of course, Teflon.
The fine wisps clipped
from his infant daughter, then still nursing, had the highest PCB
levels in his household
Humankind had mastered the atom, hurled itself into space, and implanted the first artificial heart valve - feats made possible by Teflon and other fluorinated plastics.
The following year, after the fairgrounds emptied, came news
of 'a new chemical hazard' found in fish taken from Swedish waters.
In that time, Jensen had found PCBs in eagle feathers from the museum and hair from his family. The fine wisps clipped from his infant daughter, then still nursing, had the highest levels in Jensen's household.
PCBs weren't just a new class of pollutants:
Just two years later, in 1968, the scientist Donald Taves in New York reported an unspecified fluorocarbon in human blood, including his own.
The compound appeared to be of industrial origin.
His findings appeared in
Nature. But the response to this news couldn't have been more
different: Jensen's research went off like a bomb, inspiring a
global inquiry into their fate and toxicity; Taves's landed like a
By the mid-1970s, Guy
(then at the University of Florida, where Simons wound up after the
war) approached 3M to ask whether Teflon or Scotchgard production
could account for their findings. 3M 'plead ignorance', as a
confidential company memo later revealed.
Like many Manhattan
Project-affiliated scientists, Simons fell ill after the war,
battling pneumonia before suffering a heart attack.
In his free time, he took up writing, first under the assumed name Paul R Plexus, and later using his own.
His final work was a dystopian novel published in 1971, as Taves and Guy were studying blood-borne fluorocarbons.
Bob had chosen a career
in forestry over chemistry, and spent it managing his father's land,
which he has since restored to the longleaf pine that once covered
vast swaths of the southern United States.
It was as his son had warned:
It opens after the Gebo had uncovered the remains of 26th-century Los Angeles, finding among its ruins scrolls that explain humanity's demise.
The scrolls have survived what humanity couldn't because they've been inscribed on fluorocarbon-encased films. But fluorocarbons weren't his invention. Simons had re-imagined himself the Gebo's secretary of prehistory.
Simons distributed his book to hundreds of elected officials - a final attempt to forewarn of species collapse should they not correct course.
In the years that
followed, Simons's health declined: his Parkinson's advanced, and
cancer spread from his prostate to his bladder. He died in 1984, the
same year that DuPont found PFOA in the water serving the
communities neighboring its Parkersburg plant.
Much of what is known
about the toxicological profile of PFOA and a handful of other PFASs
comes from industry research, forced into the open by lawsuits, but
also because the people of the Mid-Ohio Valley, some 70,000 of whom
gave blood, have given their time and medical history to science,
and to posterity.
has become reality
- except that our bodies are the scrolls
Animal studies provide
further indication that PFASs are biologically active molecules.
Even at trace levels, they engage the endocrine system, and can
partake in the physiological processes that fall under its dominion.
But scientists have also turned to the next generation, looking at the implications for children who are exposed in utero and again while nursing, both critical windows of development where human bodies can be uniquely vulnerable to the effects of chemical interference.
Scientists know that children's bodies bear higher PFAS levels than adults, and have since learned that PFAS exposures can interfere with whether childhood vaccines take.
In young men, higher levels of exposures are associated with shortened penis length and reduced sperm counts, suggesting that PFASs might play a role in the growing global epidemic of male infertility.
Research is now looking
into even more fundamental questions about how PFASs participate in
a host of biological processes, including liver and thyroid
function, metabolism, and in reproductive and developmental
All the more troubling is
how ubiquitous human exposures are.
...with more uncovered each year.
the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Americans,
about 98 per cent of the population, archive PFOS in their blood,
and 99.7 per cent carry PFOA - both trends likely to bear out
He called it a bottle launched 'into the cosmic ocean'.
But space archaeologists
say that the message in the bottle won't be nearly as interesting as
the bottle itself. Because the message is the bottle; the medium
carries the message, leaving us to interpret what it means that the
medium is now us.
He sculpted in Lucite, DuPont's version of Plexiglas, and Plastacelle, a type of cellulose acetate plastic used today in the cigarette filters flicked to the curb after a smoker's last drag.
From these, Mortellito
made fanciful figures, each illustrating the 'wonders' that company
chemists could make from 'coal, air and water'. The final mural
stood 20 feet tall and stretched 60 feet along a curved, backlit
wall, a design impossible to achieve in a traditional medium such as
wood, metal, stone or clay.
He worked on pigments and paints, and in their advertising department, designing magazine covers, promotional materials and the characters Mr Neoprene and Mr Teflon.
He returned to the 1964
World's Fair to help with DuPont's exhibit, and then set to work on
a new piece in his backyard studio. It would take two years to
Though Mortellito was
known for sculpting plastics, and for being the first to carve
Teflon as part of his art, it seems telling that in this piece he
chose to work in Nova Scotia grey sandstone...