A researcher traces the legacy of plastics

Photographs by Ansel Adams

[Petrochemicals] began as many American industries have begun, almost by chance, in scattered places, in many winding rivulets of enterprise before it became a river running imperatively to the sea.

—Fortune, 1941

The Kanawha, 1936

“THESE ARE ROADS to take when you think of your country,” wrote the poet Muriel Rukeyser about a road trip she took to central Appalachia in 1936. It’s a refrain she repeats throughout The Book of the Dead, a series of witness poems responding to the industrial tragedy at Hawk’s Nest.

In the early 1930s, thousands of workers dry-tunneled the New River in southern West Virginia through Gauley Mountain—more than three miles of sandstone and silica. The tunnel was part of a hydroelectric project that included the Hawk’s Nest Dam, which “fathered” the tunnel, which fed the power plant, turning its giant turbines. “They work as a triad,” the essayist Catherine Venable Moore told me. And they still do, powering ferroalloy furnaces at the Kanawha River plant once belonging to Electro Metallurgical in the old coal town the company renamed Alloy. ElectroMet’s parent: the Union Carbide and Carbon Company (later Union Carbide or Carbide for short).

For eighteen months, workers labored in the bowels of the mountain, emerging with their clothes, skin, and airways cloaked in white silica dust. An estimated 764 died initially from acute silicosis—inflamed lungs, scarred, breathless and wheezing until their breathing ceased altogether—though inhaling silica was a well-described danger and silicosis a wellknown disease. More sickened and passed as the years pressed on, making the final death toll impossible to assess. Some were buried in unmarked graves, their families never notified. Most were Black men who’d come from the South seeking work. Workers’ faces, Moore said, had been scratched from the photographic record.

In 1936, after two lawsuits settled out of court, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor held nine days of hearings. Members of the Gauley Bridge Committee, formed by tunnel widows and surviving (but sickened) workers, provided statements. Carbide countered, discounting their claims in calculated language. The witnesses were dismissed for being Black, for being plaintiffs, for recounting “the same details in much the same way,” not because they’d experienced the same deadly working conditions but, as the company claimed, because they were “drilled in the same school of witness-ship.”

The rebuttals survive in a photocopy Moore recovered from the Gauley Bridge Historical Society, who in turn, had been given an illicit copy retrieved from a locked closet inside the power station. Such a riverine course history travels to reach us in the present.

Rukeyser returned to New York and built her poems as a chemist synthesizes the elements. Stock prices fused with lyrical observations from the road and testimony culled from the Congressional Record. “A corporation is a body without a soul,” she writes.

Carbide grew into a multinational corporation with hundreds of plants worldwide and office towers on the skylines of Chicago and New York City. It wasn’t much of a consumer-facing company, the exceptions being EverReady batteries, Prestone antifreeze, and Glad bags and straws. Carbide’s customers were other companies. Its products fed “the most vital organs of industry.”


Material culture and industrial infrastructure carry the history of their making. What happens when their residues enter the body?


The Ohio, 2007

U.S. Routes 7, 32, and 50, collectively known as the “four-lane,” lead toward the eastern edge of Ohio, where the hardwood forests and rolling hills of central Appalachia dip into the Ohio River valley before rising again in West Virginia. Three-quarters of a century after Rukeyser, these are the roads that take me to the unincorporated town of Little Hocking, a hot spot for a (then) little-known industrial pollutant locally called C8 but elsewhere known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).

In the spring of 2007, I am a sociologist in training, a year from finishing a six-year program and halfway through a dissertation on body burden—the load of pollutants bodies bear. I am not yet thirty and a long way from North Jersey, where I was raised, and southern New England, where I was a graduate student. The tell: my chronic mispronunciation of Appalachia, the way I would overelongate the short middle “a.”

“If you don’t get off my porch,” I was corrected, “I’ll throw this apple-at-cha.”

Between 2005 and 2006, sixty-nine thousand Mid-Ohio Valley residents gave blood for analysis following settlement of a 2001 lawsuit—the same lawsuit portrayed in the Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters. But when the lab results came back, they were accompanied by a letter, which cautioned readers: “At this time there are no normal values as in high or low.” Their PFOA levels were just numbers, absent context or explanation. There was little health and safety data in the public domain, though a small study published in 2006 had found that those drinking Little Hocking water had blood PFOA levels sixty to seventy-five times higher than levels reported in the general population at the time. Instead, residents were told to wait, as a court-appointed panel of epidemiologists would take several more years to investigate possible links between PFOA and a range of medical conditions.

Parts per billion became street-corner conversation, a sizing up of numbers at diner counters or in line at the grocery.

I came to Little Hocking with a notebook and a tape recorder, ready to listen and to grapple with what it meant, bodies sampled for pollutants as scientists would any other environmental media. Veins like rivers.


COME DAWN, the fog hangs low over the wide Ohio. From an inn on Old River Road, I watch two silhouettes fish from a flat-bottomed boat. A barge inches upriver. I stare across to the opposite bank, to land I’d read that George Washington had once claimed. Now DuPont occupied the bottomlands. Its Washington Works plant, when built after World War II, was intended to rival the largest plastics plants in the country.

Since the early 1950s, DuPont had made Teflon here—the then new fluorinated, industrial material of military interest years from becoming synonymous with nonstick cookware. During the manufacturing process, the company metered in PFOA, which eased Teflon’s building blocks into formation. Once spent, the PFOA was sent out through stacks into the sky or cast off through outfall pipes into the river, infiltrating the public water supply in which the residents of Little Hocking unknowingly bathed their children and made their coffee for five decades.

I’d been advised to purchase water on my trip, and to even use bottled water to brush my teeth and rinse my toothbrush. Scientists in 2007 were still investigating the routes of exposure. Locally raised or preserved foods? Steam inhalation? So I also took fast, tepid showers, and—ridiculously—I held my breath. I’d burst from the shower, goose-bumped, gasping and ashamed.

DuPont supplied Little Hocking with bottled water. But PFOA would be found in this too.


THE FIRST LINES of Rukeyser actually read: “These are roads to take when you think of your country and interested bring down the maps again.” I pull up Little Hocking on Google Maps. Widen the view. Just upstream from DuPont’s Washington Works, along the next river bend, sits another Carbide industrialplex. Seeing them from above, two points along the cresting sine wave of the Ohio, I could trace a straight line between them.


The Kanawha, 1941

Five years after Rukeyser, Fortune sent Ansel Adams to the Kanawha. At Alloy, Carbide robes him in asbestos and retrofits his camera lens with a shield so he could photograph the massive electric arc furnaces at work.

I cannot picture an electric arc. But Adams, in an oral history, described the one he saw in detail: three carbon electrodes, giant cylinders of carbon, each three feet across, nine feet tall, “screwed together . . . into an arc twenty-seven feet high.” A hydraulic lift lowered the arc into the waiting maw of mixed metals, a cauldron forty feet across. “Thick folds of copper” carried the power ElectroMet drew from the rerouted river.

It was like “Mount Etna during an eruption,” said Adams. Temperatures reached into the thousands. Molten metal flew at him. “Nobody is supposed to be in that place when the contact is made.” The heat merges the metals—iron joins with silicon, with chromium, with vanadium— forming alloys, new metals that outperform the materials from which they are made. Once the electrodes were spent, a “blinding, blue-white heat” followed. The metals poured “like water,” but “much lighter than any water you’ve seen.” “What am I doing here?” he recounted. At some point he released the shutter.

Farther up the river valley, Adams makes a second image of the Hawk’s Nest Dam, where it diverts the New River into Gauley Mountain.

Less than a decade from the tragedy at Hawk’s Nest, the region had been recast as a state park with a new masoned overlook for tourists. From the height and angle of his image, I imagine this is where Adams sets up his camera to capture the gorge, its hardwoods, the rail rimming the river, the rocky “Dries” below the dam, and above it, how the reservoir reflects the sky.

But the corporate profile Fortune ran alongside his images—published without a byline—was silent on the silicosis disaster.

Not until 2012 was a marker placed along U.S. 19 to acknowledge the mass graves. “The Hawk’s Nest Incident left no enduring imprint on popular culture,” said the late West Virginia University geologist Helen Lang. But Rukeyser asks otherwise: “Who runs through electric wires? Who speaks down every road?”

Material culture and industrial infrastructure carry the history of their making. What happens when their residues enter the body? Do they transfer that history to us? In her book Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber describes bodies as “living scrolls.” They record the history of the communities in which they live and the priorities of the society that disregards them. To study body burden is to learn how to read the historical archive stored in flesh and blood and bone.



The Ohio, 2007

Callie Lyons has covered PFOA for years, culminating in her book Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof, and Lethal, whose launch I’ve come down to attend. While I’m in town, she takes me to several of the contaminated well fields and shows me the woodshingled barns that, once completed, will house the new water filtration systems. More giant cylinders of carbon—granular, activated carbon—were trucked in and when full, backed out on a flatbed. We pass Nova Chemicals, and then Kraton Polymers, which Shell ran at the time its styrene tank exploded, killing three, sending flames into the air, black smoke across the valley, and rattling windows for miles around.

Back on the four-lane, a burnt orange cloud billows from the old Carbide industrialplex. In the 1970s, Callie tells me, after Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, this factory had come under scrutiny for its constant environmental violations. Now, AmSty ran the polystyrene unit, and Eramet, the metal alloys.

I shift in my seat.

Callie rolls up the window and plugs what she tells me is an air filter into her car’s cigarette lighter. She explains a research project just under way to study Eramet’s manganese releases.

My father had worked inside that plant, something I’d only recently heard. He mentioned it casually when I told him my travel plans. “Sometimes Carbide would send me down to Marietta or Charleston for a few days,” he’d said.

Later, we head downriver. Callie takes me through Cheshire. American Electric Power, who ran two coal-fired plants nearby, bought the town in exchange for residents’ right to sue with health claims. Then they knocked down the houses.

But the farther we traveled from DuPont, the more the conversation strayed from PFOA, the more edgy I grew. Callie kept taking me down tangents, showing me life in the Mid-Ohio Valley, of which PFOA, however troubling, was but one among many exposures the valley brewed into a complex mixture.

“These roads will take you into your own country,” wrote Rukeyser, whom I read a decade later. Into your country and, if you let them, into yourself.

How myopic I was, my tape recorder balanced on my knee, my research questions—citation-supported and approved by committee—taped inside my notebook. Convention suggests I needed distance and to pull back and gain perspective. But I suspect now that I wasn’t looking closely enough. I was too removed. Unwilling to look within.

From a distance, Rachel Carson said in Silent Spring, when looking through a “narrow window,” all you can see is a “sliver of light,” nothing specific, maybe a flash of movement, a blur of form or color. But step toward that same narrowed opening, get in low and close, and the whole of the universe becomes visible.


ONCE HOME, I began to write chemical biographies. Of legacy contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), another chemical with a myriad of hidden uses, including as a plasticizer and flame retardant added to plastics. Then PFOA. Then eventually, styrene monomer, which Dad told me he’d used to make polystyrene.

I also sent Callie a copy of Living Downstream. A gift for all the time she’d given me.

The book opens with a parable about a river and riverside community plagued by drownings. Residents attempt rescue after rescue but are soon inundated by the sheer number of people caught in the current. The parable offers the lesson that nothing would change unless someone went upstream to confront “who was pushing the victims in.”

That book had changed me. I’d read it in my early twenties and soon after dropped out of my first attempt at grad school. (I had thought I was headed into health care.) But I didn’t want to work downstream. Eventually I found a home in sociology, which sits at the intersection of biography and history, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills explained it.

I applied to study plastics, public health, and the environment. My entrance essay described a community in Central Jersey wrestling with the legacy of pollution left by the Carbide plant where my dad had worked. He’d just survived cancer. But back then, few researchers were looking into the problems plastics pose to present and future generations. So instead, I focused on mobile, long-lived, legacy-leaving pollutants like PFOA, and along the way, lost sight that they were all of a piece.

By the time I was touring the Mid-Ohio Valley with Callie, I was five years in. And when, on our last day together, we pulled up to DuPont’s Washington Works, I’d thought I’d arrived upstream. I had followed the path PFOA and other persistent pollutants travel in the wild—tracing what scientists call their fate and transport as they flow with wind, weather, water. The journey had taken me to far-flung places, including to Alaska. Pollutants like this tend to accumulate in the Circumpolar North. Now, at last, in Appalachia, at the fence line, peering through chain-link at the piping and tanks and brick-housed processing plants, had I reached the source? The channel through which PFOA—such a life-, livelihood-, and legacy-altering substance—flowed to enter bodies unbidden?

But just as things start to make sense, we pass a sign announcing that we’ve been riding through something called the Polymer Alliance Zone. The words don’t mean anything to me yet, but I write them down in my notebook: p-o-l-y-m-e-r.


POLYMER, I can tell you now, is a compound of Latin roots. Poly meaning “many” and mer meaning “part,” making polymer a composition of many parts. They are “the assemblages that form the structural properties of wood,” notes Ken Geiser in Materials Matter, or “cotton, wool [and] muscle.”

Like metals, synthetic polymers also can be forged in giant reactors, what my dad called autoclaves, which convert current into temperatures and pressures that mimic the forces of geological change. Today, most plastics, which are a type of polymer, are petro-chemicals—that is, derived from oil and gas. Petrochemical is a portmanteau, that lovely Lewis Carroll construction, that, like a suitcase, folds closed to pack “two meanings . . . into one.” The term marked the union of petroleum with chemistry.

A hundred years ago, the petroleum industry was, for the most part, distinct from chemical (and plastics) production, which were instead derived from salt, wood, and coal. Today, the petrochemical industry speaks of itself as a river, a linear network of integrated infrastructure, which in a cascading series of steps, transforms ancient life—fossilized by sedimentation and time—into modern materials.

To the industry, upstream is a place of surfacing: of unearthing long-sequestered hydrocarbons. It is derricks and pump jacks, inland fracking wells and offshore oil rigs. And the conference tables papered with maps marking where to drill next.

Midstream infrastructure stores oil and gas, or else compresses or liquifies it to send downstream for processing. Refiners separate hydrocarbons by size and siphon off the fuels (for example, gasoline, diesel, kerosene). What remains is either waste and wasted, or captured as secondary byproduct and conveyed into crackers, which break—or crack—the complex hydrocarbon into petrochemical feedstocks. These undergo yet more transformations until finally they daylight into plastics and the myriad chemicals that help make them.

One such substrate is ethylene, now the basis for a sprawling industry entailing thousands of industrial petrochemicals. To a plastics maker, ethylene is the poet’s phoneme, the photographer’s light and shadow.

Processing aids. Catalysts. Additives. Thousands of chemicals, made in a network of chemical plants, enable plastics to appear or perform as they do, though they are far less visible than the plastics they make possible. That PFOA was part of the story of plastics had been lost on me. It took me years to understand that Teflon (aka polytetrafluoroethylene) was a child of ethylene too, and that it is a polymer and, in some applications, a plastic, which in turn makes PFOA one among a class of chemicals that serve as plastics’ helpmates. Only recently did I come to realize that, when driving through the Mid-Ohio Valley, I’d been studying plastics all along.

Thinking back now, I no longer see plastics as the bottle holding water, the dashboard of Callie’s car, the pen in my hand making note of everything she said. It is so much larger—an integrated network laid over the landscape like a net. We can visualize how plastics entangle sea life, but it is much harder to realize the way plastics ensnare lives lived along so many river valleys. The Ohio like the Kanawha like the Mississippi. And the Rhone. The Rhine. The Ruhr. The St. Clair. The Scheldt. The Yangtze.


The Ohio, 1917

I’ve spent years with the ghost of George O. Curme Jr., who rose through the ranks at Carbide, becoming vice president and director, a position he held until 1961, the year before my father took a job with the company as a process engineer. I followed Curme through archives, even tracking down his descendants. But they knew as little about his time at Carbide as I once knew about my father’s.

During World War I, Curme, as a young chemist, was a fellow at the Mellon Institute, an industrial research shop in Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and Allegheny flow together to form the Ohio. There, while working on research sponsored by Carbide and its predecessor, Prest-O-Lite, Curme began to reimagine ethylene. It was just a byproduct of the project he was working on, but he saw it as “the starting material for an organic chemical industry of almost unlimited proportions.” Fortune called it a “giant new tree,” an ethylene tree, rooted in the nation’s natural oil and gas fields and yielding a potentially unlimited number of industrial chemicals.

Carbide, even after the explosion of an early pilot plant, eventually backed the idea. Its subsidiary, Carbide and Carbon Chemicals, was founded in 1920. In a small hollow town along the Elk River, another tributary of the Kanawha, the new company bought an old gasworks to scale Curme’s vision.


The Elk, 1920

Twenty miles up the Elk, past Pinch and Blue Creek and Falling Rock, was the town of Clendenin. Gas derricks dotted the hillsides. Down in the valley, along the old Coal and Coke line, was Clendenin’s three banks, its theater and red-framed train station, and Hughey Ruthergood’s “dog wagon,” which served the team of chemists whom Carbide dispatched from Pittsburgh to take over the ramshackle Clendenin Gas Co.

At certain times of the year, “it was practically impossible to drive a car from Clendenin to Charleston,” wrote one of the chemists, “and in the most favorable seasons, this was possible only by a road which forded streams and wound circuitously in and out of hollows to pick the most favorable natural path.” Instead, most rented rooms and walked the tracks to the factory, a scattering of wood and corrugated metal barns squeezed onto ten lowland acres between the river, the rail, and an orchard. There, they worked with “wild gases,” through “frequent explosions” in hip boots on the backfilled, flood-prone land.

What Carbide wanted to capture—ethane, a component of natural gas—the Clendenin Gas Co. had weathered off in open tanks. Carbide retrofitted the equipment to recover ethane, break its hydrocarbons, and harvest the ethylene. The people of Clendenin “look[ed] upon us with an air of mystification and distrust,” Curme said. When asked what they’d made at Clendenin, he added: “mostly mistakes.”

Employees worried the venture was going nowhere. There were no buyers. And no prospects for sales. To further float the operation, they started pulling off propane, too, and selling it for home heating and cooking under the name Pyrofax.

But, “in spite of the depression,” Curme said, “in spite of the mud, which was everywhere, in spite of mechanical breakdowns and unanticipated corrosion problems, first one process and then another began to take shape. Operations were irregular and output was small, but gradually a number of synthetic products, such as ethylene glycol, went into regular production.”

“They weren’t in Clendenin very long,” Kim Johnson told me. Her grandfather had worked there as a welder and pipe fitter. “I can’t believe they went through all that trouble,” she added, “only to abandon the place,” which Carbide did on the prospects of a couple dynamite companies promising to buy millions of pounds of ethylene glycol per year.

In the mid-1920s, Carbide acquired a mostly shuttered World War I–era chemical works in South Charleston. Within two years, full-scale commercial production of ethylene glycol was under way, which had been marketed instead as antifreeze and branded as Prestone.

Soon after Carbide decamped for Charleston, Curme’s brother and another Clendenin chemist, Charles O. Young, would be dead, each killed in a chemical explosion that severed the head of one and fractured the skull of the other.

Long before the state erected a monument at Hawk’s Nest, the West Virginia Historical Society placed a placard along Clendenin’s U.S. 119: “From this nucleus grew the nation’s giant petrochemical industry, employer of thousands.”



The Kanawha, 1941

Had Rukeyser followed the Kanawha from Hawk’s Nest, past the furnaces at Alloy, eventually the river would have delivered her to the chemical works Carbide built at South Charleston.

Year by year, Carbide expanded the number of “water-white” petrochemicals it could “white magic” from West Virginian oil and gas. And when the plant filled the valley floor, it diked and built out eighty more acres on Blaine Island, an old melon farm converted into a petrochemical city.

Ansel Adams makes this journey, though, and at South Charleston, he photographs the “jam” of pipes metering in chlorine from the factory next door and “natural, coke-oven and refinery gases.” He shoots the tank farms. The fractionation unit, which stood four stories tall—equipment so colossal Fortune said it “out-Wellses H. G.” For scale, Adams waited for nine Carbide workers in crisp, belted trousers to enter the frame.

His images widened my lens. Looking at them, I began to understand how metals, petrochemicals, and plastics work as their own kind of trinity. For what is a petrochemical plant but a mash-up of metal made from the kind of specialized alloys ElectroMet could make? Of processing equipment—which could harness “Brobdingnagian” forces, as Fortune put it—formed, molded, precision cut, and welded by Carbide’s other expertise in metalworking torches? And what would have become of the company’s venture into petrochemicals had it not been underwritten by its metals business?


“IN AMERICA,” read a Carbide ad from the same year Adams toured South Charleston, “science is discovering a vast new world—a stupendous world that Columbus never dreamed.” It pictures a backlit globe against a field of stars, all continents but North America dimmed. “One of the discoveries,” the copy says, “is an amazing series of synthetic plastics—‘Vinylite resins.’”

The ad merges two myths, one about our national origin and the other about plastics. It turns out that plastics weren’t discovered either. There was no manifest destiny.

Carbide’s interest in vinyl was a strategy to mitigate an oversupply of ethylene dichloride (EDC), a byproduct of Carbide’s multistep antifreeze (ethylene glycol) process. As with oil and gas refining, chemical reactions also yield byproducts, some in large enough quantities—“an embarrassing surplus,” one Carbide employee said—that something had to be done about it.

The more Prestone Carbide made, the more EDC it accumulated. “A frantic effort,” read an internal Carbide history, “was begun by the Research Group to find uses for EDC, the most promising of which was the production of vinyl chloride, which could be polymerized to produce the resin, polyvinyl chloride (PVC).”

Early batches of vinyl were utterly unusable, though. Too brittle. Too hard. Too susceptible to the effects of heat and light. Carbide was forced to blend PVC with another kind of plastic, polyvinyl acetate (PVA), forming a copolymer that was stronger and more pliable than either on its own. They branded this Vinylite.

But after all the expense of developing it, Vinylite wasn’t saleable. Whole markets had to be invented, just to make it commercially relevant. Potential customers had to be trained, even wooed, by Carbide’s new credit department. In 1934, a man named G. C. Miller was hired to extol “the then non-existent but hoped for merits of vinyl resins to hundreds of people, and rarely ever obtaining even a very small order.”

Their efforts eventually proved fruitful. In less than a decade, any number of sectors operated under the assumption that they couldn’t function without Vinylite. By 1941, when Adams toured the plant, Pittsburgh’s American Can Co. was lining beer cans with vinyl lacquer, and RCA was pressing the company’s vinyl into broadcast records.

When I came across this fact in the archival record, I thought again of Rukeyser. Who sings from these downriver resins?


AFTER VINYLITE, Carbide became one of the most significant players in twentieth-century plastics, especially after it bought out the Bakelite empire in 1939. By the 1950s, Carbide claimed Bakelite’s former Raritan River plant “the plastics center of the world.” The company made nearly every major category of commodity plastics, and innumerable plastics’ helpmates as well. The further Carbide developed its progenitor plastics, the more the company ranged into making plastics’ additives. Over time, they developed a family of plasticizers called “Flexol.” And inhibitors. And stabilizers, to prevent the discoloration and darkening of vinyl films. Every product, every compound led to more and then others still. And so the great ethylene tree branched ever outward.

In 1963, the New York Times reported that Carbide was the first company to manufacture a billion pounds of plastic in a single year. My father, who worked at the historic Bakelite plant, contributed to that sum hundreds of millions of pounds of polystyrene—a child of the union of ethylene and benzene. The double helix of inheritance is a twisted strand to unravel.

The company that bought the symbolic billionth pound: PFOA’s original manufacturer, 3M Company.


HOW DOES ONE translate the legacy of industry to the page? I study Moore, Adams, Rukeyser like maps showing the way.

Before he lost his fortune, Rukeyser’s father was in the sand, gravel, and aggregate business, selling the rock to underlay the rising New York City skyline. Adams’s father, like his father before him, sold timber. One of Moore’s ancestors moved Appalachian coal for export. My father worked styrene and butadiene rubber into polystyrene pellets, and later ran the plant that made the substrates for Bakelite, too. What history does his body harbor? What responsibility do I bear?


The Ohio, 2007

On my last morning in the Mid-Ohio Valley, I watch as DuPont emerges like hazy images in darkroom solvents. A barge shuttles downriver. I retreat into the inn for breakfast. Coffee brewed from DuPont water. Toast. Homemade jam from the raspberries the innkeeper raised down the road.

As I eat, a siren from across the river slices through the silence. A delivery truck lumbers down the street. Somewhere a dog barks. I wait, breathless, staring at my half-eaten breakfast. The dog, the truck, the waiting. The “all-clear” that never sounds.

I slide my hand over my belly. I am six weeks pregnant.


IN THE YEARS that follow, DuPont will spin off its Teflon division. Dow, which had already acquired Carbide, will merge with DuPont, all assets, liabilities, and environmental legacies flowing together like the Kanawha into the Ohio into the Mississippi and beyond. Products and divisions will combine, reassemble, and in time, like a distributary, split apart.

Styrene, like vinyl chloride, will be classified as a carcinogen.

PFOA will be found in nearly every American, some 99.7 percent of the population. Science will continue to amass evidence for PFOA’s carcinogenicity and establish that it is a multiorgan toxicant, one capable of shaping the development of human immunity, fertility, and growth, which is to say perhaps the evolution of humankind.

Billions of dollars will be paid out for the legacy that PFOA and its fluorocarbon brethren have left.

When fracking, a new gas harvesting technology, comes to the region, the industry will say it’s a “shale gas revolution.” Will rename it “freedom gas.” And Trump’s Department of Energy will call for a “petrochemical renaissance,” a secondary ethane-ethylene derivatives hub, inland and safe from the storms that will, year by year, batter industry infrastructure along the Mississippi and Gulf coast. Shell will return to build a massive ethane cracker and polyethylene plant along the upper Ohio near Pittsburgh. But residents upriver and downstream will organize around an alternative vision of their future, one that for those in the Mid-Ohio Valley and its wider basin will also, likely always, include PFOA and Carbide’s remnants.

The Clendenin site—which wasn’t demolished until the 1970s—will be washed out by the Elk, when, in 2016, the river overtakes its banks. The centennial of what Carbide forged there—the union of petroleum with chemistry; the byproducts, the burdens of which we commonly though unevenly now carry—will approach, quickly pass, then recede from view. O


This article is the fourth in a series, envisioned by Rebecca Altman, on the effects of the petrochemical industry on life, economics, and democracy. The series is generously supported by The Fine Fund.

Photographs reproduced as they originally appeared in Fortune, with permission from the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. 



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Rebecca Altman is trained as an environmental sociologist, serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Health and Environmental Health Network, and is working on an intimate history of plastics for Scribner Books (US) and Oneworld (UK). Altman was guest editor for a four-part Orion series on the effects of the petrochemical industry on life, economics, and democracy.


  1. Seems like I once read many articles about the hazards of plastics and all that means but either they stopped coming or I stopped reading so this was a new light in the dark world of corporate greed and ignoring the long term and short as well, of their new version of those “Dark Satanic” factories. It is well researched, historic and dedicated to telling the truth.

  2. West Virginians have long called our state a “National Sacrifice Zone” but that mainly refers to the coal and timber that ship out of our state marring the landscape. Chemical Valley is related, but too often we don’t talk about it that way or see it that way. Thank you for making these connections!

  3. How do we access the first three articles in this series?

  4. The story of how DuPont came to America is also very interesting. Particularly with respect to Lavoisier and the foundation of modern chemistry….

  5. Thank you so much for this. I grew up on the Kanawha and have made it my life’s work to stop the ongoing damage this industry has done here. I am never able to fully convey the story but you did an amazing job at telling a huge part of it. Also I never knew Ansel Adams came here. That blows my mind. Are there more photos somewhere. I want to see them all!

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