They couldn’t get pregnant. No one told them their ovaries held ‘forever chemicals.’

MUSC researcher Louis Guillette died suddenly in 2015. Guillette, pictured here on Jul. 8, 2011 at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve, studied alligators as sentinel species for environmental contamination and its potential impact on human health. File/Wade Spees/Staff
Wade Spees

The researchers started in an alligator pond and ended up at a fertility clinic. They were looking at bodily fluids — first in large reptiles, then humans — searching for a group of environmental contaminants that even the U.S. government didn’t have a handle on, clueless still about their ubiquity and potential harm.

The South Carolina scientists, a small group interested in harms to reproduction, detected these chemicals known as PFAS floating in the ovaries of women struggling to get pregnant — a first-of-its-kind discovery. Then, suddenly, the lead scientist died.

A graduate student took charge, eventually publishing their findings in a scientific journal. But without their leader, famed researcher Louis Guillette, the research program dissolved. No press release went out. No one told the women at the clinic that their ovaries held toxic contaminants. No one mentioned that the source of their infertility could be hiding in the cosmetics they wore or the water they drank.

Did they have a right to know?

“Truly eye-opening,” said Jessica McCoy, remembering what it was like being that graduate student and measuring PFAS concentrations in the donors’ blood and ovarian fluid.

McCoy graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina soon after publishing the group’s results. She wanted to lead a patient education program at the clinic about PFAS, but Guillette’s sudden death at the age of 61 made it hard: “We just didn’t make it that far.”

Guillette died in 2015, eight years before the makers of PFAS settled billion-dollar lawsuits for contaminating public water. His death came three years before Mark Ruffalo made a blockbuster film based on the true story of the very first PFAS lawsuit — the one that uncovered DuPont’s decades-long knowledge of human birth defects linked to PFAS. DuPont said nothing, too.

The company stayed silent after discovering in 1981 that two babies, born to workers exposed to a PFAS chemical now known as PFOA, had eye and facial defects. Another baby, similarly exposed, had PFAS in his cord blood. Not only did DuPont not communicate these discoveries to other employees, it outright denied the adverse pregnancy outcomes to employees in an internal memo. DuPont failed to notify federal agencies about PFOA’s harmful effects for decades. 08-26-23

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