A daughter’s memoir offers a window into the impact of ‘forever chemicals’

In “Loose of Earth,” Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn tells the story of her West Texas childhood, and her father’s battle with cancer that she believes was a result of exposure during his time in the Air Force.

By Shelly BrisbinJune 28, 2024 12:50 pm, ,

In Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn‘s Lubbock home, evangelical faith always occupied a central place during her childhood. But when her father was diagnosed with cancer at age 38, the family’s belief morphed into a desperate search for recovery.

Blackburn’s father lost his battle with colon cancer. While she was researching her memoir, she learned that her father had been exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals.” That exposure likely came during his time as an Air Force officer and during his childhood on Air Force bases where the chemicals were used. 

Blackburn’s new book, “Loose of Earth,” is both a memoir and a call for environmental justice. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn, courtesy photo

Texas Standard: Tell us a bit about your family growing up. You were the eldest of five children living in Lubbock?

Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn: That’s right, and my parents were white evangelical conservatives who graduated from college in the early 80s and were part of, kind of, this cultural moment. There’s a lot of suspicion of large institutions – government institutions being one of them, even though my father worked for the military, or perhaps because he did – as well as public schools. And their skepticism extended even to the medical industry.

And so they homeschooled all five of us. And we lived a pretty cloistered life sort of searching out the ideal evangelical church, small Bible churches scattered across Lubbock that we sort of hopped one to the next. And I was kind of seen as the second in command to my parents, and was very active in helping to care for and raise my younger siblings at the age of 11 years old.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 38, it was very shocking. He was a healthy marathon runner. And, you know, my parent’s vision of the world and the life that they wanted to give us risked being totally shattered. 

Your dad was an airline pilot during your childhood, and he was exposed to chemicals you believe caused his colon cancer during the time he was in the Air Force. Can you talk about what you learned about that exposure? 

Yes. It was during my research for the memoir that I learned about these chemicals, PFAS, which are euphemized as “forever chemicals” because, once released into the environment, they persist indefinitely and accumulate in sources of water and soil, and thus our bodies as well. And they are carcinogenic. 

Some people will know PFAS from Teflon products produced by the company DuPont. But what I discovered was that these chemicals were present in military firefighting foam, which came into wide use in the 70s.

These foams were very effective at putting out petroleum-based fires, and at some military sites there would be monthly, even weekly drills where lifesized models of military equipment would be doused in flame. And then these foams would be used to exterminate the flames and then haphazardly went down these training fields where they would follow the path of groundwater into wells and other kinds of groundwater sites.

And what none of us knew back in 1997, when my father was diagnosed, was that every military site where he had worked and also lived – he was a so-called military brat, a son of a military officer. He himself was third-generation Air Force. And so he had lived and grown up around military sites even before he himself carried forward this family tradition of joining the Air Force. And so it’s very likely that for the first 30 years of his life that he was routinely exposed to very high amounts of PFAS in groundwater. 

For instance, the EPA recently ruled in April to begin regulating six of these hazardous chemicals, which are found in everyday products – clothing, food wrap, but also of groundwater sites. And their very expectation is that this the maximum contaminant level should be about four parts per trillion, per the EPA. And I learned that some of the sites where my father lived and worked were over 100.000 parts per trillion. So very, very high and dangerous amounts of chemicals. 

Back when your dad was diagnosed, your mother responded by changing the way you all ate, increasing her religious devotions, attending revival meetings. How did these changes sit with you at that time, and how did they affect your family? 

At the time, I was 12 years old and I was a Christian believer myself, and the stakes could not have been higher.

Part of what the faith healing ideology at the time was… and some people will recognize this as prosperity gospel kind of thinking, which is that if you live a righteous life and you have enough faith, you can have health and wealth during this earthly life. And the implication there is that if you are poor or if you are sick, then it’s because you don’t have enough faith. It has some insidious consequences for the people who believe it. 

My family, you know, my dad was told by the doctors when he was diagnosed with the late stage, early-onset colon cancer that he had a short time to live. Chemotherapy and radiation might add time to his life, but he was essentially given a terminal diagnosis. And my parents, this just was not good enough for them. They wanted a cure. And, when the doctors didn’t give them the answers they wanted, they found the answers that they sought in their revival tents where we were told if we just believe hard enough, this man that you love can be radically and miraculously healed.

At the time, it was never said to me explicitly, “if you don’t have enough faith, Kathleen, your father could die.” But in looking back, I know that I absolutely felt a tremendous dread that any doubt on my part that my father could be healed would be the barrier to his miracle.

And so I lived kind of in this tension, this duplicitous tension between what my eyes and ears and nose was telling me about the way his body was changing, the way his smell was changing. That in fact, cancer was consuming him and killing him right in front of my eyes. And the mental commitment to believe that this was nothing more than a test of our faith and that he could be healed…

And so it actually took quite a long time for me to be willing to tell this story, not because, you know, I came to understand pretty soon in my teen years that what we had been through was very extreme. I became quite skeptical of it.

But that level of commitment to a narrative and to an ideology has a really long-lasting impact. So it really did take me almost 20 years, and ten of those years just learning how to write. 

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