Kelydra Welcker thought it was going to be a simple science fair project, but it wound up exposing the toxic emissions of a megacompany and earning her a visit, and a warning, from the FBI.
At the age of 17, Welcker decided to test the water in her small hometown of Parkersburg, W.Va., as part of her junior year science project. A few years earlier, the water had tested high for ammonium perfluorooctanoate (APFO), due to leaked emissions from the nearby DuPont plant.
DuPont is the largest employer in Parkersburg. In fact, Welcker's father works there as a chemist and her sister is employed as an engineer. But the company had also been slapped with a $10.25 million fine from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for leaking chemicals into the nearby Ohio River. PFOA is used to make Teflon and AFPO is a derivative of it. PFOA has also been linked to cancer, and Parkersburg residents had five times more of the chemical in their systems than the national average.
DuPont pledged to reduce its APFO emissions. So for science project, Welcker decided to test the waters and make sure the company was living up to the promise. Her initial tests found that it was, but within a couple of months, the levels began to rise.
Welcker developed an easy test to determine if the water contained the chemical — just boil the water and shake it. If it bubbled, it contained the chemical. She went on TV to share the info with her neighbors and then developed a backyard device, using windshield wipers, steel wool and a battery — to remove the acid from water. That device earned her a patent.
It was when a documentary film crew learned about her work that Welcker also earned some unforeseen notoriety. The crew shot footage of Welcker, including footage near the DuPont plant. That was when the FBI came knocking on her door with questions about espionage and homeland security. Welcker proclaimed her innocence and her intention to help DuPont, not harm the company.
Now in college, Welcker is currently working with DuPont and her local utility company to develop a desktop unit of her backyard invention so that it can be used community-wide.