The inspiration for Mark Ruffalos character in the film Dark Waters, Rob Bilott believes the battle to protect polluted communities is far from over
A conversation with the lawyer Rob Bilott is like a slap across the face. It doesn’t feel good. But it does get your attention.
According to Bilott, we face a “unique health threat” from a class of industrial chemicals that most Americans have never heard of. These chemicals are widely used in everyday products such as non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics, even though science shows they are linked to a range of deadly diseases, reproductive problems and other ailments. Powerful corporations are fighting to protect the use of these profitable chemical compounds, Bilott says, and US regulators are doing next to nothing to stop them.
It’s worth listening to what Bilott has to say. He has spent the last two decades advocating for people in West Virginia and Ohio whose water was contaminated with one of these toxins, a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
Bilott achieved a class-action settlement with DuPont in 2004, part of which paid for a six-year health study. That study found links between PFOA and high cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure, pregnancy-induced hypertension and thyroid disease. In a follow-up case in 2017, Bilott achieved a multimillion-dollar settlement of thousands of personal injury claims against DuPont. His two decades of work negotiated water filtration and treatment for affected communities, the establishment of a novel scientific panel for human health studies, and the introduction of a medical monitoring program for thousands of people exposed. His work led to DuPont and other manufacturers phasing out the use of PFOA in the US, though similar replacement chemicals have prompted fresh concerns.
Bilott’s battle against DuPont, documented in a memoir, has been made into the feature film Dark Waters, released to theaters across the country this month. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters tells of Bilott’s journey from a chemical industry defense attorney to a plaintiffs’ champion who uncovered evidence that DuPont knowingly hid the dangers of PFOA, even as its manufacturing facility near Parkersburg, West Virginia, was spilling the toxin across the landscape.
DuPont’s own lawyers and scientists raised concerns about the local community’s exposure to PFOA, Bilott told me. “Unfortunately what we saw was decisions made for business purposes to continue using the chemical, releasing it, and exposing people to it,” Bilott says.
(“Safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont,” the company told me in an email. “We are – and have always been – committed to upholding the highest standards for the wellbeing of our employees, our customers and the communities in which we operate.”)
Despite his legal victories and newfound fame, Bilott believes there is much more to be done. He is currently pursuing a new lawsuit against chemical manufacturers 3M, DuPont and DuPont spinoff Chemours. The action is seeking class-action status on behalf of everyone living in the United States who has been exposed to not only PFOA but related compounds known as PFAS, short for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.”
Bilott says scientific research shows that PFAS chemicals accumulate in the human body and in the environment, creating a “ticking time bomb” in anyone exposed. He asserts that the companies “maliciously conspired” to conceal the dangers of PFAS while contaminating the bodies of people around the country.
As is the case with PFOA, studies link PFAS exposure to a range of human health problems, including a suppression of the human immune system, liver dysfunction, and adverse birth outcomes. The chemicals have been used since the 1940s in a range of products such as non-stick cookware, stain-repellents, food packaging, firefighting foam and other products.
“This is a unique health threat in the sense of its scope and magnitude,” Bilott says. “As for PFOA, we’re talking about a chemical that has managed to find its way into the blood of almost everything on the planet and almost every person in the United States and is linked with multiple potential adverse health effects. “It is extremely unlikely to ever break down without us going out there and physically finding a way to get rid of it.”
Bilott is taking an unusual approach in the new litigation, which is pending in a federal court in Ohio. He is not asking for money damages for individuals, but rather for the establishment of an independent scientific panel to study and confirm the health effects of PFAS exposures so that people can be informed about the risks they face.
Notably, he is insisting that the companies making the chemicals pay for the independent scientific work, not US taxpayers. The companies have denied liability and sought unsuccessfully to have the complaint dismissed.
Separately, Bilott has also pushed the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) into action. After Bilott threated to sue ATSDR for failing to look at PFAS exposures, the agency said it would start collecting data from at least eight sites around the United States.
Bilott fears limited funding will not allow for the necessary scope, however. And the companies “ought to be paying”, not taxpayers, he argues.
Thanks in part to his work, and to journalists, scientists and activists who have brought attention to the PFAS problem, action to protect public health is spreading. Last year United Nations experts called for the phasing out of certain PFAS. And this week environmental officials in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark announced a plan to restrict all PFAS compounds and phase out most uses by 2030.
Bilott is heartened at the progress but frustrated it has taken so long. He finds the lack of regulatory action by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) particularly infuriating.
“We notified the EPA 18 years ago that PFOA in drinking water presented a public health threat, and in 2019 there are still no federal regulatory limits,” Bilott told me. “If [affected] communities had been forced to sit back and wait for action they’d still be exposed every day. They would have no relief whatsoever.”
DuPont and manufacturing industry voices have sought to discredit Bilott and the Dark Waters film. The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, which has included DuPont executives among its leadership team in recent years, claims, in a website created specifically to discredit Dark Waters, that “activists” are “cherry-picking” information in an effort to “deceive the public, threaten our jobs, and destroy our way of life”.
This smear is only one small part of an ongoing effort to limit class-action environmental lawsuits, which are often the last line of defense for consumers. When regulators fail to regulate, and lawmakers align with corporate interests, consumers have nowhere else to go.
“In the movie there is a scene where my character makes the comment, ‘We protect us, we do.’ And that is unfortunately the reality right now,” Bilott says.
The fight is far from over.
“I feel like I have a unique responsibility to get this information out to people,” Bilott tells me. “We all know about Flint, Michigan – one chemical, in one water supply. But I suspect most people across the United States are still unfamiliar with PFAS and don’t realize the exposure that occurs. I’m going to continue doing what I can elevating that awareness.”
Carey Gillam is a journalist and author and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group. She is a Guardian US columnist
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