‘A Global Public Health Threat’: Rob Bilott on His 20-Year Fight Against Chemicals Forever | SPFA
LLast month, an Ohio court certified a class action lawsuit brought by attorney Rob Bilott that would cover 7 million people – and at one point possibly everyone living in the United States – who were exposed to certain dangerous “eternal chemicals” known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.
The chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects, kidney disease and a range of other human health issues. They are called “eternal chemicals” because they do not break down naturally and persist in the environment indefinitely.
Two types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – have proven to be so harmful that they are being phased out. In addition to US multinational 3M, the class action names 10 other companies that produce PFAS, which is used to make cookware, food packaging, water-resistant fabrics, fire-fighting foam and ‘others products. Last year, the Biden administration pledged to undertake a massive PFAS mitigation strategy at a cost of more than $10 billion.
The Guardian spoke to Bilott about his trial. Notes have been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve spent two decades focusing on exposing the hazard of a class of chemicals we call PFAS, using litigation to try to hold companies involved in the release of PFAS accountable and lobbying on regulators to step up and do more to protect the public. You wrote a book, Exposure, was featured in the New York Times as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” and your legal battle was made into a Hollywood movie titled dark waters, as well as a documentary. Why are you so passionate about this issue?
It is a global public health threat. It’s very frustrating when you step back and look at the science that has become even clearer over the years about how dangerous these chemicals are and how widely they are used. The companies knew that if they released these chemicals into the world, they would end up in our water, in our soil, in wildlife, in us, but they did it anyway. And now, after decades of earning billions of dollars, these same companies are fighting accountability and trying to make all of us bear the cost of cleaning up this mess. I try to do what I can to ensure that not only is the health threat addressed, but the right people, the ones who actually caused the health issues, are held accountable – not all of us.
Most people would associate your work with your battle against DuPont, a major maker of PFAS chemicals used to make things like Teflon coatings in cookware. But now you are attacking many other manufacturers. What do you hope to accomplish with this case?
We first learned of the existence of these chemicals through litigation against DuPont, which purchased a chemical called PFOA from its manufacturer, 3M, and used it to make Teflon. We slowly began to realize that we didn’t just have PFOA, but this larger group of PFAS chemicals that are now found in the environment and in blood. But we were told that all the science that had been done was only about PFOA and no one had done similar research on these other chemicals yet. The companies said it was up to those exposed, it was their burden, to prove that these other PFAS chemicals were causing harm.
So in 2018, we filed the class action lawsuit. The goal is not to obtain damages, but to have a federal court require the creation of a new scientific panel that would have the ability to examine this mixture of PFAS chemicals in our blood. and to confirm the extent to which they actually cause harm. We want companies to fund independent scientists to do whatever it takes to confirm this damage.
Last October, President Biden announced a plan to “prevent PFAS from being released into the air, watering systems, and food supply…and expand cleanup efforts to address the effects of these.” harmful pollutants”. This plan is expected to cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Biden has set aside $10 billionn just to treat PFAS in drinking water. You recently sent a letter to the Biden administration dealing with the plan, offering your help and support. But you also expressed very strong opposition to taxpayer dollars being used for PFAS pollution cleanup. Are you frustrated not only with the manufacturers but also with the EPA?
It is frustrating that several different PFAS “action plans” have been announced over the years since 2009. Nothing happened with the first plan, and then we had another plan announced in 2016. Other promises have been made and again nothing happened. And so we have this new plan that has been announced. (But) we are still seeing a debate about how much these materials should be regulated, should they be declared hazardous or not.
What I’ve come to understand after dealing with this for so many decades is that we have a real systemic problem with how our regulatory system is set up, how science is generated, how articles are published, peer-reviewed, how it all interacts with our legal system, who has the burden of proof, who is being told they have to prove whether a chemical is safe or harmful. All of this creates a perfect storm of inaction. The only way for people to have clean water, to be compensated for the damages, the cancers that have been caused, is to go to our legal system and try to defend themselves in court for years. It’s almost like there’s this intentional system of roadblocks built into the system.
So that sounds good, telling the public that we’re moving forward, we’re going to start cleaning this up, we’re going to allocate billions and billions of dollars to do that. But the money shouldn’t come from us, the exposed people. Taxpayers should not have to fund this cleanup. We shouldn’t be asking the federal government to basically bail out these chemical companies by allocating billions that the companies should be spending to clean this up.
You had access to large files of internal documents from the various companies you sued for PFAS. Many of these documents show that companies had known for decades that PFAS was harmful, including that it was spreading widely, accumulating in humans. Could you clarify this?
It’s very telling when you start digging into the internal files of what these companies knew, what information they had access to for decades, that they just weren’t sharing with the rest of us. For example, one of the things we found in the internal records of the main manufacturer of the chemical PFOS is that that company was well aware in the 1970s that PFOS was in the blood of the general population of United States and that it was found in fairly significant concentrations. levels. In fact, back in the 1990s, 3M’s own scientists sat down to calculate what a “safe” blood level for PFOS would be.
At the time, they knew that the level of PFOS found in the blood of the general population of the United States was around 30 parts per billion. And when that in-house 3M scientist sat down to calculate a safe blood level, the number he calculated was 1.05 parts per billion. About 30 times lower than the level actually found. Why didn’t the rest of us say so? Why weren’t we warned? We only find out decades later.
Documents like this clearly show that the potential risk to human health was recognized decades ago. Yet we are in 2022 wondering whether we should take action to get rid of it – and who should be held responsible for all of it.
This is one of the reasons why I do everything I can so people can see the facts for themselves and come to their own conclusions about who should be responsible for the threat that has been caused.
This story is co-published with the New Lede, a journalism project of the environmental working group.