Q&A: The Power of One Voice, and Now, Many: The Lawyer Who Sounded the Alarm on ‘Forever Chemicals’

It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that were it not for Robert Bilott—the dogged and meticulous environmental lawyer once called “DuPont’s worst nightmare”—the world might not know of the dangers of “forever chemicals.”

After all, it was Bilott’s work in the case of a West Virginia farmer whose livestock were mysteriously dying after drinking creek water downstream from a DuPont landfill that exposed the existence of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. In 2001, after combing through more than 100,000 pages of internal DuPont records that he obtained through a court order, Bilott was able to show that over the course of 50 years, the chemical manufacturer had covered up the potential harms of PFOA, which included cancers and birth defects. 

Not only that, but Bilott also found that the company had also declined to use a less harmful substance for fear that it would jeopardize its billion-dollar-a-year business generated by PFOA, which was a central component of nonstick and water-resistant products.

PFOA has since been identified as just one member of a family of chemicals called perfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFAS (say it: pee-fass), that hardly ever degrade over time, hence their nickname “forever chemicals.” In the years since Bilott’s case, PFAS have been found to be so ubiquitous that they have contaminated air, soil, water and wildlife around the globe. Federal health officials say that most Americans have the chemicals in their bloodstreams, and researchers recently found a link between the chemicals and infertility.

Last month, more than two decades after Bilott first sounded the alarm about a “forever chemical” in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, federal officials began taking steps to ban the substances—a process that Bilott says is exceedingly overdue. 

In an interview with Inside Climate News, Bilott talked about the dimensions of the global threat from PFAS, the daunting challenge of finding a solution, and his belief that ordinary people are making a difference. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Can you describe how you first identified PFOA?

Well, we’re talking about chemicals that are in a completely man-made family of chemicals called PFAS, as in per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. And these are essentially man-made chemicals that never existed on the planet prior to the 1940s. But they are made by combining carbon and fluorine together in a laboratory. The one we know the most about so far—frankly because we found out about it in the water out in West Virginia about 24 years ago—is called PFOA. It’s a chain of eight carbons. And, unfortunately, what we’ve learned over the years is that this chemical is not only incredibly persistent. Once it gets out into the environment, it stays there virtually forever. Thousands, if not millions of years in our water, in our soil. But it also gets into living things and it stays there and it builds up. Over time, it persists, it accumulates and, unfortunately, is also toxic. What we’ve seen over the years is this chemical has been found to be associated with a wide variety of different health impacts to humans, including cancers, testicular cancer, kidney cancer—also been linked with thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis. 

And in the most recent science that’s been generated, we’re finding that this chemical can impair our immune system and lead to a whole cascade of issues within the human body. Particularly troubling is the potential impact that this chemical may have in decreasing the effectiveness of vaccines, for example. And that’s one of the things that’s got a lot of folks concerned, particularly when we’re dealing with Covid. You’ve got this chemical in drinking water all over the country, all over the planet, and in human blood that could have that kind of effect. So it’s really taken the attention of regulators and scientists all over the planet. And as we learn more about it, what we’re seeing is the acceptable levels of exposure keep getting lower and lower because we’re finding effects at lower and lower exposure levels. 

What kind of effects do PFAS chemicals have on the environment?

These chemicals, unfortunately, move rapidly through the environment. They can be dispersed through the air from manufacturing facilities up through the smokestacks, and they get up into the air, and unfortunately, they can fall all over the planet, including in rain. We’re finding these chemicals in rainwater and dispersed widely. It’s being found in the rain in Tibet, on tops of mountains. It’s being found in the Arctic, in polar ice caps, getting into animals and plants and people all over the planet. The stuff not only moves through the air, it moves through the water. It can fall onto the ground or get discharged into rivers and streams or seeps into the ground through landfills. Or, unfortunately, once it gets into the water, it stays there and it moves rapidly, and you end up with pretty massive contamination of groundwater supplies, surface water supplies, drinking water supplies, soil. And then the stuff can be taken up through plants and get into crops and get into wildlife or even domesticated animals, or animals that are being used for food. So there’s real concern that this stuff not only gets out there, it spreads rapidly and it can impact our entire environment in numerous ways.

What has been the primary focus of mitigation efforts so far?

There’s a reason they’re called forever chemicals. Once they get out there, they will stay there. They don’t break down under natural conditions. The ones with the eight carbons—the long carbon chains, in particular—they don’t break down under natural conditions. So everything that’s been emitted over the last 70, 80 years is out there and it’s going to stay there unless it’s somehow removed. It’s a difficult issue, dealing with how do we get rid of this material. And, frankly, it then begs the question of who should be responsible for removing this material, the costs that are going to be involved in getting this out of our water. And a lot of the focus to date has been to it to try to stop ongoing exposures through drinking water. Granted, these chemicals can get out into our environment in a lot of ways. But the scientists are particularly concerned about exposures through drinking water because that’s the most direct route to it getting into us. So a lot of the activity to date has been to try to identify what drinking water sources are impacted and to at least try to stop those ongoing exposures. And folks are only just now starting to try to look into how do we get it out of the soil, how do we get it out of plants? How do you deal with what’s in people? Unfortunately, most of what’s been focused on so far is just stopping that immediate, ongoing drinking water exposure.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you reflect on the past 20 years?

It’s very frustrating to have to look at the documents and look at the history here and know that people were aware this was getting into our drinking water back in the 1980s. The first sampling that we’re aware of so far that DuPont did, for example, was back in 1984. They went out and sampled public drinking water supplies and found that the chemical PFOA was getting into drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia. And even when I alerted the EPA to this—when I found out in 2001—it’s taken decades to get some kind of regulatory response and action to actually do something about it. That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book “Exposure” and wanted to make sure the films like “Dark Waters” and the documentary “The Devil We Know” were made to help people understand how long this is taking. Look at the way the system is set up, the way we regulate chemicals in this country and what it takes to move something into the regulatory system. It’s an incredibly long, complex, time-consuming process that we frankly ought to be fixing. And, in the meantime, you’ve got decades of people being exposed and continuing to be exposed while we try to do something to regulate them.

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The work that you’re involved in can be taxing on a personal and emotional level. What keeps you going?

What’s kept me pursuing this for so long is seeing for myself how much was known about how toxic and persistent of a biochemical carcinogenic these chemicals were, and the fact that this was a massive public health threat that was going unrecognized and unresponded to by the regulatory authorities—that it was being actively covered up by the companies that were making this stuff and pumping it out into our world. But also recognizing that individuals standing up and speaking out about this can make a difference. As somebody like the farmer, Mr. [Wilbur] Tennant, who first realized there was a problem on his farm back in the 1990s, was able to say, “Look, I may have one of the biggest chemical companies on the planet. On the other side, I may be going up against the entire regulatory system in the U.S. and the legal system. But this isn’t the way this should work. This shouldn’t be happening in the United States.” And he was able to set into motion a process that’s gotten us to the point where we’re now seeing the president of the United States saying this is a national problem that needs to be addressed. We see regulatory bodies finally taking action to fix it. We see the laws changing. We see bans being proposed by the entire European Union now on this entire family of chemicals. And the company that invented a lot of these, 3M, just announcing they’re going to stop making all of them. So, it’s encouraging to know that it might take a long time, but individuals can step up and by raising their voice and making their concerns heard, it can lead to actual real change.

What can everyday people do to protect themselves until a more rigid regulatory and mitigation structure is implemented?

It’s really important for people to have the discussion like we’re having right now. We need to be talking about this issue and raising awareness of it and saying: “This isn’t the way it should be. That this ought to be different.” And there are things that can be done right now, even as we are waiting for the regulatory process to move forward and these laws to change, consumers are becoming educated about the fact that these chemicals are in products. And we keep learning about more and more of the different types of products that these chemicals have been used in in the past and most of us had no idea we were being exposed in this way. But when people are finding out about this and they’re speaking out and saying, “We don’t want that in our products,” that’s causing real change. 

Now we’re already seeing major companies that are coming forward and announcing even before the rules change or the regulations change, that they’re going to take these chemicals out of their products, they’re going to reformulate. And the people speaking out is creating market demand that this change, and companies are responding to that already. So that’s great in the sense that we’re not going to be hopefully continuing to put more of this out there. And that’s critically important to at least stop more of this from contaminating the environment.

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