LLast month, an Ohio court upheld a class action lawsuit filed by attorney Rob Bilott that would cover 7 million people — and eventually potentially everyone living in the United States — who were forever exposed to certain dangerous chemicals known as and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS .
The chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects, kidney disease and a host of other health problems. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally degrade and remain in the environment indefinitely.
Two types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – have been shown to be so harmful that their use is being phased out. In addition to US multinational 3M, the class action lawsuit names 10 other companies that produce PFAS, which are used to make cookware, food packaging, waterproofing fabrics, fire-fighting foam and other products. The Biden administration last year pledged to implement a massive PFAS mitigation strategy at a cost of more than $10 billion.
The Guardian spoke to Bilott about his lawsuit. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
You have been focused for over 20 years now on uncovering the danger of a class of chemicals we call PFAS, using legal processes to try to hold companies involved in the proliferation of PFAS accountable, and to pressure 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 their lawsuit was made into a Hollywood film called The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare was converted). dark water, as well as a documentary. Why is this topic so important to you?
This is a global public health threat. It’s very frustrating when you take a step back and look at the science that has become increasingly clear over the years as to how dangerous these chemicals are and how widespread their use is. The companies knew that if they put these chemicals out into the world they would get into our water, into our soil, into wildlife and into us, but they did it anyway. And now, after decades of making billions of dollars, these same companies are bucking all accountability and trying to shift the cost of cleaning up this mess onto all of us. I am trying to do my utmost to ensure that not only is the health threat addressed, but that the right people who actually caused the health problems are held accountable – not all of us.
Most people may associate your work with your fight against DuPont, a major manufacturer of PFAS chemicals used, for example, to make Teflon coatings in cookware. But now you’re taking on many more manufacturers. What are your hopes for this case?
We first uncovered the existence of these chemicals in a lawsuit against DuPont, which had 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 the blood. But we were told that all of the science related only to PFOA and that no one had ever done similar research on these other chemicals. The companies said it was up to the exposed people, it was their onus to prove that these other PFAS chemicals were causing harm.
So in 2018 we filed the class action lawsuit. The goal is not to win damages, but to require a federal court to establish a new scientific panel that would be able to study this concoction of PFAS chemicals in our blood and confirm the extent to which they actually exist damage to be caused. We want companies to fund independent scientists to do whatever is scientifically required to confirm these damages.
Last October, President Biden announced a plan “to prevent PFAS from being released into the air, into drinking systems and into the food supply … and to expand cleanup efforts to eliminate the effects of these harmful pollutants.” This plan is expected to cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Biden has set aside $10 billionn only deal with PFAS in drinking water. You recently sent a letter to the Biden Administration dealing with the plan and offering your help and support. But you have also strongly opposed taxpayers’ money being used to clean up PFAS pollution. Are you frustrated not only by the manufacturers but also by the EPA?
It is frustrating that several different PFAS “plans of action” have been announced over the years since 2009. Nothing happened with the first plan, and then another plan was announced in 2016. More promises were made and again nothing happened. And so we have this new plan that has been announced. (But) we still see a debate about how much these materials should be regulated, whether or not they should be declared hazardous.
After dealing with this for so many decades, I’ve come to realize that we have a real systemic problem with the way our regulatory system is set up, the way science is generated, the way Papers published, examined how it all interacts with our legal system, who bears the burden of proof, who is told to prove whether a chemical is safe or whether it is harmful. All of this creates a perfect storm of inactivity. The only way people can get clean water to be compensated for the damage caused by cancer is to go into our court system and try to fight this out in court for years. It’s almost as if this deliberate system of roadblocks is burned into the system.
So it sounds great to say to the public that we’re moving forward, we’re actually going to start cleaning up this stuff, we’re going to allocate billions and billions of dollars to it. But the money should not come from us, the exposed people. The taxpayer should not have to finance the renovation. We shouldn’t get the federal government to essentially bail out these chemical companies by allocating billions that the companies should be spending to fix this.
You have been given access to extensive files containing internal documents from the various companies you have sued over PFAS. Many of these documents show that companies have known for decades that PFAS is harmful and that it spreads and accumulates in humans. Can you explain that in more detail?
It’s very revealing when you start digging into the internal files of what these companies knew, what information they had decades to draw on that they just didn’t share with the rest of us. For example, one of the things we found in the internal files of the main manufacturer of the chemical PFOS was that back in the 1970s, that company was well aware that PFOS was found in the blood of the general US population, and in quite significant amounts lot of levels. In fact, in the 1990s, 3M scientists sat down to calculate what a “safe” blood level for PFOS would be.
At the time, they knew that the PFOS level in the blood of the general US population was around 30 parts per billion. And when this 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 value actually found. Why weren’t the rest of us told this? Why weren’t we warned? We only find out decades later.
Documents like this make it clear that the potential risk to human health was recognized decades ago. Yet in 2022, we’re still squabbling over whether to take action to get rid of them — and who should be held responsible for all of this.
That’s one of the reasons I do whatever it takes to allow people to see the facts for themselves and draw their own conclusions about who should be responsible for the threat created.
This story is published together with the New Lede, a journalistic project by the environmental working group.