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Litigator and environmental advocate Rob Bilott discusses threat of PFAS ‘forever chemicals’

February 28, 2023
by Colin Poitras

Veteran litigator Rob Bilott has been fighting to raise awareness of the public health threat created by so-called “forever chemicals” (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS) for over 23 years. His novel and complex class action lawsuits against some of the nation’s largest chemical companies have resulted in over $1 billion in compensation for people impacted by PFAS. Bilott’s story and landmark case against chemical giant DuPont were recounted in his book, “Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont,” and served as the inspiration for the 2019 motion picture “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo.

In addition to his legal advocacy work, Bilott is a lecturer with the Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. He recently visited Yale to speak to Professor Vasilis Vasiliou’s Toxicology class. “In addition to being an expert in environmental law and the real-life implications of environmental exposure to PFAS, Mr. Bilott serves as a role model for our students in demonstrating the values of perseverance and caring for impacted populations, and the importance of being able to help laypeople understand scientific concepts,” Vasiliou said. “I am proud to have him associated with our department.”

Prior to his lecture, Bilott, a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize,’ sat down with YSPH Communications to discuss his work, the extraordinary challenges he’s faced, and the role he sees public health taking in protecting people and the environment from the threat of PFAS.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

YSPH: Rob, you’ve been fighting against PFAS for over 20 years primarily through lawsuits and other legal channels. What advice do you have for public health students interested in tackling this issue?

R.B.: One thing I’ve learned over this long process is that you have to take a multi-faceted approach. You can’t address this through just the legal system, the scientific process, or the regulatory system. When I started doing this, I was filing things in court and making things available in legal briefs, but I realized the information wasn’t getting out to the public or the scientific community. So, I started reaching out, trying to educate regulators and lawmakers about these chemicals. There were scientists who were also working on this, but it wasn’t getting translated over to the legal and regulatory communities. So, my advice to students is we really need to step outside of our silos. It's really important for scientists and folks working in the public health sphere to understand how their data gets used in the court system and how it translates in the regulatory field. We’ve got to find ways to cross-communicate when we’re dealing with a huge public health threat.

YSPH: Public health addresses many large and complex issues like systemic racism, climate change, and gun violence. Your fight against PFAS is also on a massive scale, how do you successfully navigate this challenge?

R.B.: What we’ve done, I think, is a great example of how one person can stand up, speak out, and put into motion things that result in global change. That’s the story that is depicted in the film Dark Waters. All it took was a farmer in West Virginia who said, “I may have one of the largest corporations on the planet on the other side of me, I may be going up against the entire U.S. legal system and many massive agencies, but things like this shouldn't be happening. And even though this is the way it's always been, that can be changed.” It may take a long time and there may be bumps along the way, but sticking to the facts, and getting the story out about what's happening, that's what generates change. We're now seeing laws starting to be changed globally. The European Union just announced that it’s proposing a total ban on this entire class of chemicals. And the original manufacturer of these chemicals just announced they're going to stop making them by the year 2025. So, these are incredible changes that started with one person.

YSPH: Your first case against DuPont started with a phone call from that West Virginia farmer. You listened to his complaint and trusted his experience that something was wrong. We teach our students the importance of local collaboration and listening to the people with whom they work. What are your thoughts on the importance of communication?

R.B.: Keeping an open mind and understanding the importance of communication is absolutely critical. When [the West Virginia farmer] Mr. Tennant first called, I was representing big chemical companies at a large law firm. I had preconceived notions. But I was willing to sit down with him and listen and I really paid attention. Farmers like Mr. Tennant have incredible skills and understanding of what is going on and what is happening. I also needed to understand where the folks on the other side were coming from. On an issue like this, it’s incredibly important to know the whole story, what people’s concerns are, and what issues they’re dealing with on both sides. That's how you come up with innovative solutions. That's how you figure things out. You learn something new. But you can't do it unless you're actively listening to both sides.

YSPH: You are currently pursuing a class action in the state of Ohio representing a population of about 12 million people potentially impacted by PFAS. How do you stay focused working at such a massive scale, and do you ever feel frustrated or overwhelmed?

R.B.: When I first sat down with Mr. Tennant back in 1998, I thought this was a pretty small matter involving one farm where something was injuring some cows. I had no idea we would be dealing with a global contamination problem. I had no idea that what we were dealing with was a chemical that was in the water and in the soil and in the air all over the planet. The first thing was just learning and processing exactly what we were dealing with. And then it became, how do I get this story out? How do I let others know what's happening here? How can I make people understand that something this toxic, this persistent, and this pervasive had been completely ignored and gone under the radar of lawmakers and regulators for decades?

We had very skilled adversaries who were doing their best to keep this covered up, claiming there was no science supporting any of this, and that these chemicals are perfectly safe. Overcoming that was a long process, and there were a lot of bumps in the road. We were doing things that nobody had ever done, setting up these massive studies that took seven years during a severe economic meltdown and while people were continuing to get sick and dying. There was a lot of stress and a lot of times when you're getting incredibly frustrated. Will this work? Will people ever actually see what's happening here and take steps to do something about it? But you've got to keep your eye on your ultimate goal. It can be done. You just have to stick to it and be convinced that that truth will come out and it'll make a difference. I think back to Mr. Tennant who told me, “When people see these facts, they'll see for themselves that this is wrong.”

YSPH: One of the ways you’ve brought attention to the health threats of PFAS is through your book, “Exposure”, and obviously the movie Dark Waters. What impact did they have on your cause?

R.B.: We were dealing with something that didn’t resonate easily with the public, like lead poisoning or arsenic. We were dealing with chemicals people couldn’t even pronounce. You couldn’t smell them, taste them, or touch them. I believe it was critically important to work with people, like screenwriters, that have this different skill set of being able to take very complicated legal issues, scientific issues, and regulatory terms and convey them in a way visually that has an emotional impact on people. Once the movie and the book came out, the public finally started to see what was happening. People were saying, “Whoa, wait a minute, this stuff is in our water, too? And it’s in our blood, too? How do we fix this?” It all started to sink in, and that's when a lot of policymakers, regulators, and people who had the ability to make these changes, began realizing this was something that needs to be tackled. So, it was absolutely critical [the publicity around the movie and book]. I can't over-emphasize how important all of that was.

YSPH: You’ve encountered a lot of opposition to your campaign against PFAS. What advice can you share about dealing with misinformation and other obstacles as an advocate?

R.B.: There is an entire industry out there whose job it is to, and I’m borrowing the term here, ‘manufacture doubt.’ Their goal is to perpetuate the idea that we don’t know enough and that we need more studies, more science, and more time. And it’s incredibly effective. Papers are written and presentations are made by these quasi-scientific sounding groups. But it’s very important to understand who’s funding these things and to know who’s behind these groups. You have to make sure you have a truly independent analysis. And to me, a lot of public health officials and regulators don't have a lot of time to be scouring through all of this background information. They're looking at the final results. But this background is critically important.

YSPH: You’ve become an expert on PFAS and environmental contamination as a result of your legal work. Based on what you have learned, what worries you the most these days?

R.B.: What is really disturbing to me is when you look back at this story and realize we only know about this massive category of man-made chemicals because a farmer had cows dying in West Virginia and we were able to get into these corporate records and find out that there was information known going back decades that was withheld. So, the question becomes, what else do we not know about existing chemicals? That's certainly a concern.

But one thing that disturbs me, even more, is that with PFAS or at least with PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid), we do have the science now. We’ve got the most comprehensive studies and data that you could ever want, massive amounts of animal data and human data, and yet we still are not able to get these chemicals fully regulated at the federal level. We are still waiting to have a national drinking water standard for that one chemical. It's been 20 years since this information's been provided. Regulators have been working on it. There have been, I think, three or four different action plans announced by different administrations, none of which have ever gotten us across the goal line of saying, “We have an enforceable, national drinking water standard now.” It's incredible to me that we are still waiting. And to me, that's the really scary part, because how do we ever address any of these chemicals in our current system — the regulatory, legal, scientific process — if you can have all this data and still not be able to do what needs to be done to protect people?

YSPH: Some say public health officials and scientists need to be more outspoken in advocating for change to improve public health. As a lawyer and environmental advocate, what advice can you share about environmental advocacy?

R.B.: As a lawyer, I'm trained to advocate for people. And I think folks within the public health field need to also be advocates and not be intimidated by folks who may challenge them. We've seen this in other

well-publicized chemical contamination cases, where the public health officials who spoke out were painted as junk scientists. I understand a lot of folks don't want to be that lightning rod that's attacked by the other side. But you know, it takes somebody speaking up and standing up to bring attention to these issues because that's what gets things moving. Agencies like the EPA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and various state agencies are often overwhelmed with so many issues that you’ve got to find a way to bring things to their attention. It's got to be elevated so that they feel like they need to pay attention, that they need to act, and that they can't just ignore it. We saw that with PFAS. Unfortunately, folks were feeling fairly comfortable just ignoring it and allowing this issue to stay in the background for decades. But I think we finally have gotten past that point because of the movie and because there are vocal advocates out there now in different sectors that are demanding this be addressed. You can't just ignore it and hope it's going to go away. It’s incredibly important to make sure public health is protected.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on February 28, 2023