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Dark Waters. Do you have cancerogenic PFOA in your bloodstream?

Bilott i książka
fot. Robert Bilott / wikimedia CC

We are talking with Robert Bilott about cancer-causing pans in our kitchens, breaking the law by DuPont corporation and 20 years of fight against “pure evil”.

Robert Bilott – experienced and internationally recognized lawyer and attorney. For over 30 years he has been dealing with environmental protection law. He gained worldwide renown due to lawsuits against DuPont corporation. In 2017 he received International Right Liveligood Award. Robert Bilott’s story is described in his book “Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont” and was an inspiration for a movie “Dark Waters” and documentary “The Devil We Know”.

Kalina Czop, Rafał Górski: In the movie “Dark Waters” there is a scene, when Mark Ruffalo, who plays you, in the middle of the night is checking all the pans in his kitchen in his household. Anne Hathaway, who plays your pregnant wife, waken up by the noise, enters the kitchen and asks her husband what is he doing. Does this scene come from your real-life experience? Is it authentic? If yes, could you please tell us why you were so interested in your pans and what you felt during that talk with your wife?

Robert Bilott: What you see in that scene is the result of almost a year of going through an incredible amount of information and documents, a year of trying to figure out why Mr. Tennant’s cows were getting sick. Having pieced all that together, I finally started to realize that this was something far beyond contaminating Mr. Tennant’s property and his cows. That this was possibly involving a huge group of people and a huge number of products. And this scene shows how overwhelming that feeling was when we started to really realize what we were dealing with, and the magnitude of it. What you see there is the effort to try to help people understand how much information we pulled together, help them to realize the scope.

As you said, Teflon is not only in pans but also in numerous other products like raincoats, tents and so on. It is believed that cancer-causing Teflon currently appears in blood of all living creatures, including the blood of 99 percent of people. Is it right that probably me myself and the readers of our newsweekly in Poland, have Teflon in our organisms?

I think it is important to keep in mind, that the chemical that we were dealing with, and which was mentioned in the film and in my book ”Exposure”, is called PFOA or C8. It is an ingredient in the manufacture of Teflon, it’s not Teflon itself. The chemical that’s being found in the blood it’s not the Teflon, it’s the PFOA – the chemical used in making of Teflon. And yes, that particular chemical PFOA is now being found in the blood of living creatures all over the planet, including over 90% of the people on Earth. And it’s not just Teflon, it’s all kinds of different consumer products: stain-resistant, waterproof clothing, carpeting, fast food wrappers, packaging, computer cabling, firefighting foams, etc. There’s a whole variety of products that this chemical – PFOA – was used during the manufacturing process over the last 70 years. And because of that, that chemical has now saturated the blood of almost every human on this planet.

We’ve already put some names of substances in order. So, in the letter that DuPont sent to EPA the poisonous substance, appearing in Teflon coating, was named PFOA. It was invented by 3M and then sold to DuPont. PFOA is just another term to describe C8, dangerous fluoropolymer. 3M used similar-sounding compound: PFOS. Is it the same or similar substance to C8? Is it also that harmful?

Here’s where it gets a little confusing. There’s an entire family of chemicals. Hundreds, if not thousands, that are in a family of chemical called PFAS. That’s per- and polyfluorene alkylated substances. These chemicals share the similar characteristic of being completely man-made chemicals that have carbons attached to the fluorine. The one that I focused on in the book “Exposure” and the one that we deal with in the movie is called PFOA. It has 8 carbons, so that’s why it’s also called a “C8”. PFOA was invented and manufactured by 3M as you indicated. The main customer for PFOA for many, many years was DuPont.

One, very closely related chemical, that also has 8 carbons and is also a C8, is PFOS. That’s where it gets confusing – the whole family of chemicals is called PFAS but one of these, that has 8 carbons, like PFOA, is PFOS. PFOS and PFOA are both C8s, both manufactured by 3M, but PFOS is one that primarily was used by 3M in one of its main products – Scotchgard. It was also used in waterproof and stain proofing materials and in a type of firefighting foam called “Aqueous Film Forming Foam – AFFF”.

As I mentioned before, PFOA and PFOS are both C8s, and they’re both within the PFAS family of chemicals. Those are the two that have been the most studied, the most well-known and that have now been phased out of production, at least in the United States. Unfortunately, as the companies have withdrawn production of the C8s, they have simply knocked the couple of those carbons off. Instead of making C8s, they’re making C6s or C4s and calling it “new”. For example, instead of PFOA, which is a C8, DuPont now makes GenX, which is a C6. Nevertheless, they are all part of the same family and they all share this troubling characteristic of carbon attached to fluorine, which results in shared toxicity problems, bio-persistence and bioaccumulation. That’s why scientists and regulators all over the world are now very concerned about this whole family PFAS chemicals.

Did DuPont just replace one poison with another?

That is the concern. When 3M announced in the year 2000 that it would stop making PFOA, DuPont jumped in and started making PFOA itself around 2002. Then, after all this information about the hazards of PFOA came out, because of our lawsuit and the things you see in the film and things I discussed in the book, DuPont has eventually signed the agreement to stop making PFOA. They signed that agreement in 2006. They were given 10 years to phase out PFOA. What they did is they simply again knocked a couple carbons off, called it GenX and started making that chemical. That chemical has already found its way into drinking water in the United States, including hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina.

The toxicity studies that have started to come out on GenX are raising concerns, that it may be just as toxic as PFOA. The first cancer study came out and showed that GenX caused the same 3 tumors in rats that PFOA did – liver, testicular, and pancreatic tumors.

Are you going to take part in investigation of GenX?

We are involved in litigation against DuPont right now. For example, we are representing the state of North Carolina in a case against DuPont involving its GenX facility in North Carolina. We are representing different entities across the United Stated, that are dealing with that issue right now.

In 2015 the number of individual personal-injury lawsuits against DuPont was over 3,500 cases. But many additional cases filed after that year. How is it at this point? How many people, the affected users of DuPont actions, have received help by now?

We were able to reach a settlement with DuPont for one community along the Ohio river. That is the community, that we focused on in the movies “Dark Waters”, “The Devil We Know” and in my book – “Exposure”. Under that settlement, once we set up this independent science panel confirmed the PFOA was linked with 6 diseases, the people in that community, those 70.000 people, had the right to go forward with individual claims against DuPont.

By 2013, there were about 35 hundred of those cases that have been filed. We started taking those to trial in 2015. We won each case that went to trail by people that had cancer. In 2017 DuPont, in the middle of the fourth trial, agreed to settle all those 35 hundred pending cases for all those people in that community for about 670,7 million dollars.

One of the other things that happened under that settlement, was the science panel which linked PFOA exposure with these diseases. People, who didn’t yet have one of those diseases, were entitled to free medical testing, medical monitoring, to see, if they were developing those diseases.

What was happening is, as these cases were progressing, more people were getting diagnosed with cancer, so even after the settlement in 2017 dozens of more people were filing cases from that community.

There was another trial and there is another verdict against DuPont. We were able to settle those additional new cases in early 2021 for another 83 million dollars. So, for the people in that community along the Ohio river, we’ve been able to settle claims for about 753 million today.

The problem is, we have now realized that this chemical has made its way into drinking water and it is in blood of people who live not only all over the United States but all over the world. And, in case of those other communities, DuPont doesn’t have this written settlement agreement and they are fighting all those claims. There are lawsuits and claims currently working their way through the courts, which were filed by people who have now been exposed to these chemicals. We were able to resolve the claims for the people in that community along the Ohio river but, unfortunately, as we found out that this chemical was now all over the world, DuPont and 3M continued to deny their responsibility.

U.S Environmental Protection Agency fined DuPont $16,5 million dollars for failing to report the health risk related to C8 exposure. Do you think that’s enough? The fine represented less than 2 percent of the profits earned by DuPont on PFOA in 2005 when the settlement was announced. In your opinion should CEOs of DuPont learn consequences of their actions the hard way? Should they go to prison? Would it be a way to achieve some justice? What’s your opinion on that?

You know, it’s a frustrating situation for people who have been harmed by this whole situation. But, at least in the United States, as lawyers that are representing harmed folks, we bring these lawsuits and all we can seek is money damages. It’s up to the government officials to decide whether to prosecute individuals or companies. In fact, in 2005, the USA Department of Justice initiated a criminal investigation into DuPont.

Unfortunately, after DuPont agreed to stop making PFOA, that investigation of the US was dropped. It’s not within the power of the individual victims but it’s up to the government officials to decide, whether to prosecute.

During the whole case there were situations when professionals (veterinarians, scientists) gave opinions and data which was beneficial for DuPont. For example, Tennants, whose cattle died because of water contaminated with PFOA, had been accused of negligence before the whole truth about C8 seen the daylight. Similar thing happened when DuPont formed a team composed of its own scientists and scientists from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and they announced new standards for safe exposure level limit. Were those researchers under the influence of corporation and were those outcomes highly manipulated?

That’s something that I discuss in detail in the book “Exposure”. It’s the interrelationship between some of these teams that were set up and a company. This was a situation, where a lot of information, a lot of the science and the facts were withheld from the government researchers and the government scientists. They were only given certain information and they were led to believe and led down certain paths that were incorrect. DuPont helped to control and set up some of these processes that resulted in the cattle team report and the West Virginia drinking water standard.

Those government officials didn’t have all the information and it was later shown, that the information they, had wasn’t accurate. Unfortunately, one of the things we tried to do through these films and through the book is to show people how this happens. To show, that even though you see a report, that appears to be authored by independent scientists or folks within government agencies, you have to make sure you understand what information those folks had, who was paying for the preparation of the report and who was paying for the consultants that were part of the teams preparing those reports. You can’t just take those documents at face value. You must really dig in and understand how they were prepared, who prepared them, who paid for them and what information was actually used.

What do you think, how many corporations tried and are still trying to conceal their actions which results are detrimental to not only their direct consumers and their families, but also to the health and safety of the whole environment, even of the whole humanity?

What I can speak to is what I saw with the PFAS situation and with DuPont and 3M. The cases we are talking about took decades to bring the facts and information out to the public, to the media, to the scientists, to the regulators. But finally, information about what really happened is now available and we have knowledge about the health risks of these chemicals. And because of the PFOA litigation, many of the biggest, most comprehensive studies ever done on a chemical were performed– 70.000 people were participating in massive studies, independent scientists were confirming links between this particular chemical and water and diseases including cancer.

We still have some of these companies standing up, even in front of the US Congress, and denying the science. We saw a representative of 3M standing up and still insisting that there was no evidence that these particular chemicals presented any threat to humans at any dose basically and that the science was still unclear and unsettled. They claim that there wasn’t enough information available for the government agencies to be taking steps to prevent people from being exposed.

It can be mind-blowing to see that misinformation campaign continue. It’s similar to what we saw with tobacco, where, despite the evidence and despite the science showing the health threat, there was still a campaign which tried to persuade the public that it was uncertain.

Hopefully, through doing the kinds of things we have been doing with getting the word out to the public directly, through movies, through the book, through court filings, through making the actual facts available, we can start to see some of this finally begin to stop. But it’s an active campaign of manufacturing doubt, continuing to claim uncertainty, and trying to convince people, that there’s just not enough known to take action to protect folks.

According to the New York Times Magazine’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control act, the EPA could test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. It actually results in that chemical companies were allowed to regulate themselves and EPA has restricted only five chemicals out of tens of thousands on the market in the last 40 years. Has anything changed in the matter of those procedures due to your battle against DuPont and the entire fluoropolymers industry?

I mean, as you mentioned, the US EPA. didn’t even come into existence until 1970. The first laws regulating how do we look at the toxicity of chemicals coming out into the market in the US came out through the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976.

A chemical like this one had been invented after World War II. It has been out there already and has been used for decades when those laws first came out. Those laws, which came out in 70s, focused on new chemicals from that point forward. So, existing chemicals was left to the companies to alert the EPA, if they had information that suggested a substantial risk of harm. The companies decided, whether or not to alert the EPA about hazards associated with these pre-existing chemicals. This is a perfect example of where that didn’t necessarily happen. And even though there was a lot of information suggesting substantial risk of harm to human health and the environment, the company did not provide that information to the EPA.

This whole case was really used as an example of why we needed to go back and try to beef up those laws in the US. In fact, in 2016, the Toxic Substances Control Act was amended to try to address some of these problems – to try to beef up this system and make it more effective. I think it remains to be seen whether those changes were successful or not. There are still serious concerns about the way in which we address this in the US, particularly the focus on one chemical at a time as opposed to entire groups of chemicals.

If you look at this history – it took us 20 years to get this information finally out to the EPA, to the regulators. This chemical does present a serious threat, serious risk of harm. We are still in the process of trying to regulate PFOA in the United States and to adopt and enforecable national federal drinking water standard. We’ve got an informal guideline that came out in 2016 but we are still working through this very long, slow process of regulating chemicals.

As you indicated, under the act there are only five chemicals that have actually been banned. And this gives you an understanding of how difficult this regulatory process is. It’s so slow, it’s so complicated, it’s such a complex process, that even in the case of PFOA, where we have massive amounts of animal toxicity data, massive amount of human data, all showing serious threats, serious risk of the human health in the environment, we still can’t get that officially regulated at the national level to protect people and their drinking water.

That’s why we have states in the US that are moving forward on their own to try to do that. We have legislation now being proposed in the United States, to try to force that action, to try to get that regulation, that restriction in place, because it’s taking so long.

It’s a very frustrating process for the public. I think most people, particularly in the US, would assume that if there’s something dangerous in the water and we know it’s dangerous, clearly, it must be regulated. But the process to get it regulated is incredibly cumbersome.

There are over 88.000 unregulated chemicals used in everyday products. Those chemicals don’t appear on any list of regulated materials, so it’s practically infeasible for a common consumer to easily check if the product he uses could be detrimental for his health. What can we do, as consumers and also as citizens to change that situation?

I think you have to demand the information about what is in the products. In the case like this, where we now know that these PFAS chemicals are out there, we must demand transparency:

which of these chemicals are being used, which ones are in the products, which ones might have contamination from some of these chemicals. Because they’re still unregulated, they’re not showing up on ingredient and warning labels.

In the US we finally, as I mentioned earlier, had the phase out of PFOA, so, for example, a lot of cookware no longer is made with PFOA. Unfortunately, the companies have switched to related chemicals, maybe C6 or things of that nature. But a consumer walking into a store or watching television in the US will see advertisements that now say “PFOA-free”. But it doesn’t mean it’s “PFAS-free”. It may mean that it’s got a related chemical that may be very similar, may have similar toxicity.

There’s an incredible need for people to understand, what these chemicals are, and to demand clear information about where they are used. Consumers can help drive that change and there are a lot of companies that are now stepping forward and understanding that people don’t want these chemicals being used in their products. Those companies are making announcements that they’re no longer using those chemicals. Hopefully, the consumers standing up and speaking out will help force this change by creating a market for products that don’t have them.

“This is pure evil!” – says the actor who plays you in the movie “Dark Waters”. Is it something you really said? I am asking, because sometimes when I have a moment of weakness and I don’t have any more power to fight against corporations’ greed and cynicism of politicians and journalists which are tied in with those corporations, I remember your words and I stop complaining. Your story and the words of yours give me power to continue my actions. Last time when I showed this film on community workers’ meeting, once again I was touched.

That’s tremendous and, you know, one of the things I’m really hoping that people can take away from either seeing the films or reading the book, is to really believe that one person standing up and speaking out can make a difference. No matter how big the adversary is and how impossible the odds may seem. Having the persistence, sticking to it, understanding what’s right and sticking with it may make a significant difference.

Things can change. I think, this is a great example and a great story to show how that could be. It may be incredibly frustrating at times, but getting the facts out, staying focused on making sure you find a way to get the truth out, the truth will ultimately prevail. The story will ultimately come out.

I think that’s what you see here – that one person standing up, speaking out – somebody like Mr Tennant, who knew that there was a problem and was able to go against one of the biggest corporations on the planet. And he set in motion a process that is now frankly changing the world. It resulted in that we are now able to make sure that people all over this planet understand that there are these thousands of man-made chemicals coursing through the world. Thanks to this one man, we can take steps to stop that, we can try to limit those exposures and make sure that our laws are changed.

I think it shows the huge impact of one person, somebody like Mr Tennant or Joe Kiger, somebody with dedication and focus. It may seem like an overwhelming story when you see it but hopefully it’s one that’s also incredibly optimistic.

From where you get your strength to fight?

I knew that there was a massive, completely unrecognised public health threat going on. Sitting down and looking at the facts that I saw in these documents, and seeing the story that I was seeing, and grasping the scope in a magnitude – that’s what kept me going.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to have folks like Mark Ruffalo and the people of Participant Media who were able to put a film together and the folks at Atria Books/Simon & Schuster who helped get my book in print and helped get this story out to places all over the world. It was difficult, and there were active attempts to try to keep this information from getting out to the rest of the world. So, I always think back to the voice of Mr Tennant in my head saying “We just gotta make sure people see what’s happened here and make sure this doesn’t continue to happen to anybody else”.

Would you like to give some word or advice over to polish activists who fight against pure evil?

Think back and look at somebody like Mr. Tennant and hopefully you will be inspired to know that any person, no matter your circumstances, no matter your background – if you’re focused and dedicated enough and you know what’s right – you can make a change. You can take on some of the biggest forces in your society, and you can change, not only for the better in your community, but possibly for the whole world.

Kalina Czop, Rafał Górski

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