Fighting 'Forever Chemicals'
How Rob Bilott's life became a mission to hold DuPont accountable
Published in 2021 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine on December 11, 2020
It began with a phone call he could barely understand. It became his life’s work, spurring two class-action lawsuits and a series of individual ones. It spawned dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, a movie and a book; and earned Rob Bilott, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister’s Covington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati offices, the Right Livelihood Award, an international honor for tackling global problems that is often dubbed the “alternative Nobel Prize.”
And more than 20 years later, he’s still at it.
“This contamination continues to this day,” he says. “You’ve got decades of releases of this stuff into the environment that has made its way into our soils, into our water, and into all of us, making us walking landfills.”
He’s talking about PFAS—a group of more than 4,000 compounds, some cancer-causing, that are so persistent they’ve been called the “forever chemicals.”
They are used to make water- and stain-resistant products, and they’ve been used at one time or another in countless products. Teflon and ScotchGard, carpets and clothes, mascaras and eyeliners, shampoos, firefighting foam, microwave popcorn bags, Hush Puppies shoes. They’re just about anywhere downriver, downwind, or within rainfall range of a plant that made those products, or a landfill where the chemicals were dumped.
They’re in our water, in our food, and in us.
The CDC has cited studies finding them in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, and a 2007 study estimated they were in 98% of adult Americans. The FDA found them in supermarket chicken, lamb chops, steaks and chocolate cake. They turned up in arctic polar bears, California sea lions, and salmon in the Netherlands.
They’ve been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.
We now know this largely because of Bilott.
But we almost didn’t.
He nearly hung up on the caller back in 1998—but then the angry, thickly accented man dropped a name: that of Bilott’s grandmother, who had lived not far from the caller. Bilott agreed to take a look.
“We had no idea that we would be getting into a case involving not only an unregulated chemical,” Bilott says, “but one that was virtually contaminating the whole planet.”
The caller, Wilbur Tennant, was a cattle farmer who had lost more than 150 cows in sad and sickening ways.
Ever since DuPont turned a few acres into a landfill and started spilling waste into a creek next to Tennant’s land, he said, the once-docile animals became demented: staggering clumsily, charging angrily. Their hair fell out in patches. Lesions formed on their skin. They had deformed hooves and misshaped organs. They died in agony or were put down.
This was in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Bilott’s grandmother had lived. He took the case immediately.
“This was an area that I viewed as really kind of my hometown. This was where my mom’s family had grown up, where we spent time when I was a kid for holidays, birthdays, etc. And here we’re finding documents showing that these people have been poisoned for years.”
Bilott was an unlikely choice to champion Tennant’s case. He was an environmental lawyer, to be sure. But he defended chemical companies.
This actually proved helpful. He knew how they worked and what to look for. He spent months on the floor of his office, poring over more than 110,000 pages of internal documents produced by DuPont during the litigation.
They revealed, he says, that DuPont had long been aware of the dangers of PFOA, the form of PFAS in question. The company and the Tennants settled confidentially.
Bilott kept going.
Because of a quirk in the law, the EPA didn’t even regulate the chemicals. In 2001, Bilott sent a public brief to the agency, something he calls simply his “letter.” It was 972 pages long, with 136 exhibits. It led to what was then the largest civil administrative penalty in the agency’s history, a $16.5 million settlement with DuPont.
From there, Bilott went on to file a class-action suit against the company on behalf of 70,000 people living near DuPont’s plant who had been drinking water tainted with PFOA for decades.
It resulted in a settlement with assets valued in excess of $300 million and established a science panel to study the health effects of the chemical. The seven-year study found it in 99% of the residents, and it confirmed a “probable link” to cancers and other disease.
That opened the floodgates. More than 3,500 of the residents sued, and Bilott won a $671 million settlement on their behalf in 2017.
That year, he was honored with the Right Livelihood Award, whose recipients have included teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and American author Bill McKibben.
“He has achieved one of the most significant victories for environmental law and corporate accountability of this century,” the award foundation declared.
Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott, won the 2020 Environmental Media Association award for best feature film. It came out in 2019, shortly after Bilott’s book about the dangers of PFAS chemicals, Exposure. A documentary on the case, The Devil We Know, came out in 2018.
As part of its agreement with the EPA, DuPont agreed to stop making and using PFOA in 2013. It was replaced with GenX, a variant PFAS. It’s different enough from PFOA that it falls outside the EPA’s regulations, but Bilott fears it might be just as dangerous.
“It was only a couple of years after they started doing that, that the first cancer results came back, showing the same triad of tumors in rats with GenX as you had with PFOA,” he says. “And now that chemical has shown up in drinking water in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s being pumped out into the Ohio River from the same facility that we dealt with in West Virginia.”
So Bilott filed a national class-action lawsuit in 2018 against DuPont and several other companies on behalf of everyone in the United States with PFAS in their blood. He’s not seeking monetary damages; he wants the chemical companies to fund another science panel to determine, definitively, the health effects of PFAS.
“The companies are saying there’s insufficient evidence because there’s never a big enough study, according to them, to ever confirm, to their standards … human health effects,” he says. “The companies shouldn’t be allowed to sit back and use the lack of evidence as a defense, yet then refuse to do the [broad-based human] studies.
“This contamination persists out there. It’s there, it’s staying. Babies are being born to this day with these chemicals already in them from this existing pollution. It’s an ongoing public health threat, in my view.”
Action (Provoking) Film
About a half-hour into the movie Dark Waters, you can see Rob Bilott and his wife in the midst of a crowded ballroom scene.
“My kids are actually in it, too,” Bilott says. “There was a scene at the end in church. The people are singing, and my three sons are in the background there.”
Not every lawyer gets a movie made about them. Fewer still get to go on the press tour with the film’s star. But this movie was meant to provoke action. Links on its website lead to pages where people can “learn more” and send a letter to Congress to “demand you support stronger environmental protections against forever chemicals.”
“I’m quite happy to have been able to help get the information out about the public health threat and to see these conversations finally happening across the country and now, frankly, across the world, to try to do something to address the problem,” Bilott says.
“It’s taken way too long to get there.”