© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Have you heard of forever chemicals? It started with the work of this Cincinnati attorney

Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott stands in an office.
Jeff St. Clair
Ideastream Public Media
Scientists don’t fully understand all the health effects of PFAS, but what they do know is in large part due to the work of Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott.

This is part of a special report on forever chemical contamination in Ohio. Ideastream Public Media reporters spent months investigating the impact of these chemicals and to answer the question, "How worried should we be?"

Click here to read our report on how a study that foundforever chemicals in Ohio's freshwater fish and what that might mean for human health.

New radio stories will drop every Tuesday in January, 2024.

You likely have synthetic chemicals lurking in your body.

Nearly every American has some amount of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroakyl substances — also known as “forever chemicals” — in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

PFAS come in hundreds of varieties in products like firefighting foams, cosmetics, food wrappers and many others.

Scientists don’t fully understand the health effects of these chemicals, but what is known is in large part due to the work of one man — a Cincinnati lawyer named Robert Bilott, whose more than 20-year legal battle with one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers began with a phone call.

One day, I got a call in my office from a gentleman who started telling me about cows that were getting sick and dying in West Virginia,” he said.

Bilott traced the contamination to a landfill owned by DuPont that drained into the farmer’s property in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

“What we discovered there is that we were dealing with a chemical in that landfill — in the water coming out of the landfill — that was completely unregulated,” he said.

Bilott had discovered the first widely known case of PFAS contamination, he said.

“We ended up learning that this was an incredibly toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative, carcinogenic chemical,” he explained. “What we ended up discovering was, what we thought was going to be a small case for one farmer ended up revealing what became global contamination. This chemical was, we found out, in the water all over the United States, all over the country, and was, in fact, getting into the blood of almost every living creature on the planet.”

Bilott won that case, and his next — the world’s first class action lawsuit against a PFAS manufacturer. His win was even made into a movie starring Mark Ruffalo called “Dark Waters.”

A new report found fish from Ohio's lakes and rivers tested positive for forever chemicals. Now the state is studying the issue.

Part of the settlement included a scientific panel to study the long-term health effects of PFAS exposure, in which 69,000 people who lived near Parkersburg, including those who lived across the river in Ohio, and were exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, took part.

“That panel was able to confirm that drinking PFOA was linked to six different diseases, including two types of cancer,” Bilott said.

DuPont eventually paid $750 million in damages to people in West Virginia and Southern Ohio exposed to the chemicals.

All the while, Bilott said he had been pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to recognize the dangers of PFAS.

“When the science panel finally finished their work in 2012 and made these links with... the six different diseases that were linked with drinking PFOA, I sent that information to EPA and said, 'What else is needed to begin regulating this chemical in drinking water?'” he said.

It wasn’t the first time Bilott had told the EPA about the chemicals.

“I had actually first asked EPA to do that in 2001. And so here we are now, it's 2012, and the EPA had been saying, 'Well, let's wait and see what the results of the science panel, whether it's actually linked with disease at the levels people are actually exposed to it in their water,'” he said. “By 2012, those links had been confirmed. So that's the first time the U.S. EPA said, ‘Oh, well, let's see now, in order for us to decide whether we regulate this on a national basis, we have to understand whether it's nationally occurring.’”

That monitoring showed that the chemicals, especially PFOA and PFAS, were being found all over the country.

The EPA proposed the first federal limits for the toxic “forever chemicals.” If they take effect, they would mean big changes for Ohio’s water utilities.

This summer, a study from the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed it. It estimates PFAS contaminate nearly half of the nation’s tap water.Researchers with the Environmental Working Group have detected the chemicals in freshwater fish in nearly every state in the country and in over 600 species across the globe.

In March, the EPA proposed limits for six types of PFAS chemicals.

In the summer of 2023, Bilott and a team of lawyers representing hundreds of municipal water systems reached settlements worth $13.5 billion with chemical makers 3M and DuPont to pay for the new filtration technology needed to remove it.

But it’s not the end of litigation for Bilott.

He launched a new class action lawsuit that sought to include every person in the country as an injured party.

“Millions and millions of people," he said. "We were met with big resistance by the companies, and there was a lot of legal wrangling back and forth. The court did allow us to proceed as a class action on behalf of everyone subject to the laws of Ohio, which is 10 to 11 million people.”

In November, a three-judge panel dismissed the case saying the lead plaintiff didn’t know which company made the chemical in his blood. Bilott has asked the court to reconsider.

In statements, 3M and DuPont say their chemicals can be safely used.

But after more than two decades at the forefront of this environmental battle, Bilott said he has no intention of giving up.

This isn’t about money, he said. It's about more fully understanding the medical risks these chemicals may pose.

“The goal is to say there needs to be a scientific panel like what we did in West Virginia with one chemical, have them look at the mix of PFAS and tell us what risks are presented from this mixture," he said, "and to have the companies have to pay for whatever science or studies or monitoring is necessary to do that."

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.