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Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott spent decades fighting companies that manufacture 'forever chemicals'

Lauren Green
Ideastream Public Media
For decades, one lawyer has been fighting against the companies found responsible for contaminating the soil and water in communities across Ohio.

In January, Ideastream launched a new series focused on the health effects of PFAS chemicals, commonly called "forever chemicals." PFAS stands for per- and poly-fluoro-alkyl substances.

The first form of these synthetic chemicals was discovered during the early 1930s by a pair of German chemists and a few years later, Roy J. Plunkett accidentally created another version many are familiar with, called Teflon.

PFAS are a class of chemicals that number in the thousands. They've been used across the board in nonstick cookware, waterproof makeup, semiconductors, electronic components, and even medical devices like implants.

Now that the series has wrapped up, we're going to spend Tuesday's "Sound of Ideas" looking at a legal effort by Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott.

Bilott said that a farmer in his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia first prompted his efforts, "one day, I get a call on my office phone and this gentleman on the other end of the line started telling me about cows dying on his property. And that wasn't the kind of thing I was doing at the time."

He spent the last two decades in a legal battle with companies who have manufactured PFAS. His efforts have also been adapted into a movie called "Dark Waters" starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway.

"So I was about to hang up the phone when he blurted out that, my grandmother had given him my name and told him I could help him. So I paid a little closer attention at that point and what he explained was, he was raising cows on property that he and his families had owned for generations outside Parkersburg, West Virginia. And that's when I understood what was going on around here," recounted Bilott.

In Ohio, a recent study by the Environmental Working Group found high PFAS levels in Lake Erie fish. The state also tested all water systems across Ohio from 2020 to 2022 and found PFAS contamination in dozens of public water systems.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Anne Vogel said, "I think we're very much still in an investigatory phase...what we know though is that our public water systems are safe. Our public water systems do not have high levels of contamination. We are able to treat for PFAS where we have found it. Ohioans should feel confident about the safety of their drinking water."

15 states as of 2023 have passed laws restricting the manufacturing of PFAS, and we'll discuss where Ohio lies. Another topic we'll address is regulation, testing, the role of public agencies and the impact in Ohio, specifically our waterways.

- Jeff St. Clair, Midday Host & Reporter, Ideastream Public Media
- Robert Bilott, Partner, Taft, Stettinius and Hollister Law Firm
- Anne Vogel, Director, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency

Jay Shah was an associate producer for the “Sound of Ideas” until May 2024.