At Washington Post Live, we bring you conversations that you won't hear anywhere else, combining the rigorous journalism of The Washington Post with our power to convene, Post Live brings together distinctive voices for discussions that deepen our understanding of the world and provide an opportunity to tell important stories in new and unexpected ways.
Today's discussion is exactly that. We're pleased to have award-winning actor and producer Mark Ruffalo and lawyer Rob Bilott here to talk about the forthcoming film Dark Waters. Inspired by true events and based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine piece, the film follows Bilott, played by Ruffalo, as he uncovers and attempts to remedy a decades-long public health crisis involving one of the world's largest corporations.
The film concerns the contamination of Parkersburg, West Virginia, by the PFAS chemical known as C8, which was the main ingredient used by DuPont to make Teflon, and it's one of tens of thousands of unregulated synthetic chemicals.
Through his legal work on behalf of affected residents, Bilott discovered DuPont exposed their workers and the general public to C8 through direct contact and contaminated water.
In 2011, an independent panel of scientists found that C8 was quote "more likely than not linked to ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer." DuPont eventually paid a historic fine from the EPA and spent $670 million to settle over 3,500 personal injury lawsuits.
DuPont has consistently denied any wrongdoing. And yesterday, they issued the following statement to The Washington Post, and I'm going to read it in its entirety.
"Safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont. We are and have always been committed to upholding the highest standards for the well-being of our employees, our customers, and the communities in which we operate."
"As a science-based company, DuPont is innovating in all facets of our business, in our policies and protocols, as well as our products. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate. Although DuPont does not make the chemicals in question, we have announced a series of commitments around our limited use of PFAS and are leading industry in supporting federal legislation and science-based regulatory efforts to address these chemicals. This includes eliminating the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams from our facilities and granting royalty-free licenses to those seeking to use innovative PFAS remediation technologies."
"DuPont is in the business of creating essential innovations the world needs today. Hollywood is in the business of telling stories. While seeking to thrill and entertain, these stories often stretch facts. Unfortunately, this movie claims to be inspired by real events and appears to grossly misrepresent things that happened years ago, including our history, our values, and science. The film's previews depict wholly imagined events. Claims that our company tried to hide conclusive scientific findings are inaccurate. We have always and will continue to work with those in the scientific, not-for-profit and policy communities who demonstrate a serious and sincere desire to improve our health, our communities, and our planet." Again, that was a statement from DuPont that they sent us.
I wanted to tell you a little bit more before we get started. You know, Rob Bilott is continuing to fight to protect the public from what have come to be known as "forever chemicals." Just last year, he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of everyone in the United States who has a detectable level of PFAS chemicals in their blood.
And he is not the only advocate. Communities all across the country are concerned about the health consequences of exposure to unregulated chemicals.
In 2017, Wilmington, North Carolina's local newspaper, the Star News, reported that synthetic chemicals have been detected in the Cape Fear area drinking water system, which provides water for a quarter of a million people. This past July, Emily Donovan, who also joins us this morning and is the co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, testified before Congress asking for government oversight. I'm going to play you a little bit.
MS. CORATTI: I'd like to thank Emily, Mark and Rob for being with us today. I also want to thank participants for partnering with us on this event. And now I would like to go ahead and play the Dark Waters trailer, and we will get to our discussion moderated by The Washington Post's Sarah Ellison. Thank you.
MS. ELLISON: Well, thank you all for being here this morning. I'm Sarah Ellison. I'm a staff writer at The Washington Post. And thank you to Emily, Rob, and Mark for joining us for this really urgent discussion.
I just want to say that within hours of this event being announced I got two emails. And one was from someone close to the Ohio Manufacturers Association who wanted to frame some of the facts of the conversation for us, and also from somebody on the Hill, a staffer on the Hill. So, it means that people are really watching this film and the implications of it are something that people are quite tuned into to. So, we're really grateful that you can launch this conversation here.
Kris gave such a good introduction, I'm just going to dive right in.
Mark, how did you come to be involved in this project, to know this story, and to be the advocate that you are today?
MR. RUFFALO: Well, I have to frame it with moving my family to upstate New York at the moment that the fracking boom was happening and making forays into Pennsylvania where it was ongoing and people couldn't use their water. And that sort of made me aware of this system that was allowing these things to happen. That brought me into a lot of work around water over the years.
And as we were approaching 2016, I was moving more into producing and I wanted to meld that kind of advocacy work with storytelling, because I think that's really powerful. I'd also done Spotlight. And I saw--
MS. ELLISON: We know that movie.
MR. RUFFALO: Yes, you guys know that movie. I saw the powerful change that came with that towards a greater justice. And so, I read this article in The New York Times--I mean--yeah, The New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich.
MS. ELLISON: Yeah. You can mention that, yeah.
MR. RUFFALO: I actually thought, wait a second, that must have been The Washington Post. But I actually--I read that--
MS. ELLISON: We're for truth generally. We like our colleagues as well, yeah.
MR. RUFFALO: I'm surprised you guys didn't get there first. I actually read that and I thought, wow, this is probably one of the greatest corporate criminal acts in America, spanning a 20-year coverup that none of us know about. And as I unpacked it, I saw what a meticulous lawyer Rob is, and I also felt like there's a veracity to this that's unassailable. And so, I moved on--
MS. ELLISON: And, Rob, the story--the movie really does the 20 years that you spent fighting. And the clock is still going, you're still fighting. I want to talk about how--we saw in the trailer you started as a corporate defense attorney working for chemical companies like DuPont. How did you end up where you are not?
MR. BILOTT: Yeah, I mean, I started with my law firm, the Taft Law Firm in Cincinnati back in 1990, and for the first eight years of my career I was trying to help our corporate clients comply with all of the state and federal environmental laws, a pretty complex system, which I really thought anything that was bad was on a list, you know, was some listed hazardous regulated material. And that was the world that I lived in until one day I got a call from a farmer out in West Virginia, Earl Tennant, you know, telling me all about cows dying on his farm.
And I had no idea what was going on. Why was this gentleman calling me? And you know, he--I was about to hang up when he mentioned he got my name from my grandmother. My mom's family grew up in that area. And this gentleman had been trying his hardest to find somebody there in the local community outside Parkersburg who would talk to him, would listen to him. He had hundreds of cows that were dying on his property. He had gone to the state. He had gone to the federal EPA. He had gone to the company. He wasn't getting anywhere, you know, was just reaching out, pleading for somebody to help.
So, you know, having heard that this came from my grandmother, I agreed to have him come in. And we sat down and looked at what he brought, videotapes and photographs.
And it was pretty compelling that there was something clearly wrong going on here and that we thought we could help them. We had no idea, you know, that this was going to involve some completely unknown, unregulated chemical at the time.
MS. ELLISON: And I just want to take a quick minute to ask you, what are forever chemicals? We're using that term. What does that mean?
MR. BILOTT: Yeah. Well, in this particular film, we're talking about one of these, called PFOA that was used for decades in manufacturing of a whole bunch of different commercial products, including Teflon. But PFOA is one within a large family of chemicals that we now hear referred to as PFAS, P-F-A-S. You know, it's sort of confusing, all these acronyms. But we now know that there are hundreds, if not thousands of these chemicals. You know, we're talking about completely man-made chemicals, didn't exist on the planet prior to World War II, that have come out since right after the war, decades before there even was an EPA in many circumstances, like, for example, PFOA. And those chemicals are now all over the planet. And they're showing up in drinking water. They're showing up in human blood. And they present all kinds of problems.
MS. ELLISON: Emily, I have to get to you. And I want to say, too, that Emily's 10-year-old twins, their class is watching the livestream of this, so we should just give a shout-out to them.
MR. RUFFALO: Hey, guys.
MS. ELLISON: But, Emily, you came at this from--you didn't know Rob at all. I wanted to ask you how you became interested in this topic.
MS. DONOVAN: Well, like the clip before from my testimony in Congress showed, we all woke up in our region to headline news and the Star News telling us that we had these toxins in our water. And it wasn't--they were in our finished water, and at these high levels, and they are coming from a former DuPont plant.
And the whole article is based off of this scientific paper that a researcher at a university in Raleigh, NC State, Dr. Detlef Knappe, just studied the water and found all of these chemicals. And he didn't know what to do with them, and so his team just kind of started researching what these were. And we find out that it's the replacement chemical for a PFOA, C8, GenX is what they were calling it. So, that's what made headlines in our community.
And so, the more I started doing what I think most people do when they find out what have I been doing to my children, I've been giving them water which my doctor said I should do, and now it looks like this water is not what I should have been giving them.
I'm researching what is GenX, what are these chemicals. And I'm finding out that they're forever chemicals, and then I'm learning that there's a lawyer who has been fighting in Parkersburg, West Virginia, for forever, and that it's going to take a lot of public outcry in our area to initiate change. And so, that's kind of what motivated me.
MR. RUFFALO: I'd like to add, just forever chemicals, why it's called "forever chemicals" is because of the formulation of these chemicals is so strong, it cannot break down in nature. There is no way to break this chemical down. And when it ends up in our bodies, it stays there forever. It is with us forever.
We, all of us, 99 percent of human beings have this in our blood. I have it. You have it. And we have it in our blood because we weren't given the choice to decide not to have it in our blood. But this is with us now forever, and that's why it's called foreverchemicals.com and why we have started Fight Forever Chemicals--that's why it's called Fight Forever Chemicals, and we have started fightforeverchemicals.com as an advocacy group and a national coalition of the people that have been harmed and are living with it, which is all of us. But people like Emily and her community, Colorado, Vermont, there are many places where there's hot spots in the United States that have these chemicals.
MS. ELLISON: And, Rob, I saw you wanted to say something.
MR. BILOTT: Yeah, you know, once these chemicals get out into the environment, they stay there for forever. And we're talking about chemicals that have been pumped out since after World War II and virtually everywhere that's been pumped out is still out there in our soil, in our water, getting into our blood.
And the situation we see in Wilmington, North Carolina, you know, is just really a great example of the problem with this bigger class of PFAS chemicals. You know, it took 20 years to bring the information out about one of these, PFOA and what it can do and what kind of health impacts it has. And as that information was finally coming out, we finally got the company to agree to phase out making that chemical anymore.
But they switched. The replacement, another PFAS chemical called GenX, was phased out and brought out--I mean, phased in and brought out into the environment and is now in drinking water in Wilmington, North Carolina. It's now being pumped into the air and water outside of the West Virginia plant into the Ohio River. So, I mean, it just shows you almost kind of what a whack-a-mole game we're dealing with here. As the information is finally coming out about one of these, you know, there's the switch to a new one that's just slightly different. And so, we've got to really focus on this broad class of chemicals and deal with all of them in a comprehensive way.
MS. DONOVAN: Can I just say, the facility is located in Fayetteville, and we started seeing groundwater contamination for residents in Fayetteville. So, this is more than just the Wilmington area. It's impacting everyone that lives around this facility. They're afraid to take showers. They're afraid to do laundry. They're afraid to use the water in their own home right now because of what was released into the air. Thad's awful. No one should have to live like that.
MS. ELLISON: I mean, one of the things that you see when you are watching the film is, Rob, your fight, which is very solitary, feels very solitary for a long time. I want to let people watch a clip from the movie about when you're speaking to the original farmer who knew your grandmother about whether to settle or continue fighting the lawsuit. And it's a key moment, and I just want to give people a chance to watch it.
MR. RUFFALO: It's Wilbur Tennant, is the farmer.
MS. ELLISON: Wilbur Tennant. Thank you.
MS. ELLISON: That moment for me--well, let me ask you, Mark, what were you trying to convey in that scene?
MR. RUFFALO: I'm trying to explain to somebody that there is a difference between justice and compensation, and I'm trying to convince someone who doesn't care about compensation and only cares about justice, that the way the legal system is set up is that you don't get both at the same time.
He wants to see criminal justice, and I'm telling him that the system is set up to protect the people who have committed the harm by basically buying off his story and silencing him. And when you try to explain that to somebody who has such a pure sense of justice, it's nearly impossible. And that's what I was trying to do based on what I knew Rob was trying to do.
MS. ELLISON: Right. I mean, Rob, you were somebody who it seems like on all sides you were sort of--well, first of all, let me ask you, was there a moment like that in real life? Were you--
MR. BILOTT: Yeah, it was during that case that we found out it was not just the cows that were being poisoned, not just the Tennant family and his property, but you know, we found out that we were dealing with something that was in the entire community's drinking water.
And you know, here we had an individual who so passionate about, as Mark said, justice, having this information come out. He knew his neighbors and his community was being poisoned, and he wanted to find a way to address that too, which is something, you know, that really ignited a passion in me to do the same. And really, we eventually found a way to do that. But it was really his dedication to bringing that out that really inspired me to try to find a way to do that, try to find a way to address the bigger problem that we were seeing here, what went far beyond one family and one piece of property.
MS. ELLISON: And what I found so compelling was that it was the discovery, it was getting discovery and getting access to the information that DuPont itself had. That was the way you built your case. It was to be able to use that information. And that information is not available to--you know, it's a private company--I mean, it's a publicly traded company, but it is a company.
MR. BILOTT: Right.
MS. ELLISON: And so, they have their trade secrets. There's all kinds of information that we don't have access to.
I want to get--because no one here has seen the film, I do want to get a couple of clips in. So I want to give them a chance to look at something else, which is just that you were able to--I mean, there was one point in the film--we're not going to see it--but when you were driving through town and you just realized that DuPont's name was on a lot of different things in town. It was like DuPont--the town owed the school, the trash cans, the community center--what was that moment like for you?
MR. BILOTT: Well, you know, this was a town that I had spent a lot of time in as a child. My mom and my mom's entire family had grown up there. We spent holidays there all the time.
But really, it was meeting with Mr. Tennant and his family and seeing what was going on there that it really hit me, you know, that this--you know, the entire community really was--everybody either worked for the company, knew somebody that worked for the company, or worked at a very similar company right up the road. I mean, this is an area that called itself Chemical Valley, and still does. So, realizing that this was not just taking on the company but it was, in some sense, taking on the community as well that was very convinced that this couldn't possibly be happening.
MS. ELLISON: Because this was the company that had given them their jobs and sort of helped build the town.
MR. BILOTT: Correct.
MS. ELLISON: Okay. So, I want to play this clip. Rob, you weren't just sort of doing battle with DuPont and trying to convince members of the community. You were also dealing with your own law firm, and I want to play this clip for everybody here to see that.
MS. ELLISON: Was your boss really that great?
MR. BILOTT: You know, I'll tell you, this was a story where really a lot of things had to align, the stars had to align for a lot of this to happen. And, you know, I was fortunate to be at the Taft Law Firm. I'm there now 29 years this year, that really took a look at this. I was fortunate to have Tom Terp and others, you know, in the firm that they saw these videotapes, they saw this information and realized, you know, this was something bad.
And particularly, when we started getting more into the documents and seeing what was already known internally and was being withheld from the public and the government. You know, and this was not the kind of behavior that we had dealt with, with our other clients.
So, I mean, this was a particular bad situation that, you know I was lucky to have a firm that realized this was the right thing to do.
MS. ELLISON: I want to just put up this statement by DuPont again because they talk about how this is a movie that was inspired by real events and they said it grossly misrepresents things that happened years ago. "Claims that our company tried to hide conclusive scientific findings are inaccurate." In any movie, there's going to be some artistic license. But, Mark, I want to ask you, how did you balance that? How did you manage that? You're making a dramatic work. You're not going to be able to dive into everything.
MR. RUFFALO: Yeah, we're spanning 20 years in two hours. And that becomes a challenge, is, how do you compress time and how do you pull out the key significant non-submergible story parts to carry the story forward?
What we really had to do was cut out things like what happened at the DOJ when they went and they found all of this material and they subpoenaed it from Rob's law firm and they were moving forward with the criminal investigation. Like, we couldn't really get into that. Why did that criminal investigation just suddenly stop out of the blue without any reason why? We couldn't get into that kind of stuff. There's a lot of juicy stuff in this story that we could not get into.
But I want to throw it to Rob, because he lived it.
MS. ELLISON: Yeah.
MR. RUFFALO: Rob, did this not happen?
MR. BILOTT: Yeah, I think people--I'm really hoping people watch this movie. And I've also done a book as well called Exposure, where I try to go into all of this history, lay all that out. I'm hoping people take a look at this, people take a look at the book. There's information available online. There's plenty of information about the fact that, you know, this contamination occurred.
We ended up doing one of the largest human health studies every done, able to prove that this chemical was causing six different diseases. We had thousands of people exposed. You know, it is now in the blood of everyone. It's in water all over the planet. I mean, these are facts.
And the story, I think people can see for themselves and they can judge for themselves exactly what really happened and where the truth really is, here.
MS. ELLISON: I mean, I just want to get back to you really quickly, Emily. The company that you're looking into, what's their relationship to DuPont?
MS. DONOVAN: Well, they're the spinoff.
MS. ELLISON: So, it's not called DuPont.
MS. DONOVAN: It's not called DuPont. They're called Chemours. But they own the old DuPont facility. You go on their website and tell--having a really long history in chemical making that started with DuPont. You look at the CEO and he's a former career DuPonter. You look at the plant manager in Fayetteville, he's a career DuPonter. I mean, these are--it walks like a duck, it sounds like a duck.
MS. ELLISON: It does seem like there's--
MR. RUFFALO: It's all a shell game. It's this complex shell game to hide culpability, you know? And as these lawsuits are moving forward, they were draining their assets out of the original DuPont into this new Chemours company, dissolving DuPont, rebuilding DuPont, reintroducing the new DuPont to the world so they could say, "Well, we didn't know anything about any of this." And it's shenanigans.
MS. ELLISON: I mean, you do get the sense--
MR. RUFFALO: I'm sorry.
MS. ELLISON: --when you're watching the film that for every two steps forward that you take, Rob, there's a step back, that there's something else. The fight is not ever really complete. There are all these moments. And I want to just capture--I want to let people watch a bit of the film to capture that frustration and that kind of dynamic.
MR. BILOTT: It's true.
MS. ELLISON: I was just going to say, is the system rigged, Rob?
MR. BILOTT: You know, as a lawyer, you know, that is dealing with people coming to me and saying, "We've got a toxic chemical in our water, in our blood. Can't we get it out of our water and can't we get medical testing to tell us what it's going to do to us, and why isn't the government not doing anything here?"
I mean, we're looking at a situation where we've got a chemical that's been out there all these years. And you know, PFOA in particular, more information is known about this chemical than probably anything else out there. You know, massive animal studies, human health studies, and we still can't get it regulated at the federal level.
So, you have communities that are being exposed to it, used as guinea pigs, you know, being dosed over and over with this stuff for years, and their only resort is to go to the legal system, to have to try to fight through this process. And I think you see this through the film, how difficult that is.
Meanwhile, the regulatory process, the scientific process, the political process, all of that drags on and it's extremely difficult, you know, to fight through that. And this is one of those rare circumstances where the community came together, actually got the human studies done and actually was able to confirm that this chemical was causing harm, and yet here, still, we are.
I sent a letter to EPA, I think it was 18 years ago, asking them to set federal standards in drinking water--guidelines for this one chemical. We still can't get that. So, people are left having to go to the courts, and it's an extremely difficult process. And the system is extremely flawed in how we regulate chemicals. The communities that are exposed are told it's their burden. They are the ones who have to prove these chemicals are hurting them. And, you know, to do that is just unbelievably difficult.
MS. ELLISON: It's also very slow.
MR. BILOTT: Yeah.
MS. ELLISON: I mean, what we see, kudos to you for fighting for as long as you did, but you get the sense, as you're watching the film, there's a ticking clock where the chemicals still exist and are in people's water, like they are in, you know, Emily's town.
We had a question come in from somebody on Twitter who is watching this, and they wanted to know are there any filters that you can use. Or if you're going to take the matter into your own hands, instead of waiting for Washington or waiting for a lawsuit, what can people do now?
MR. BILOTT: That's really one of the more disturbing aspects of all this. With PFOA, we're talking about a chemical that could be filtered out of the water pretty easily through something called granular activated carbon, or GAC systems. And this is not earthshattering, you know, hyper-technical technology. I mean, this is stuff that's been around for decades. And in fact, as soon as we finally revealed all of this, these filters went on and emissions, for example, out of that plant dropped 99 percent. You know, we were able to put these water filters in for the communities that were impacted. So, there are steps that can be taken.
It's becoming a little more difficult to figure out how some of these new PFAS chemicals are treated. For example, GenX, some of these other chemicals, we're finding that maybe it's different types of filtration systems are needed.
But step one is people realizing they've been exposed and understanding that this stuff is out there and is potentially in their water or in their blood, and then, how they can take steps to at least stop that exposure. and luckily, we know of ways to get this out of drinking water. So, we can at least stop that.
But the people that are drinking it shouldn't be the ones having to pay to put these filters in. And these are--you know, this can be expensive. Particularly smaller communities, I mean, you're talking about having to put in these big filtration systems that a lot of times are just extremely expensive for these communities to do. So, it's a difficult problem, but it's one that can be fixed.
MS. ELLISON: Emily, I was just going to ask you. You're doing this right now, right?
MS. DONOVAN: Yeah. And I think what was frustrating in our areas is that we learned through that research paper from Dr. Knappe is that granulated activated carbon, or whatever the filtration system was at our utility system, was not working because these replacement chemicals, the GenX, is clogging the filters faster. And so, it's almost like trying to stay one step ahead of--the utilities are now struggling because once you think you install something that will protect you from PFOA, well, then you have to install something new to protect you from GenX.
And so, our stance is it doesn't belong in the environment. It should not be in the air. It should not be contaminating people's wells. It should not be in our river. It should not be contaminating the water that we draw from. It shouldn't be there to begin with. Because we didn't--this is our river. We own the river. The public owns the river.
And I think we also need to remember, too, that this is a country, a nation that was founded on public outcry. Public outcry is exactly what changes thing in our country. We ended slavery with public outcry. We got the right to vote for women with public outcry. We got--we ended how we draft into the military with public outcry. We birthed the civil rights movement with public outcry. It is going to take public outcry to end these chemicals and how they get used and how our government treats them.
And there is a powerful network, a national coalition of PFAS-contaminated communities, and we are all working together. There's an amazing friend of mine in New Hampshire who just gave a TEDx talk, and she said, "I am just as persistent as PFAS." And that's exactly what we are going to be, is as persistent as PFAS.
MR. RUFFALO: So, these people--
MS. ELLISON: Wow.
MR. RUFFALO: You know, I just want to say, we have to focus on these communities, you know? Because they're the receptors of this. They're the ones living with it, right? And today we have Bucky Bailey here, right?
MS. ELLISON: Can we see him--
MR. RUFFALO: Bucky Bailey and Mark Powers. We have Paul and Diane Cotter here. Do you guys want to raise your hands? Yeah, there we go. These are the real people.
MS. ELLISON: Could you guys stand up?
MR. RUFFALO: Yeah, could you stand up? Would you mind?
MS. ELLISON: Do you mind? Sorry?
MR. RUFFALO: They're taking time out of their lives. They're leaving their jobs to come to Washington, D.C. This is--and because they're fighting for a whole group of people. When there's three people sitting here, you know they're representing a hundred thousand others, two hundred thousand, a million others.
And that's what we have to remember, is that we're talking about people and that gets lost certainly in the politics of it, certainly in this statement.
MS. ELLISON: Right.
MR. RUFFALO: I mean, I don't know how they could say that. And if you're so ready to make it right, then fork over the bucks. You're making a billion dollars a year off of this chemical, a billion dollars for 20 years--longer, 50 years, okay?
MS. ELLISON: A billion dollars a year just on PFAS chemicals?
MR. RUFFALO: Yes. And you're whining because you have to pay $670,000 to make one class right? I mean, please. It's outrageous. It's outrageous. That statement is outrageous from them. I'm sorry. They're the ones who came up with--they're the ones who came up with the limits. They knew it was poisoning people. They were the ones who had the science. They did the science. They knew. They can't sit here and say they didn't know. It's just not true. I'm sorry. It makes me angry.
MS. ELLISON: Rob, one of the things that I learned from the film was just how these are chemicals that are unregulated because they were--DuPont came up with them before they could be regulated. They sort of defined what would be regulated and what would not be. I want to know if you could just quickly sort of capture that, because I don't think people totally understand.
MR. BILOTT: Yeah, well, we're talking about chemicals that actually were first developed by the 3M company right after World War II, PFOA and then a related chemical, PFOS, which has been used, for example, in a lot of firefighting foam. And we have folks here that are representing the firefighting community as well, which is particularly exposed from firefighting foams.
MS. ELLISON: There's some new lawsuits on it, as well.
MR. BILOTT: Yes, yeah. We're talking about chemicals that came out right after World War II. The U.S. EPA didn't come into existence until 1970, and the first real federal statute dealing with how chemicals come out on the market and how they should be reviewed didn't come out until 1976. So, you're talking about a class of chemicals, particularly PFOA and PFOS, that were out there for decades well before the regulations came in. And when these new laws came out in the 70s, they focused on really the new chemicals, things that were made from that point going forward.
And for existing chemicals, like PFOA, it was up to the companies that were making them and using them to alert the EPA if they had information suggesting there was a substantial risk of harm. So really, the EPA was relying on the companies that were using these to tell them if they had information showing problems. And here, we had a situation where there were repeated studies coming out showing problems, and, unfortunately, that information was not given to the EPA.
And as you see in the film, I mean, there's a reference to EPA finally bringing a lawsuit and there was a fine. It was for withholding that information.
MS. ELLISON: So, these chemicals, the thing that links all these chemicals is that they repel water. Is that why DuPont made them? It's in GORE-TEX. It's in, I mean, obviously, Teflon. Can you talk a little bit about that? How can people recognize where--
MR. RUFFALO: Food containers.
MS. ELLISON: Like plastic food containers?
MR. RUFFALO: Yeah, plastic food containers, anything that repels oil. So, even now, they're putting it in the compostable cardboard food containers that we get from our favorite, you know, green, organic stores. It's everywhere. It's in makeup. It's in our clothing. It's everywhere.
MS. DONOVAN: It's virtually impossible to opt out of our exposure. And as a highly contaminated community, when I know that my children have been raised on an unsafe level of exposure to these chemicals, I, as a parent, feel it's my responsibility to find ways that I can minimize that exposure, and it is nearly impossible. There's no labeling. There's no way to fully understand and disclose where can I opt out of my exposure.
I mean, I did an op-ed recently where we found that there's a study that I reference in the op-ed that talks about the majority of Americans that are exposed to PFAS, about 75 percent maybe, approximately, comes from other exposures than water. So, we are all being exposed through our air, our soil, with these chemicals and we don't even know about it.
MS. ELLISON: So, what can people do? I recognize there's a limited amount, there needs to be a kind of larger solution. But today, what could someone do?
MR. BILOTT: Yeah, I was going to say, we’re launching a coalition called fightforeverchemicals.com, which is going to bring all of the different community groups that are working on this and environmental organizations, as well, that will make information available to people.
You know, right now, this has all gone on for decades without most of us even knowing it was happening or knowing whether we were exposed. And so, information will be made available to let you know, you know, what this stuff is, what the potential effects are, where it can be found, how you can have your water tested, where it's been tested, what kind of products and commercial items have these things been used in, in the past, what companies are switching away.
You know, and again, the reason I put that book together as well, "Exposure", was to let people know, here's what we do know about these things, you know, so that there's a resource that people can go to, to know here are the facts on what we know about these chemicals. Here's how we got to where we are today, and here are the things we can do moving forward to stop these exposures, to properly regulate these at the federal level. You know, states are being forced really to have to move forward on their own to address these issues.
And here's what we can do, all of these communities coming together, all of us coming together to say we need to change this. We need to stop these exposures, we need to stop this, and here's how. Hopefully, we can provide people the tools to do that.
MR. RUFFALO: So, it will be, you know, what products have it, what products don't, where you can get products that don't have it, certain things like what kind of filters you can use. Then it will go into what legislation is happening locally, what legislation is happening federally, who to call. What communities are actually in need of support, funding those communities directly instead of waiting for the trickle-down from the big national green organizations is the most powerful thing you can do to help these people. So, it will have--it will be a hub for all that kind of information.
MS. DONOVAN: Can I also add, you know, I think it's important--you know, I read Rob's book, and first of all, I think it should be required reading for any scientist at any university that is learning how to use PFAS chemistry. They should be required to read this book. Communities that are finding out and you want to learn more, you should be required to read this book.
But one thing that I noticed that was impressive in the book is he partnered early on with Environmental Working Group--
MR. BILOTT: Yes.
MS. DONOVAN: --and they have been the Watchdogs that have been leading this PFAS from the environment non-profit side, and they have a really fantastic map of--so, you can go and you can look at their map and see where contamination is across the United States. And they keep updating it regularly with new data.
They also have a really great way where you can go reach out to your member of Congress. And we need to start--these people are sent to Washington to work for us, so we need to start telling them what we need. And we need to start working with them, to thank them if they're doing the right thing, hold them accountable when they're not doing the right thing.
MS. ELLISON: And I know you guys are headed to the Hill after this. What kind of legislation would help? Like, what would you ask for? What are you asking for?
MS. DONOVAN: Oh, I know. Can I--I'm ready. But you go ahead. You go ahead.
MR. BILOTT: Well, you know, I think one of the most frustrating things is to look at all of this history and realize that we're still dealing with chemicals that are not regulated at the federal level. They are not listed as hazardous, for example, under the Superfund law.
You know, so communities that are forced to incur these costs have to go through all kinds of litigation to try to recover the costs of cleaning this up. You know, they're not listed on the federal laws that require companies to report how much they're emitting or releasing out into the environment. They're not required to be listed in federal permits under the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act.
I mean, There is legislation I think that's currently pending right now that people could go vote for to finally have these chemicals listed, identified, so at least that the testing occurs, you know, to allow people that they have the funds to actually do the testing, to allow folks to actually get some of these cleaned up, and actually put the costs where they should go: on the people that manufactured these and put them out into our environment and into us.
MS. DONOVAN: You did a good job. I'm really proud of you.
MS. DONOVAN: But I would like to point out that we have an actor, a lawyer, and a Sunday school teacher sitting here today. Anybody can do this. Anybody can do this. Anybody can learn about these chemicals. Anybody can--
MR. RUFFALO: If I can do it--
MS. DONOVAN: If you can do it, Mark, anybody can do it.
MS. DONOVAN: But what I'm saying is that we sometimes think that it has to be an actor, it has to be someone with a lot of money, it has to be the CEO of Environmental Working Group, or it has to be a really well-connected lawyer. It doesn't. You know, if I can be up here today hanging out with these massive, amazing people, then anybody can, and we all can.
And it's all about engaging your humanity, whether you work for DuPont, or you work for the DOD, or you work in any layer of government, at your local utility, whether you're a schoolteacher or you're a 10-year-old kid, you can inspire change in yourself. You have that power. You own that story. It's possible.
MS. ELLISON: Yeah, thank you so much, all of you. It's criminal that we've run out of time. I could talk to you all day. But thank you so much for coming, Rob, Emily, Mark. And thank you, everyone, for being with us.