It’s been nearly two years since residents in southern El Paso County learned their drinking water contained potentially unsafe levels of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs (also referred to as PFAS). The chemicals were long used in products ranging from non-stick pans to industrial fire fighting foams, and they’ve been linked in recent years to certain cancers and other health conditions.
Ohio-based attorney Rob Bilott has been working on cases related to PFC contamination since the late 90s, and is credited with helping to bring the issue to light nationally through his litigation in West Virginia. He’s not affiliated with a local lawsuit against manufacturers of the PFC-containing firefighting foams thought to be responsible for contamination in the Widefield aquifer, but he’ll be speaking about the issue at Mesa Ridge High School in Widefield on Tuesday, 4/17, at 7 p.m.
He talked with 91.5 KRCC’s Jake Brownell ahead of that event.
91.5 KRCC: To begin with, tell me how you became involved in the issue of perfluorinated compounds and contamination of groundwater.
Rob Bilott: I actually got involved almost 20 years ago back late 1998, 1999. We were representing a family out in West Virginia who was having trouble with their cattle that were getting exposed to white foaming water coming out of a landfill nearby. And the family was having a hard time figuring out what was in the water, and what was causing the problems with the cattle -- the cattle were dying. It was A landfill owned by DuPont, which was a main manufacturer in the town at the time, so they had come to us in hopes that we could help them figure out what was harming the cattle. And it was through that case that we took on for that family that we found out that one of the chemicals that was in the landfill and that was generating that white foam was something called PFOA, and we had never heard of it at the time. So that launched our investigation into trying to find information about the chemical which finally got us into internal documents from DuPont and 3M going back to the 1950s and 60s. That's how we first got involved.
91.5 KRCC: That's kind of a crucial point there, those internal documents studies within DuPont and 3M. What did those documents reveal about the nature of this chemical?
Rob Bilott: Well you know it was fascinating reading through all of this because what we saw was you know PFOA was one of a family of chemicals which are now referred to as PFAS – per- and poly-fluorinated alkylated substances – and the 3M company had developed these chemicals way back right after World War II. These chemicals were being put out onto the market into the environment way before there was a federal EPA, way before there were a lot of these environmental regulations. So these chemicals sort of sailed under the regulatory review. But what we were seeing in the documents is the companies themselves, 3M and DuPont, had been studying these chemicals. And what we were seeing in the documents was there was well established toxicology concerns about these chemicals going way back to the early 1960s. But what we saw was none of that really was being published – some was published most of it wasn't. And a lot of that information wasn't being turned over to the federal or state agencies. So we started providing that data to the U.S. EPA and the states back in 2001.
91.5 KRCC: In terms of your litigation in that case, you filed a class action. What happened in that case?
Rob Bilott: After we alerted the agencies, the community learned about it and they came to us and said “can you help us get this out of our water?” So we initiated a class action lawsuit against DuPont in 2001 that was settled in 2004 and under that settlement Dupont was required to immediately put in water filtration systems and we also got DuPont's agreement to set up an independent science panel to verify, "what would drinking this chemical in your water do to you? What diseases would be linked with drinking this?" About 69,000 people in the community ended up participating by providing blood samples and all of that was turned over to this independent panel which was then able to confirm drinking PFOA in your water for at least a year over .05 parts per billion was linked with six diseases including two types of cancer.
91.5 KRCC: Despite the fact that there's been a lot of discussion about this chemical, studies done about this group of chemicals, settlements awarded regarding contamination in the past, still to this day in 2018 there are no regulations on the books regarding this family of chemicals.
Rob Bilott: Yeah it's a little surprising but that's the case. There still is not an enforceable federal standard for PFOA or any of the perfluorinated chemicals in drinking water.
91.5 KRCC: Through this experience, going on close to 20 years now of working on this particular issue, what have you learned about the way that we regulate drinking water more broadly? Beyond just these particular chemicals, do you think that the EPA and other regulatory bodies have more work to do to really ensure that we're getting safe drinking water?
Rob Bilott: Yeah I think you know you have to keep in mind we only found out about PFOA of these unregulated drinking water contaminants sort of by accident and it's now taken all these years to try to finally start the process to get that chemical regulated. And what we're seeing is, I think, recognition that this current legal system for how we regulate contaminants in drinking water needs to be changed. And in fact the situation with PFOA was used as one of the examples of why the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, which was the federal law governing this whole issue, that that act needed to be changed. So it was only in 2016 that significant amendments were made to that law to try to require a little more information about these materials before they're put on the market as opposed to shifting the burden to the community once they're drinking this and the community is then told, “you community members, you have the burden to prove that that the chemical causes harm.”
Most times the community doesn't have the resources, doesn't have the scientists, doesn't have the funds to go out and do the studies. Yet they're the ones who are told it's their burden to prove the harmfulness of the chemical. So there's a lot of activity now to try to shift that burden to some degree. It's happened a bit in Europe and there are those that are trying to suggest that's what needs to be done in the United States as well.
91.5 KRCC: You're going to be speaking Tuesday night in Security-Widefield about this issue, what kind of a message are you going to have for folks in that community who have been drinking water contaminated with these chemicals? What are you going to be talking to them about?
Rob Bilott: One of my goals is to make sure people understand that information is available. Learn from what we went through in West Virginia and Ohio over 20 years. The science has been done on one of these chemicals, PFOA, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. And I hope to be able to at least encourage people to know where to look to find this information and to get accurate, complete information about what are the potential health effects, what the true risks could be from exposure, and what the potential options are for removing this from the drinking water and in trying to prevent it from happening in the future.
3M could not be reached for comment by airtime, but in previous statements the company has said it “does not believe there is a PFC-related public health issue.” DuPont reiterated it always acted responsibly based on available information, and that it supports reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act. Both companies have phased PFOA and other related chemicals out of production as part of a voluntary EPA initiative called the 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program.
In an emailed statement, the EPA said protecting public health is the agency's highest priority. Next month, the agency will be hosting a national summit to discuss steps being taken to address PFC contamination across the country and bring together stakeholders from affected areas.
Disclosure: Rob Bilott will be speaking in El Paso County as part of a program sponsored by Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition and Colorado College. Colorado College is 91.5 KRCC’s licensee.