Robert Bilott, the lawyer who alerted the public to the dangers of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), delivered the 2022 Fedder Lecture at the law school on November 18. Called by the New York Times “DuPont’s worst nightmare,” Bilott described his journey from being a chemical industry defense lawyer to becoming a top plaintiffs tort lawyer. The story is told in detail in Bilott’s book “Exposure” and the movie “Dark Waters” in which Mark Ruffalo portrays Bilott.
The journey began when his grandmother asked him to help a nearby farmer whose cows were mysteriously dying. After considerable investigation, Bilott discovered that the cows were drinking water heavily contaminated with PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals” because of their longevity. Bilott then discovered that 70,000 residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia also were drinking the water contaminated by a PFAS dump owned by DuPont.
Because these chemicals had not been widely tested, little was known about their effects on human health, though DuPont workers coming into regular contact with them had suffered some alarming problems. In September 2004, DuPont agreed to an unusual settlement that created a $70 million fund Bilott used for health testing of residents who drank the contaminated water. The parties agreed to submit the data from what became the world’s largest epidemiological study to a panel of three experts. After seven years of data collection and analysis, in 2011 the experts found that exposure to PFAS caused six serious diseases, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease.
Both sides had agreed to be bound by the results of the study. As a result, more than 3,500 Parkersburg residents who suffered the health effects PFAS were found to cause were allowed to proceed with their lawsuits against DuPont. After three bellwether trials resulted in large jury awards, DuPont agreed to a $671 million settlement in February 2017.Bilott is now pursuing a nationwide class action in Ohio court on behalf of everyone in the U.S. with substantial exposure to PFAS.
In his Fedder lecture Bilott emphasized the importance of playing the long game in the face of intransigence by corporate defendants with access to enormous resources. He noted that he once believed that regulatory authorities would take needed action once they were provided with information concerning harms caused by chemicals. EPA ultimately did fine DuPont more than $10 million, but it has been slowed to require industry to phase out the use of forever chemicals.
PFAS have now been found to contaminate the environment all over the world. Companies who make these chemicals continue to argue in court that they are safe even though evidence is mounting associating them with harm to human health. Bilott’s story is an inspiration to aspiring lawyers even as it exposes some fundamental gaps in our supposedly comprehensive system of environmental regulation.