For exposing a decades-long history of chemical pollution, winning long-sought justice for the victims, and setting a precedent for effective regulation of hazardous substances.
Robert Bilott is an outstanding environmental lawyer from the United States, who has uncovered the worldwide impact of contamination by a group of “forever chemicals” known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that accumulate in the environment and in living things, including people. With a combination of innovative litigation, scientific understanding, and extraordinary perseverance, Bilott has achieved one of the most significant victories for environmental law and corporate accountability to date.
In a legal battle lasting over two decades, Bilott represented 70,000 people living near Parkersburg, West Virginia, whose drinking water had been contaminated with a toxic “forever chemical,” known as PFOA, released by the chemical giant DuPont. Expanding upon the concept of class-action litigation, Bilott eventually obtained over 1 billion US dollars in benefits for the victims, including direct cash settlements for thousands of disease victims, totalling over 753 million US dollars, and ongoing medical monitoring for those exposed.
As a result of the settlement of the lawsuit against DuPont, Bilott set up a unique scientific process which contributed significantly to the understanding of the global health risks associated with PFAS chemicals. Exposure to PFAS can cause severe health damage, including cancer and impaired reproductive capacity. The landmark court case, also depicted in the movie Dark Waters (2019), has been followed by more lawsuits being filed not only across the US, but also in other countries.
Robert Bilott has uncovered the severe global health effects of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, which are today found everywhere, including in the blood of almost every human being. He has prevailed in an ongoing legal battle against the chemical giant DuPont, which has lasted more than two decades. Through that work, Bilott has secured over 1 billion US dollars in benefits for tens of thousands of people who had been drinking contaminated water. His legal battle has inspired people around the world to demand an end to the use of these toxic chemicals.
Chemicals that stay forever
Since World War II, more than 100,000 new chemicals have been introduced in industrialised countries. Some are designed for application in consumer products, whereas others are used in industrial processes. However, even the latter frequently end up in the environment or the human body, either through residues in the end product or as environmental contamination from landfills, incineration or sewage treatment plants.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a class of more than 4,000 different chemicals that have been used in commercial products since World War II. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) were manufactured originally by the US multinational conglomerate 3M and have for decades been among the most commonly used and known PFAS. DuPont began buying PFOA from 3M in the early 1950s and began manufacturing it in the early 2000s. Both companies knew that these chemicals had negative health effects and would stay in the environment virtually forever but decided to withhold the information.
Many of the artificial compounds designed by the chemical industry exhibit a much greater stability than most naturally-occurring substances. This is useful for insulation, fire protection, or non-stick and waterproof materials, for example. However, stability comes with a downside: these substances do not break down in the environment, and they accumulate in animals and humans. Today, PFAS can be found in the blood of most humans, as well as in both domestic and wild animals such as cows and polar bears.
The story begins with a brave farmer
After graduating with a law degree in 1990, Bilott started working for the firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, where he has been a partner since 1998. Focusing on environmental law, Bilott played a key role in helping Taft’s corporate clients to understand and comply with environmental laws and regulations related to toxic materials.
In 1998, Bilott was contacted by Wilbur Earl Tennant, a farmer near Parkersburg, West Virginia, whose cattle were dying and suffering from horrific symptoms: their eyes turned bluish, blood was dripping from their noses and froth was coming out of their mouths. This previously unheard-of condition had started sometime after the farmer’s brother had sold part of their family property to the chemical company DuPont, which had been operating a plant near Parkersburg since 1948. DuPont had turned this land, with a creek running right through it, into a landfill and dumped thousands of tons of chemical waste there.
Taking on the case, Bilott found out about the unregulated chemical PFOA, which DuPont used in massive quantities in the production of anti-stick substances like Teflon. He secured a court order forcing DuPont to reveal what they knew about PFOA. Meticulously going through what ultimately became hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that the company was compelled to send to his office, he learnt that DuPont had known about PFOA’s toxicity for decades but still exposed their workers to it and dumped massive quantities in the environment. Bilott got an out-of-court settlement for Tennant, who died only a few years later (as did his wife). But he could not forget what he had learnt about PFOA and its health risks.
Bilott suspected that PFOA had killed his client’s cattle. Evaluating the documents that DuPont had turned over to him, he realised that many more people were affected not just in the Parkersburg area, but across the US and, indeed, globally. But PFOA was not regulated. Legally, it was considered as harmless as water. Thus, in a 972-page submission to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other relevant US authorities, Bilott demanded immediate action be taken to regulate PFOA and provide clean water to those living near the factory. The EPA proceeded to accuse DuPont of concealing its knowledge of PFOA’s toxicity and presence in the environment, which constituted a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act. However, in 2005, DuPont got away with paying a fine of 16.5 million US dollars to settle the EPA case – less than 2 per cent of the profits the company earned on PFOA that year.
Representing 70,000 victims: Bilott’s landmark case
Bilott decided to take the case further. In August 2001, he filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of the almost 70,000 people in the Parkersburg area who had been drinking water contaminated with PFOA. In September 2004, DuPont agreed to settle the case and install water treatment systems for all the impacted public and private drinking water supplies in the areas and pay a cash award of 70 million US dollars.
Such class action settlements are not uncommon under US law, and the case could have ended here. However, Bilott and his legal team convinced the class members to use the 70 million US dollars to pay class members to provide blood samples, medical history and related information to independent scientists charged with confirming what diseases could be caused by exposure to PFOA in the class members’ drinking water. This way, they made sure that a large amount of data was produced that would allow for high-quality epidemiological studies of PFOA’s health effects. The independent studies and analysis were conducted over a period of 7 years and had to be financed by DuPont under the settlement.
The independent scientific panel ultimately confirmed that there is a probable link between PFOA exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. The findings were published in a number of reports and peer-reviewed scientific articles and contributed enormously to the understanding of PFOA’s toxicity. Under the original 2004 class action settlement, these disease findings formed the basis for class members to receive free medical monitoring for each of these diseases (to be paid for by DuPont, up to 235 million US dollars) and to pursue individual personal injury lawsuits against DuPont by those who already had one of the linked diseases. Bilott was co-lead counsel handling the litigation against DuPont for these plaintiffs. After the first three trials, all of which resulted in verdicts against DuPont on behalf of cancer survivors (for 1.6 million US dollars, 5.6 million US dollars, and 12.5 million US dollars), including punitive damages in the last two cases (as high as 10.5 million US dollars in the third case), DuPont agreed in 2017 to settle all the approximately 3,500 then-pending cases for 671.7 million US dollars. In 2021, DuPont agreed to settle dozens of additional such cases for another 83 million US dollars, bringing the total Bilott recovered for those class members suffering from PFOA-linked diseases to over 753 million US dollars.
The impact of Bilott’s work in reducing a threat to global public health
Bilott’s tireless fight for justice has inspired many individuals and municipalities, both in the US and in countries such as Italy and Sweden, to file lawsuits addressing PFAS contamination. Public interest in his work and the scientific findings generated by it has also led to a large number of new toxicological studies of PFOA and other per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals. DuPont claimed to have ceased the production and use of PFOA in the US by 2013. The five other companies in the world that produce PFOA claim to be phasing out its production.
In May 2016, the EPA announced its first long-term health advisory for PFOA and the related substance PFOS in drinking water. Though this advisory is non-binding, affected people have to be notified. In this way, communities across the US suddenly learnt that their water contained PFOA and/or PFOS above acceptable limits, and many demanded action. With PFOA alone, it is estimated that more than 5 million American citizens have been drinking PFOA-contaminated water. The story of the Bilott litigation became one of the prime examples for journalists and policy-makers examining the failures of the Toxic Substances Control Act, building support for the sweeping reform of the law passed in 2016 that brought greater regulation of PFOA and related chemicals nationwide.
PFOA has been detected in the blood of more than 98 per cent of the general US population, but the problem is by no means limited to the US. There are communities affected by PFOA contamination in many other countries, and the chemical is now ubiquitous in the human food chain.
The struggle for justice continues
Bilott has continued to seek justice for people exposed to PFAS after receiving the Right Livelihood Award in 2017. He is now seeking class-action status on behalf of everyone living in the United States whose blood has been contaminated with PFOA and other PFAS chemicals. A documentary film about the PFAS poisoning of the inhabitants in the Parkersburg area and Bilott’s landmark case against DuPont, titled The Devil We Know, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. In 2019, Bilott published his first book Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer's Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont. A few months later, the movie Dark Waters premiered in cinemas in the US. The film, directed by Todd Haynes, tells the story of the legal battle Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) fought against DuPont. It was well-received by critics across the world and has generated many news stories about Bilott and the health effects caused by PFAS, including in Time Magazine and The Guardian.