The Environmental Protection Agency is facing a major new scandal after it worked with the White House to bury an alarming federal study detailing widespread chemical contamination of the nation’s water supply. One Trump administration official warned release of the study would create a “public relations nightmare.” The study found chemicals commonly present in Teflon and firefighting foam are a threat to human health at levels the EPA had previously called safe. We speak with Robert Bilott, the attorney The New York Times calls the “worst nightmare of DuPont,” the manufacturer of Teflon. He successfully won compensation for his clients whose drinking water had been contaminated by toxic chemicals used to make Teflon. He is a recipient of the 2017 Right Livelihood Award.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faced lawmakers on Capitol Hill for a third time in less than a month as senators grilled him about a slew of scandals over his spending habits, ties to industry lobbyists and his deregulation of environmental protections.
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Pruitt is currently facing about a dozen investigations, including into his $3 million security detail, his expensive first class travel, his below-market-value condo — which he rented from the wife of an energy lobbyist — and his other spending and ethics violations. Wednesday’s hearing came only two days after Politico reported the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House have suppressed publication of a federal health study on a national water contamination crisis.
The US Department of Health and Human Services study found the chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which are used in Teflon and firefighting foam, are unsafe for human health at levels the EPA had previously called safe. In other words, these chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought.
But internal emails, released after a Freedom of Information Act request, show a Trump administration aide warning the EPA’s top financial officer, “The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge…The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR…” — that’s the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — “…to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.” The study remains unpublished.
The Pentagon has used foams containing these chemicals in exercises at military bases nationwide. In a March report to Congress, the Pentagon listed 126 military installations where the nearby water shows potentially harmful levels of these chemicals, which have been linked to cancers and developmental delays for fetuses and babies.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia asked Pruitt if he ultimately planned to publish the report.
SCOTT PRUITT: I was not aware that there had been some holding back of the report.
I think it is important to have all of the information in the marketplace as we evaluate this.
SENATOR SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Absolutely.
SCOTT PRUITT: What is most important to me is not just studies. As you know, I think the health advisory is 70 parts per trillion —
SENATOR SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Right.
SCOTT PRUITT: — which is a very strong standard. But we need to make sure that if there is an MCL, maximum containment limit, or a 107 approach, that it’s based on a record.
And that’s what we would proceed with post the summit next week. But as far as information, we need more information, not less.
AMY GOODMAN: The EPA and White House’s effort to suppress this study is only the latest twist in a decades-long fight over Teflon’s highly toxic chemical PFOA, also known as C8. For decades, the chemical giant DuPont hid information about the toxicity of this chemical, even as the company discharged it into the waterways around its manufacturing plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. PFOA, or C8, has now been linked to six diseases, including testicular and kidney cancers. The chemical has been used so widely, it’s now in the bloodstream of 99 percent of Americans, even newborn babies. And the chemical is bio-resistant, meaning it doesn’t break down.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Rob Bilott, the leading environmental lawyer who represented 70,000 Americans in lawsuits against the chemical giant DuPont. He successfully won compensation for his clients, whose drinking water had been contaminated by toxic chemicals used to make Teflon. Rob Bilott is a recipient of the 2017 Right Livelihood Award. He was also the subject of a 2016 New York Times Magazine article headlined, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” Rob Bilott is here at the University of California Santa Cruz for a gathering of the North American Right Livelihood laureates. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rob.
ROB BILOTT: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about this latest Politico report.
ROB BILOTT: Well, it’s very disturbing. For many years, I have been trying to make sure that the public, the millions of people across this country and now globally that have these chemicals in their blood, in their drinking water, that these people have access to the most accurate and complete information about the health risks that are posed from being exposed to these chemicals. We’re talking about man-made, synthetic chemicals that don’t exist in nature, that are now in the blood of millions of people across the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Of almost everyone.
ROB BILOTT: About everyone, and in wildlife and living things all over the planet. And for many years, I have been trying to encourage the federal government, the US EPA, the ATSDR, to release as much information about the health risks of these chemicals as possible. What we have now learned is that one of the federal agencies that has primary responsibility for looking at human health effects from chemical exposure, ATSDR, has developed —
AMY GOODMAN: ATSDR stands for, again?
ROB BILOTT: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It is part of the federal government created back in the 1980s whose specific purpose is to look at potential human health effects from exposure to hazardous materials. What we understand is that the agency has come up with a draft report that apparently has taken a new look at the health risks from not only the Teflon-related chemical PFOAand the firefighting foam-related chemical PFOS, but several additional chemicals as well that are also now getting into people’s blood and in drinking water across the country. They’re looking at that information and are suggesting that the levels of exposure that might cause harm are actually a lot lower than what US EPA has now been telling the people across the country.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a comment from former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who tweeted Wednesday, “I’m a simple guy so I have a simple remedy when people like Pruitt ignore or hide pollution: if you don’t have a problem with Americans drinking contaminated drinking water, drink it yourself until you tap out or resign.”
ROB BILOTT: Well, what we’re dealing with here is a nationwide, if not global, public health threat. Whether it is a public relations nightmare, we have people that are dealing with a public health nightmare. So it is critically important to get the most accurate, complete health information out there as quickly as we can.
AMY GOODMAN: According to Politico, a Trump administration White House official said this report, if it gets out, will be a public relations nightmare. Now explain — it looks at the areas around military bases, industrial areas. And what do you suspect it finds?
ROB BILOTT: Well, I believe the agency has looked at various studies that try to assess at what levels in humans and in animals can these chemicals cause harm? And like many states across the country, including the state of New Jersey, for example, which is suggesting that the levels that are allowable in drinking water ought to be a lot lower than what US EPA is currently saying. US EPA, for example, is saying 70 parts per trillion is acceptable in drinking water. Folks that are looking at a lot of the more current data, for example the state of New Jersey, are suggesting levels as low as 14 or even lower. And I believe people are thinking that this particular report that ATSDR has prepared is also going to suggest that those numbers ought to be a lot lower than they are now.
AMY GOODMAN: What is a firefighting foam?
ROB BILOTT: Firefighting foam has historically contained a combination of these chemicals — PFOA, PFOS — and is now possibly including some of these newer replacement chemicals that were previously thought to hopefully be safe, but may present some of the same troubling characteristics as the older materials. And what’s happening now is the chemicals used in those foams are being found in drinking water around military bases, airports across the country and worldwide. In Australia, New Zealand. Because these chemicals have been released through the foam that was released out into the environment and are now contaminating water all over the planet.
AMY GOODMAN: In March, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee signed the nation’s first law banning firefighting foam and food packaging that contains PFAS, which is the class of chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS.
ROB BILOTT: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Washington state.
ROB BILOTT: That’s Washington state.
AMY GOODMAN: So now it is going to the states that are taking the lead as opposed to the EPA.
ROB BILOTT: Yeah. As we sit here today, in the year 2018, there is still not a federally enforceable standard for any of these chemicals in drinking water. There is an informal guideline from US EPA. And because the chemical and related chemicals are showing up in drinking water all over the country, all over the world, there are states that are taking matters into their own hand and moving forward a lot quicker and saying, “We are going to set standards.” Like New Jersey.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Lori Cervera, a resident of Warminster, Pennsylvania, which is home to the former Naval Air Warfare Center and only a few miles from the Willow Grove military base. She is speaking in a video produced by The Intercept.
LORI CERVERA: Looking into what would cause kidney cancer because it didn’t run in my family. I don’t have any history of it. Don’t have any history of multiple sclerosis in my family. So I looked into it and found an article about the chemical PFOA and PFOS that was in fire-retardant foam that is used at air bases. We were less than a half-mile away from the air base.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is another resident of Warminster, Joanne Stanton.
JOANNE STANTON: When after I had had my third son, we found out that my oldest child Patrick — who was six years old at the time, just getting ready to enter first grade — he was having migraines for the last three years, but they were getting more intense. He was having nauseousness, vomiting in the morning, and then having problem with his balance. And we took him to the doctors and the MRI revealed a brain tumor. The doctors came in our room and they started pummeling us with questions. “Where do you live?” “Where did you grow up?” “Do you ever work with pesticides?” “Do you live near a farm?” “Do you live under high tension wires?” And these are questions that I never would have even thought about.
AMY GOODMAN: Rob Bilott, just responding to what they are saying?
ROB BILOTT: These are chemicals that are presenting all kinds of different potential health threats. And one of the issues that we’re particularly concerned about now is realizing that our nation’s firefighters and emergency responders, who have been using these firefighting foams, or whose equipment and gear that they wear may have been coated with materials that included some of these chemicals in the past — those firefighters and emergency responders have very high levels of these chemicals now in their blood. And we now need to know, what is that doing to our firefighters?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to attorney Rob Bilott, who has represented 70,000 citizens in lawsuits against DuPont. They’re concerned about their drinking water being contaminated by toxic chemicals used to make Teflon and also firefighting foam. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the University of California Santa Cruz. Our guest is the Right Livelihood Laureate Rob Bilott. We spoke to him first in January at the Sundance Film Festival because there was a film, The Devil We Know, that had just come out that features him and some of his clients taking on the issue of Teflon. Chemicals in Teflon have contaminated, what, 99 percent of the population of the United States? As we continue to look at the issue of water contamination, next week there’s going to be an EPA summit, but not everyone is invited. Can you talk about that, Rob?
ROB BILOTT: I think highlighting the importance of the issue and how widespread the problem is across the entire country with almost every state having a community that has water contamination now affected by these chemicals, the US EPA is having a pretty unprecedented event. They are holding a national summit next week to address this entire class of chemicals. Not just PFOA and PFOS, but all the related chemicals as well that are showing up in drinking water and in human blood. Representatives from all 50 states have been invited to come into this conference. And there was originally some concern about whether citizens and impacted committees would be allowed to attend as well. There is now — my understanding, there’s going to be a live feed that people can listen in and hopefully participate in this meeting.
AMY GOODMAN: How can they participate if they’re not allowed in the room?
ROB BILOTT: That is a good question. I asked if I could participate and so far I have not been allowed to go and attend this meeting. I have been told I can call in and listen in on a live feed.
AMY GOODMAN: But the chemical industry will be there?
ROB BILOTT: My understanding looking at the agenda that has now been posted is a representative of the American Chemistry Council, or ACC, will actually not only be there, but be participating in the conference.
AMY GOODMAN: And what will be decided at the summit?
ROB BILOTT: Don’t know. Don’t know what will actually be the result of the summit, other than bringing all of these state and federal agency representatives together to try to come up with a plan of how do we address this nationwide contamination problem?
AMY GOODMAN: Hmm. I want to turn to a video, an NBC News report on how new research shows cancer has become the number one killer of firefighters in the United States, including oral, digestive, respiratory as well as urinary cancers.
TOM COSTELLO: In Boston where it is illegal for firefighters to smoke, three new cancer cases are reported each month, twice the rate of city residents.
BOSTON FIRE COMMISSIONER JOSEPH FINN: Surely, this is an epidemic in the fire service. This is something that’s going to consume us.
TOM COSTELLO: Researchers say today’s fire involving synthetics, plastics and chemicals can cover firefighters in a toxic soot.
FIREFIGHTER: I have kidney cancer.
FIREFIGHTER: I have brain cancer.
FIREFIGHTER: There’s no cure for it.
TOM COSTELLO: On the memorial wall at fire headquarters, the faces of cancer. One hundred ninety firefighters who have died of job-related cancer just since 1990. Far more than the number who have died actually fighting fires.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is responsible for this, Rob Bilott? That was an NBC News report.
ROB BILOTT: That’s exactly what we would like to find out. Right now we know that the firefighting community has very high levels of these chemicals in their blood. Blood testing that has been done over the years has indicated this is a particularly highly exposed community. They’re not only exposed to these chemicals in the firefighting foam that they use and often are coated in, but there is concern that a lot of the equipment or gear they have worn over the years, that some of the stain proofing or waterproofing materials may have been manufactured using some of these chemicals, and trace amounts of those chemicals may have also ended up on the coatings as well. And can any of those chemicals then get into the human body because of that? This is something that has never adequately been researched to date.
We have been actually asking the federal agencies, including — I sent a letter to the ATSDR, the same agency we talked about earlier, in September — last September — asking and pleading for the agency to do a national study of firefighters that have been exposed to these chemicals. So not only should we be studying people who were exposed to these chemicals in drinking water, but the firefighting community who has this special additional exposure, we need to be studying this to find out, are these very high cancer rates that we just heard about related to these chemicals in the equipment and the foams that they have been using?
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, overall, how can people protect themselves? And which are the corporations that make this?
ROB BILOTT: Most of these chemicals, this entire family of chemicals, which now includes about 3,000 chemicals that are part of what we call the per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances [inaudible] — the best-known. They’re the chemicals that have eight carbons or C8s. There are now a bunch of related chemicals that have been made that are C4, C6s, that were hoped to be safer, that are now showing up with the same toxicity concerns. A lot of those chemicals, that chemistry was originally invented by the 3M company. Dupont manufactured PFOA for many years. Then you have a variety of companies that use those materials to make other products.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. We will continue to follow these stories and cases. Rob Bilott, our guest, represented 70,000 citizens in lawsuits against DuPont. Successfully won compensation for his clients whose drinking water had been contaminated by toxic chemicals used to make Teflon. Bilott is a leading environmental lawyer and recipient of the 2017 Right Livelihood Award. He was the subject of a 2016 New York Times Magazine article headlined, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.”
When we come back, we will speak with one of the most famous whistleblowers in the world. Yes, Daniel Ellsberg. Stay with us.