Rob Bilott

Actor Mark Ruffalo, left, who played Rob Bilott, right, in the 2019 film, "Dark Waters," pose for a portrait at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on Nov. 4, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. 

Robert Bilott was the featured speaker at the Feb. 4 virtual Voyages of Discovery lecture, where he spoke about the dangers of the chemical known as PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) , corporate responsibility, sustainability and his 22-year-long legal struggle against the company DuPont.

The lecture was commenced by professor of chemistry and Dean Allison Danell of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, and she introduced the host Stephen Moysey, director of the ECU Water Resources Center. Moysey briefly spoke about the topic, and the speaker, Bilott.

“Tonight we will set sail on perilous waters, and I ask that you allow the story you are about to hear transform you, to give you power to protect our environment, to give you voice to speak out against environmental injustice,” Moysey said during the commencement.

Bilott narrated the near 22-year legal struggle against the company DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and spoke about the dangerous chemical family PFAS (Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) and PFOA and it’s prolific contamination. Dubbed “the forever chemical,” due to its non-biodegradable and persistent nature, Bilott said PFOA is now found in the blood of nearly every living being on the planet.

The story began in 1998, Billot said, when he was approached by Wilbur Tennant, a West Virginia farmer with concerns about white foam leaking from a nearby DuPont owned landfill. Tennant’s cows became sick from drinking water contaminated by the foam.

“What I began to piece together was we were dealing with something here that involved a chemical that was completely unregulated. Yet it was something that was nevertheless still toxic, and dangerous, and posed an incredible threat to the environment and to people who were exposed,” Bilott said.

Bilott discovered that by the 1980s, 3M, the manufacturer of PFOA, and DuPont had learned that PFOA was found in the blood of people across the country, and that it caused testicular cancer in rats. The companies began to sample public water supplies near their plants in 1984. Bilott said no regulatory agency was notified, and the company continued the chemical’s use, and began to draft press releases in case word got out.

Bilott said in attempts to rectify the contaminated drinking water, DuPont unearthed 7,000 tons of sludge deposited near public drinking wells. He said the sludge was deposited in unlined, unregulated landfills near Tennant’s farm, where it was later discovered in the creek near his land.

“After putting this story together, sitting there on the floor, looking at these documents, and seeing what was going on, we were able to settle the case for Mr. (Wilbur) Tennant in 2001. But at that point, Mr. Tennant was concerned, we were concerned, I was very concerned. Looking at this, realizing this goes beyond one farm, one family in West Virginia, this stuff is in public drinking water of tens of thousands of people. (it) has likely been there for a long time,” Bilott said.

Dr. Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of the department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Brody School of Medicine, who attended the lecture, said she studies the effects of emerging environmental contaminants. She said in an interview that her work focuses on the PFAS (Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) family of chemicals, of which includes the PFOA mentioned in Bilott’s lecture. She was a member of the audience at Bilott’s lecture.

DeWitt said her work focuses on immunization responses to vaccines after PFAS exposure. She said experimental models and studies have shown immune systems may be suppressed after exposure to PFAS chemicals. Health concerns found by the C-8 Study, a study which was founded by Bilott’s class action lawsuit against DuPont in 2005, included kidney and testicular cancer, preeclampsia, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and ulcerative colitis, DeWitt said.

“We now know that the immune system can be suppressed, liver disease and damage can occur, and that there are also concerns about developmental and reproductive effects. So we call PFAS multi-system toxicants, they can affect multiple systems,” DeWitt said.

Moysey, who moderated the event, said the ECU Water Resources Center focuses on opportunities for students and faculty members to research, engage in activism and outreach around and about water.

Moysey said the lecture is important, especially since PFAS is an issue in North Carolina. Bilott said in the lecture DuPont moved manufacturing of PFOA to Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2002, where it contaminated the river as far as Wilmington, North Carolina.

“There’s, I think, a lot to learn from that story. I think it’s one that is still going on and we’re still learning from it. I think one of the most important things that anyone could take away from that story is how important it is to advocate, for yourself and for your community,” Moysey said. “I think that’s an important thing to take away from it.”

A sustainable and healthy environment is every individual’s collective responsibility, Moysey said. He said it was Tennant, the farmer who first came to Billot, whose action and persistence was integral to the discovery of DuPont’s illegal waste disposal.

Engagement and diligence with one’s environment will lead to a safer and healthier environment for all, Moysey said. People should point out and bring up environmental concerns, advocate and ask why, he said.

“(Bilott’s story) is a really good one to show how important it is for people to get engaged with their environment and understand about the conditions around them, the importance of corporate responsibility, you know to us the society and um, really kind of having people think about how they, everyone one of us works as a citizen to contribute to a healthy environment for each other,” Moysey said.

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