Rob Bilott received a call from a farmer in Parkersburg, W.Va., more than 20 years ago who said his cows were dying at an alarming rate. A corporate attorney for a large law firm in Cincinnati, Bilott took on the case as a favor to a family friend, but as he continued to investigate, he realized the problem was much more serious than he’d anticipated.
Eventually connecting the death of the animals to the nearby chemical manufacturing plant, Bilott discovered the culprit: the company’s use of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. Specifically, it was the manufacturers tendency to dispose of the chemical into the Ohio River that was causing problems.
Years later, the newly released legal drama “Dark Waters,” follows Bilott’s struggle to hold the DuPont chemical company accountable for polluting the water supply.
In the past few decades, research on per- and poly-fluorinated compounds, or PFAS, which includes PFOA, has increased, and as Bilott continues to fight for legislative action to protect communities from these chemicals, a University of Notre Dame professor has been finding PFAS in more and more everyday products.
PFAS are a family of human-made chemicals often used to make products resistant to grease, oil and water. Not only are they highly toxic, but these “forever chemicals” take thousands of years to break down and can stay in the human body and the environment a very long time.Firefighter uniforms, flight attendant suits, police gear, cloth diapers, women’s menstrual underwear and microwave popcorn bags don’t appear to be related in any significant way. But Graham Peaslee, a professor of experimental nuclear physics, has proven they all have a dangerous commonality: PFAS.
“It’s probably the largest pollution problem the U.S. has ever faced,” Peaslee says, though DuPont and other chemical companies have denied contaminating waterways.
Peaslee has been researching PFAS for the past few years, discovering the presence of PFAS in fast-food wrappers in 2017. The next year, a firefighter’s wife from Worcester, Mass., reached out to Peaslee because she suspected a link between PFAS and her husband’s cancer diagnosis.
In September 2014, Paul Cotter was promoted to lieutenant on the Worcester Fire Department. Thirty days later his career as a firefighter was over when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Although his wife, Diane, understood the health risks from consistent exposure to products of combustion Paul frequently faced while fighting fires, as she did more research on the prevalence of cancer in firefighters, she began to believe something else was contributing to her husband’s health problems.
Pouring through documents online, spreading the word through social media and reaching out to firefighters and manufacturers across the country, Diane said she eventually began learning about a recall for a particular moisture barrier found in firefighter turnout gear which would lead her to PFAS.
Buying a brand-new, never-worn turnout suit, Diane needed someone to test the gear for the chemical to prove the theory.
“I pleaded with about 15 scientists, including Dr. Peaslee,” Diane said.
Peaslee accepted her request, and using a particle accelerator to create a beam of charged particles to direct at the sample, he tested the gear for fluorine in just 30 seconds.
Like Diane suspected, Peaslee found the gear to have startlingly high levels of PFAS contamination.
Deciding to study this issue further, Peaslee discovered PFAS could come off the suit simply by handling the gear, which would be dangerous for firefighters. Additionally, he ran tests to emulate what the environmental contamination textiles made with PFAS could do, and the results alarmed him.
From textiles seeping into the environment in landfills alone, Peaslee says, the effects are great.
“This chemical is getting into our drinking water, and people are drinking PFAS,” Peaslee says.
Since discovering the high presence of PFAS in firefighter turnout gear, Peaslee has served on panels to educate firefighters about the risks of PFAS exposure.
“You can reduce your exposure a lot just by being respectful of the gear and keeping it stored separately,” Peaslee says. “There’s ways to minimize risk, but ideally, there’s no need for this chemical to be used in the gear. There are alternatives that would impart water resistance, they’re just not as good, but that’s because nobody’s trying.”
In February, the EPA announced an action plan to address public health issues relating to PFAS, which includes establishing a maximum contaminant level and inititiating the process of getting PFOA and PFOS deemed hazardous substances.
Three chemical companies, including DuPont, appeared before lawmakers in September to deny contaminating water supplies around the country with PFAS.
As “Dark Waters” has drawn a national spotlight on the serious health risks associated with PFAS in the past few weeks since its release, advocates for awareness such as Bilott, the Cotters and the producers and actors in the film are still looking for stronger PFAS protections to pass in Congress.
In addition to holding discussions about PFAS in firefighter gear, Peaslee served as an ambassador for “Dark Waters,” in which he promoted the film at Notre Dame and lead a discussion about PFOA after an early screening of the movie at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
At this point, Peaslee sees his role in the network of people fighting against PFAS as a source for education and discoveries on the prevalence of PFAS in everyday products.
“I just happen to have a machine that can measure this stuff quickly,” he said, “so it’s my responsibility to test everything I can.”