WASHINGTON — Health advocates fearful of a family of chemicals widely used by companies, including 3M, launched a public-awareness effort Tuesday to coincide with the Friday release of a movie slamming corporate coverups of their dangers.
The Fight Forever Chemicals campaign used the upcoming release of “Dark Waters,” a feature film about health risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), to urge people to pay attention to a largely ignored public health issue.
Actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo came to Capitol Hill, along with Rob Bilott, the lawyer Ruffalo plays in the movie, to describe the spread of PFAS. It can be found in the bloodstreams of a vast majority of Americans who are unaware of its potential risks.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists certain types of PFAS as possible contributors to cancer, liver problems, immune deficiencies, high cholesterol, reproductive issues and other health concerns.
PFAS “can’t be broken down normally,” said Ruffalo, a three-time Academy Award nominee for the movies “Spotlight,” “Foxcatcher,” and “The Kids Are All Right,” as well as roles in several recent Marvel films. “It’s everywhere.”
The public has been exposed for decades without regulation, the actor continued. “It’s time for a kind of revolution in our thinking and our policy.”
Bilott spent decades making a case against a DuPont/Chemours PFAS production facility in Parkersburg, W. Va. In February 2017, Bilott’s clients settled the West Virginia case for $671 million. A year later, PFAS produced by 3M in the East Metro area of the Twin Cities led to an $850 million settlement between 3M and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
3M admitted no guilt in the settlement and still denies that PFAS affects human health at current levels in the environment. But the company faces multiple unresolved state and local PFAS suits, as well as personal-injury and shareholder lawsuits, for not publicizing its data showing PFAS health risks.
In a statement, 3M said it has shared data about PFAS and supports “science-based regulation.”
Bilott, who worked with a Minnesota attorney on a personal-injury suit against 3M in Minnesota, said records discovered in his legal actions clearly show PFAS producers knew of potential health risks and did not inform the public.
“We’re talking about a class of chemicals that’s been out there for decades,” Bilott said “It’s still poisoning people. ... There are Parkersburgs all over this country. Why haven’t we known about this? There is a conspiracy of silence.”
To break the silence, Bilott said the Fight Forever Chemicals campaign will take its message to appearances in North Carolina, Colorado, Vermont and Michigan.
The ubiquitous nature of PFAS makes their control challenging. The chemicals allow products to become water, stain and heat resistant. They are used in nonstick cookware, firefighting foam and waterproofing. 3M’s iconic Scotchgard relied on PFAS.
The Star Tribune recently reported on firefighting training sites contaminated with PFAS.
In 2004, the chemicals’ presence in water supplies led the Minnesota Department of Health to warn 83 East Metro households not to drink water from contaminated wells.
Nationally, environmental specialists have estimated PFAS pollution cleanup costs at billions of dollars.