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Protecting communities from forever chemicals: ‘Anybody can do this.’

Sometimes you hear something that stays with you all day.

During a Washington Post Live panel with filmmaker and actor Mark Ruffalo, and Rob Bilott, the attorney who is the real-life hero who Ruffalo plays in his new movie Dark Waters, Clean Cape Fear founder Emily Donovan caught my attention when she said, “I would like to point out that we have an actor, a lawyer, and a Sunday school teacher sitting here today. Anybody can do this. Anybody can do this. Anybody can learn about these chemicals.”

The chemicals being discussed were PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a class of 5,000 synthetic chemicals. They are also known as “forever chemicals” because of their tendency to persist in our bodies and in the environment for unknown lengths of time.

Catching up with Emily at the end of the day, we talked about how “regular people” have gotten involved in the PFAS fight in so many ways because the stakes are so high to protect communities from forever chemicals. As we’ve worked on PFAS chemicals, we have been fortunate to meet and work with activists whose involvement may have begun with water contamination in their local communities, but, having recognized the extent of the PFAS crisis, they’ve essentially taken it on as a second job.

Emily came to Washington to meet with North Carolina congressional offices at a time when we are fighting to keep strong PFAS provisions in the military spending bill currently in conference. She also attended the fourth hearing that the House Committee on Oversight has conducted on PFAS chemicals—where Mark Ruffalo’s credentials to even talk about PFAS health effects were challenged by Representative Bob Gibbs. But remember, anybody can do this. We all have these chemicals in our bodies now and we all have the right to speak up.

Ruffalo was inspired to produce and star in Dark Waters after reading a New York Times story about attorney Rob Bilott’s work on PFAS. The movie tells the real-life story of an unlikely hero and it’s a riveting corporate crime story. Bilott was a chemical industry lawyer who sued DuPont for polluting drinking water around its plant in West Virginia with chemicals called PFOA and PFOS, the most notorious members of the PFAS class of chemicals. These chemicals are used to make stainproof carpets, nonstick pans and firefighting foam. Bilott discovered that the chemical giant was dumping these chemicals into waterways, despite DuPont records showing that they knew they caused cancer and birth defects, and that lack of government regulation of these forever chemicals allowed it to happen. If I could make it required viewing for elected officials everywhere, I would happily do it.

Unfortunately, the contamination revealed in the story isn’t unique to West Virginia. Indeed, Parkersburg is just one of too many communities that are suffering the health effects of these forever chemicals. Tests have shown PFAS in drinking water across the country, with already more than 1,300 sites on a growing list.

Broken chemical laws allow not only continued use despite evidence of their harm, but they are still being dumped into the air, water and soil—adding to existing contamination.

Here’s a plot twist that even Hollywood might reject as unrealistic—Congress actually could be the hero in this story. That’s right – Congress is mulling taking action on PFAS as part of its annual defense spending bill. The House unanimously supported provisions that would ban certain uses of PFAS, halt discharges into waterways and add PFAS to the EPA’s Superfund list that makes it easier to make chemical makers pay to clean up their pollution.

These provisions have strong support from across the country yet they could be held up by a small group of Senators serving the best interest of polluters, instead of their constituents.

Please call your senators today at (202) 224-3121. Tell them to clean up PFAS pollution. Remember, anybody can do this!