Hidden Poisons: A Report on the Environmental Justice Advocacy Symposium

Digital illustration by Jordan Polk

Report with commentary by Jordan Polk, Democracy & Me intern

Digital illustration by Jordan Polk

Unless we are talking about Britney Spears’s smash hit from 2003, when we say “toxic,” we clearly mean “stay away.” Most of us know we should avoid contact with obvious hazards such insecticides, paint thinners, or rat poison; but, unfortunately, not all toxic threats are labeled with flashy triangular warning signs or skulls-and-crossbones, and not all are subject to government regulations, either. There might be worrisome chemicals swimming around in your drinking water or hiding out in the packaging of your favorite snack. You can’t taste the toxicity, nor can you feel what it’s doing to your body, at least not in the moment. No, it sneaks up on you, after building up in your system over time… sort of like when Britney Spears made a surprise visit on The Ellen Show in October 2018, but with a lot more health complications and a lot less Ellen.

To shed light on this issue, the University of Cincinnati hosted the first Environmental Justice Advocacy Symposium (EJAS 2021) on Friday, Feb. 5, with a focus on dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, often abbreviated as PFAS. The event brought the public together with expert panelists from various disciplines:

Rob Bilott, a renowned environmental lawyer known for his suits against DuPont, which spanned more than 20 years. Bilott also served as the inspiration for the feature film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott himself. (The film can be viewed on Showtime or purchased on Amazon streaming.)

Dr. Susan Pinney, a professor within the Department of Environmental Health in the College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati; Deputy Director of the Center for Environmental Genetics; and the Cancer Risk, Control, and Prevention Program Leader for the Cincinnati Cancer Center.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, an accomplished American toxicologist and microbiologist, and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, as well as the National Toxicology Program.

Kacee Deener, acting Deputy Director of the Office of Science Policy within EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Marilyn Wall, an activist with the influential environmental organization, Sierra Club.

Emily Donovan, a co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, activist and educator within the field of toxins such as PFAS.

One of UC’s own, associate professor Bob Hyland, served as the moderator for EJAS 2021, guiding the larger conversation.

Something in the water (and in our frying pans)

During EJAS 2021, panelists defined PFAS as man-made chemicals used in the production of Teflon and many other products that are either non-stick or resistant to heat, oil, or water. Handy as these qualities might be in, say, a pancake griddle or rain hat, studies show that PFAS exposure can lead to cancer, liver damage, and infertility, along with increasing the exposed person’s risk for asthma and thyroid disease. Despite the horrific health threats that PFAS present, these chemicals can still be found virtually everywhere, including our drinking water, mainly because of waste-dumping by manufacturers.

“We are focused on water because that is where [PFAS] has been found so far, and that is where we are sampling,” Rob Bilott said—but sadly, Dr. Linda Birnbaum and others said, PFAS are turning up in many other places, such as food and food packaging.

In addition to contaminated municipal water, PFAS can be found in nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, food wrappers and containers, stain-resistant coatings, water-resistant clothing, cleaning products, dental floss, nail polish, eye makeup, paint, pizza boxes, shampoos, and more. It’s impossible to completely avoid PFAS, the experts said, or to keep these poisons out of our bodies. “It’s in soil, it comes down from the air,” Bilott said. “Everyone has shares in this problem,” and “it is not a localized issue.”

PFAS have been found in 99 percent of humans who have been tested. Even worse, PFAS are branded as “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment or leave our own bodies, once they find their way in. Yet, despite their omnipresence and the disturbing danger that PFAS present, there is a lack of regulation and proper warning to the public when it comes to PFAS and many other chemicals.

Emily Donovan mentioned that many companies and regulators encourage people to continue drinking municipal water, because there is, currently, a lack of data suggesting the presence and effect of the water’s contaminants. However, she stressed, “a lack of information does not equal safe.” A shortage of information and an excess of misinformation surrounding PFAS and other chemicals became a big talking point at the symposium. When it came to the dangers of PFAS exposure, Bilott said, “we assumed that we would be told, and we weren’t.” Dr. Linda Birnbaum paralleled Bilott’s point: “You would think toxic drugs have to be tested before being put out on the market, and the truth is, they don’t,” at least within the United States. “In Europe,” Birnbaum added, “there is required testing before chemicals can be put on the market.”

“Everything that you are being told by companies and regulators in not always true,” Marilyn Wall said plainly. “The system is broken.”

The poison of environmental racism

Although these devastating environmental issues affect all people to varying degrees, there is a disproportionately high impact on people of color, as well as in low-income neighborhoods. During EJAS 2021, Dr. Birnbaum pointed to environmental racism when discussing Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, along with the perilous fumes created by constant truck traffic near Long Beach, California. “These things don’t happen in my neighborhood,” Dr. Birnbaum said, acknowledging her own socioeconomic privilege. The same systematic injustices can be seen across the country. In addition to the inequal impact on low-income neighborhoods, individual people of color are statistically at higher risk for coming in contact with dangerous chemicals, shortening POC life spans and devastating families.

So how can we fight back? Consumer pressure on manufacturers is one way—examining our own throwaway culture and choosing safety over convenience when we purchase items. Next, panelists said, we need to change the way environmental issues are presented and discussed. One of the cohosts of an EJAS 2021 breakout room, a UC professor named Leah Stewart, demanded “pushing back against a dominant narrative” and changing what we depict as “progress”: instead of how much can we build, how much money can we make, and how can we expand our footprint, Stewart said, we can choose to value safety, sustainability, and equity.

We need to “put things in the terms of children,” Dr. Birnbaum said, because everyone cares about their children and, currently, “they are not as healthy as we would like them to be.” We need to foster scientific and political literacy in our youth, and we need to keep inventing and growing technologically: “I remain hopeful that we will be able to come up with innovative ways to approach this problem,” Bilott said.  

Learn, talk, and speak out

No matter who you are, the panelists insisted, you can aid in the fight for environmental justice. “We need scientists, we need lawyers, we need engineers,” Deneer said, as well as regular people willing to educate themselves, to talk about these issues with neighbors and loved ones, and to apply pressure to governments and corporations to do a better job protecting us.

“We shouldn’t be waiting 20 years for people to get cancer” from these dangerous chemicals, Bilott said; thorough studies should be conducted right now. And PFAS aren’t the only chemicals we have to worry about, either. We need big, umbrella protections from the thousands of pollutants that we know about, and the many more we might not, rather than waiting to test each one, several of the experts said.

Finally, we can’t give up hope. Of course, toxic chemicals are ubiquitous, and their deadly effects can be seen in communities near and far, which is extremely discouraging. But progress has been made, thanks to many of the symposium’s panelists and other environmental justice activists around the world. “What I have seen in the last four years has been pretty impressive,” Donovan said. It’s up to the rest of us to keep that momentum going, and save lives.

The use of dangerous chemicals in everyday things has gone too far. In the immortal words of Britney Spears, “Don’t you know that you are toxic?” It’s time to break our addictions to PFAS and other poisons, to corporate greed, and especially to the environmental racism that makes this bad stuff so much worse, for so many.