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Inaugural UC Environmental Summit Looks At Pollution Issues Raised In 'Dark Waters'

mark ruffalo
Blair Raughley
Invision for Focus Features, AP
Mark Ruffalo produced and starred in the 2019 film about local attorney Robert Bilott's case against the chemical manufacturing company DuPont.

Chemicals known as PFAS were, until a few years ago, commonly used in carpets, clothing, Teflon and water-resistant items — they also contaminated local water supplies in some places and can now be found in the blood of nearly all people, the EPA says. While some exposure to PFAS can leave people relatively unscathed, concentrated levels of it can cause serious health problems. That's why the University of Cincinnati is delving into the issue at its inaugural Environmental Justice and Advocacy Symposium this week.

Associate Professor Bob Hyland is among people on UC's Interdisciplinary Faculty Team for Development of Environmental Justice and Advocacy. He and others are hosting the free online symposium that's open to the public and taking place from 3-5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5.

"They're estimating that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their body already," he says. "They're finding PFAS in polar bears. I mean, it's everywhere around the Earth. It was used in Teflon. So you know, millions, if not, maybe even billions of people or more cooking on it." 

The EPA says companies stopped using some PFAS chemicals in the United States just before the 2010s, but they aren't going to disappear. They're known as "forever chemicals" because they doesn't degrade. They have also been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease in humans, ProPublica reports.

"If there's an activist or a scholar, or just any stakeholder in the community who's interested in making Cincinnati — or the world for that matter — a fair, cleaner, more just place to live, then I think the case study that we're going to be looking at at the symposium is a doorway into that," he says.

The symposium is happening online and includes panelists and breakout sessions.

Among the panelists speaking at the event is attorney Robert Bilott, who was famously played by Mark Ruffalo in the 2019 movie Dark Waters. Bilott, a Cincinnati attorney, spent almost two decades working to win a class-action lawsuit against DuPont for PFAS pollution near Parkersburg, West Virginia. 

"This is an individual who truly risked his career and many other things," Hyland says. "So I'm not really sure there's a better word than 'hero.' It's amazing what he did. It's a perfect example of writing an injustice as it relates to an environmental crime." 

About 200 people are signed up for the event from as far away as Africa and Mexico, Hyland says.  People can sign up for the free symposium until midnight Feb 4. Registration includes a free screening of the movie Dark Waters.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.