Actor Mark Ruffalo was on Capitol Hill Tuesday, testifying in a House Oversight Committee meeting over how to handle a cancer-linked chemical that’s been leaching into the water supply.
However, much of the hearing left lawmakers squabbling over the appropriateness of having a celebrity in the hearing room.
The hearing was centered on a chemical abbreviated as PFAS. The substance is used in firefighting foam and has contaminated the water near at least 425 military sites, causing health problems for military members and their families.
But the chemical, which is widely used in a number of nonstick products, is hardly just a military problem – one study found that 99 percent of those tested had traces of PFAS in their blood.
It’s been deemed a “forever chemical” due to its persistence in both the body and the environment, and it’s been found in nearly every state in the country.
Ruffalo’s visit coincides both with the release of his film “Dark Waters,” which focuses on lawyer Rob Bilott’s fight against PFAS manufacturers, and a busy week on the Hill as lawmakers review a major PFAS package.
Ruffalo and many Democrats used their time to talk about PFAS manufacturers’ long held knowledge of the harms of their products.
PFAS manufacturers like 3M and DuPont “made billions upon billions of dollars producing chemicals they knew were building up in our blood and they knew they were toxic but failed to tell anyone,” Ruffalo said.
“In America, it falls to us, the ordinary people to prove that these chemicals are toxic before the chemical is regulated by our government,” he continued. “That is simply backwards.”
But Ruffalo’s presence sparked irritation from some Republican lawmakers that the witness panel wasn’t more heavily stocked with scientific experts.
“Knowing no depths to how far they’ll go to show off their hypocrisy or help their allies in Hollywood, the majority has called as their star witness an actor,” said Rep. Fred Keller (R-P.A.)
“That’s right, an actor. An actor with no medical, no scientific or research expertise except for a few scenes as Dr. Bruce Banner. An actor that has a record of anti-business activism,” he said, going on to describe the Ruffalo’s latest film as attacking “private sector job creators with loose facts and hyped up emotional rhetoric.”
Much of the rest of the hearing was spent discussing the merits of Ruffalo’s contributions.
“Let’s not be afraid of a movie; we should be afraid of the story that movie tells,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), thanking Ruffalo for also bringing attention to the Flint water crisis.
“So I know it’s fun, and maybe sport for some on the other side to want to attack anyone who’s in the business of telling these important stories. But I will tell you one thing, as a guy who represents a community that was poisoned and overlooked, I’ll take help from anyone who will step up and help tell this story to the American people,” he continued.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) argued that Republicans should be less concerned about the money spent to make a movie on PFAS than the millions that have been spent lobbying Congress as they eye legislation that would restrict the substance.
Ruffalo said that while he “took some licks” during the hearing, he said he prefers to use his fame to take on independent movies and put a spotlight on important issues rather than engage in more lucrative work.
“I feel like from this blessing that I’ve been given that I want to give people the voice that don’t have a voice,” he said. “And that’s really what I’m doing here today.”
The Oversight hearing comes as its unclear what Congress may do next to address PFAS.
The House and Senate are still deliberating over a final defense policy bill, which is expected later this week. In earlier discussions, leaders had debated nixing PFAS provisions from the bill entirely, arguing that it would be best to leave PFAS legislation to committees with jurisdiction over the topic.
In the House, lawmakers are still weighing a large PFAS package that combines 11 different bills.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed a desire Tuesday to find a solution to PFAS, though Republicans in general have expressed concerns about taking action that would too broadly restrict the more than 5,000 types of PFAS, some of which may be safer than earlier forms of the chemical.
There has also been pushback from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in the process of deciding whether to create a drinking water standard for PFAS, something the agency has argued should come from it and its scientists rather than Congress.