Whistleblower for Scientific Integrity

Ellie Goldberg
13 min readMar 14, 2024

2024 Hero Kyla Bennett, Scientist/Lawyer and Fierce Truth Teller

Every year, to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, I recognize an inspirational individual or group who demonstrates an extraordinary sense of responsibility for the safety of children and their communities.

The Hero series is an annual opportunity to use the lessons of the 1937 tragedy as a cautionary tale and to show leadership for prioritizing precautionary action as a standard for governance and public policies.

Kyla Bennett, PhD, JD, is the 2024 Hero. She is Director of Science Policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) whose mission is “Fighting for Scientific Integrity and to Protect Scientists.”

Kyla has felt a lifelong sense of responsibility to protect animals and the ecosystem necessary for their health and wellbeing. Her Ph.D. was in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation was on the Behavior of Wild Horses on Assateague Island. She spent five summers and some of those winters living in a tent among the wild horses.

From Scientist to Activist

“About 3 years into my research, the National Park Service decided that there were too many human animal conflicts. They were going to cull the herd randomly by shaking a bag of chocolate chip cookies and seeing which horses came over. I knew from my research that that would destroy the entire population because herds are very territorial. And if you start taking away certain individuals they’re going to fall apart.”

“So I tried to fight it but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was a scientist and suddenly I was thrust into fighting a government action. I called the press. I started making a fuss. We convinced them to not cull the herd. Instead, they hired a biologist to use birth control to keep the population stable.”

From Activist to Whistleblower

Now, for 23 years Kyla has been a professional whistleblower dedicated to using science and the law on behalf of communities impacted by threats to public health and the safety and quality of the environment.

Kyla has been exceptionally generous with her time and expertise. She frequently speaks to legislators, the media, organizations, coalitions, and groups of concerned citizens, especially those trying to stop the proliferation of artificial turf fields. [See selected links to a few of Kyla’s recent presentations below.]

High School artificial turf replacement project, Newton MA

“One of the reasons I love PEER is because I can speak the truth. Both of PEER’s executive directors, Jeff Ruch and Tim Whitehouse, support that. Hard hitting reporters always say to me, ‘Kyla, we love you because you say the quiet part out loud.’ The reason I don’t get sued for saying things such as “all turf has PFAS” is because all turf has PFAS. I’m happy to fight it out in court because I know I’m right.”

When Science Isn’t Enough

Kyla says, “Having a Ph.D. in science and a law degree enables you to talk law to the scientists and talk science to the lawyers. Today, it is a necessary combination because it is the only way you can fight the bad guys and the environmental problems they cause. It all comes down to money. Science isn’t enough. The backlash has become worse for science and scientists whether it’s about climate change, biodiversity, vaccines, or PFAS contamination. Part of the problem is that science has become politicized.”

“One of PEER’s strengths is that we do not take government money. We do not take corporate money. We get our money from lawsuits, from foundations that care about the environment, from grants and from donations from supporters.”

Becoming a Whistleblower

Kyla Bennett worked at the US EPA from 1990 to 1999 reviewing wetlands permits for the state of Maine and doing wetlands enforcement for all six New England states. “Wetlands are near and dear to my heart because that’s what I worked on for 10 years at EPA. And I love vernal pools. I’m happiest when I’m in my waders in a wetland.”

In 1992, the State of Maine wanted to build a port on Sears Island, a nine-hundred-acre undeveloped island off the coast in Penobscot Bay. After reviewing the case, Kyla told the EPA regional administrator that the port would violate regulations under the Clean Water Act. The administrator told her to change her scientific determinations of the permit, or he would take her off the case. She refused and he did.

That’s when PEER filed a whistleblower complaint on her behalf. As soon as EPA received that complaint they capitulated, and they put her back on the case. The permit was never issued.

“It was an unbelievable feeling to be able to save these places. I didn’t want money. I just wanted to be put back on the case, and I wanted them not to interfere. So, I stayed at EPA for another 5 years and then I finally had too much. I was spending more time fighting with my supervisors inside EPA than fighting the bad guys. And it just wasn’t worth it to me anymore.”

“After EPA, I worked at the International Fund for Animal Welfare for two years. I was doing what I truly wanted to do, which is saving animals and habitats around the world. Eventually I realized I could be more effective working for PEER and helping the public employees who helped the environment. I have been at PEER since 2001. ”

“However, you have to keep fighting — nothing is forever,” adds Kyla, referring to a George Schaller quote she used to have pinned up over her desk. If you want to save a species or a habitat, it’s a fight forevermore. You can never turn your back. “Thirty years later they are still trying to build a port on Sears Island, so I am working on that case again.”

PFAS — The Forever Threat

“I have been working on PFAS since 2018. Now it’s 80 to 90% of my job.” She first became aware of PFAS when she got a call from an US EPA Region One employee who said, “There’s a really bad PFAS problem in Ayer, Massachusetts, at Fort Devens, and the EPA is sweeping it under the rug.”

Kyla provided Boston Globe reporter David Abel with information for an article that exposed the problem. Toxic chemicals threaten water supply in seven municipalities, David Abel, Boston Globe, March 6, 2019.

Following the article’s publication, the Department of Defense paid for a water filtration system for Ayer. And then, because her name was on the front page of the Boston Globe, the calls started coming — from California and Florida and New York, and everywhere. If somebody Googles “PFAS” or “artificial turf” Kyla’s name comes up. Now, she has a case in Texas for EPA’s failure to regulate PFAS in biosolids. See: Remove Forever Chemicals from Biosolid Fertilizers

Easton’s Ethical Public Leadership

Kyla’s PFAS story includes working with her hometown of Easton, MA where she and her husband had moved in 1990, partially because they had heard it had really good water.

“In 2019, thinking Easton’s water was clean, I decided to test Easton’s water to compare to Sudbury’s that was right below the Stow firefighter training facility that used a lot of firefighting foam, a known source of PFAS contamination. But ours was worse.”

“When I showed the test results to Easton town officials, they were surprised too. Town officials took it very seriously. I could not be prouder of how honestly they handled that situation. The Town Administrator, the DPW and the Select Board were absolutely phenomenal.”

Town officials immediately put together a team. They invited the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to attend a Select Board meeting to explain what DEP was doing to help towns respond to the detected PFAS levels and to understand the maximum level (MCL) allowed in the public water supply.

“At the time, EPA was developing drinking water limits for several PFAS, but they did not come out with their proposed limits until March of 2023; this proposal regulates PFOA and PFOS as individual contaminants to 4 parts per trillion (ppt) each, and 1 ppt for PFHxS, PFNA, PFBS, and HFPO-DA as a PFAS mixture. But Mass DEP issued their own drinking water standard in October of 2020, prohibiting more than 20 ppt for six specific PFAS.”

Town officials communicated the problem to residents and provided regular updates via mail and through a dedicated website page. They gave rebates to residents for purchasing NSF certified water filters and those rebates could be used toward their water bill. They also set up a PFAS free self-service water filling station at the DPW.

Easton was one of the first towns to receive a state earmark for funding the siting and the placement of a filtration plant. Like most communities, Easton didn’t have the funds to build the treatment facility but the town meeting voted to borrow the $10 million.

In August 2021, Easton filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Town of Easton against the chemical companies, including The 3M Company, Chemours, Dupont and Tyco among others, who knew that their products with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) caused serious harm yet kept it secret. It is one of thousands of lawsuits that have been filed nationwide by municipalities, residents and firefighters, including over one hundred cases filed by government entities.

“This litigation is about recovering the costs associated with remedial actions to remove the PFAS chemicals, so they won’t be passed on to the ratepayers. It is about holding those responsible for the contamination accountable for their actions.” (“Lawsuit Against Chemical Manufacturers Alleging Products Caused PFAS Groundwater Well Contamination.”)

Kyla especially credits Dottie Fulginiti, the Chair of the Easton Select Board, for her responsible leadership and ethical action.

Dottie attributes Easton’s immediate and comprehensive response to having the benefit of Kyla in the community. “Because of Kyla, Easton had the luxury of early awareness and advanced understanding. Select Board members are all volunteers and we all live in the community. It was the right thing to do. It was an opportunity to address the water problem and also to educate people about sources of PFAS beyond water.”

Opening Pandora’s Box

As the town was addressing its PFAS issue, Kyla started thinking, “Why does Easton have contaminated water? Where’s this coming from?”

“The DEP was starting to put out information about PFAS in this town and that town. I saw a cluster of towns in southeastern Massachusetts. I was curious if it could be Anvil, the pesticide that the state used for extensive aerial spraying for Eastern Equine Encephalitis.”

PFAS and Anvil

“In February, 2019, I asked the DEP if it was possible that there was PFAS in Anvil. Both the DEP and then the EPA resisted the idea.

PEER did the testing and sure enough, there is PFAS in Anvil. The first thing we did was to call Rob Bilott, the lawyer who sued DuPont on behalf of PFAS injured plaintiffs in rural communities in West Virginia. We had a long conversation about taking on the pesticide industry.

PEER ran the test 5 times to be sure. Then we took the test results to the DEP. To their credit Kathy Baskin and Mark Smith believed me and they tested and found more PFAS than I did. Then they took it to the EPA who discovered that it was the plastic containers that were leaching the PFAS into the Anvil.

EPA launched a recall of Anvil in the fluorinated containers. Eventually the EPA told Massachusetts and 25 other states to stop using the existing stock of pesticides that came in the PFAS contaminated containers. Unfortunately, EPA does not have regulatory authority for other fluorinated containers used for personal care products and food.

PFAS and Brain Cancer

“And then, when I was working with the reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer on a story about brain cancer in the Philadelphia Phillies who played on artificial turf, I found two new studies about PFAS crossing the blood brain barrier and the finding of massive amounts of PFAS in the tumors of people who are dying from brain tumors. Field of Dread, Six former Phillies died from the same brain cancer, March 7, 2023.

Like the firefighters’ exposure to flame retardants, PFAS is also increasingly linked to cancer. PFAS is a smaller (lower dose) exposure, but has a larger harmful effect. And the industry playbook exploits the concept of the “small dose“ and the fact that the science is just catching up to the truth of its extremely toxic impact that the industry hid from the public and the government for decades. They exploit the limits of the testing and the slowness of the government’s ability to act.

But scientists know better. As Carl Sagan said, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

When Kyla posted a comment on Twitter, she got an email from a scientist in the EU who said, “You’re right. We think there is an association between PFAS and brain tumors.” He sent me the research. I thought, “I was right. That’s what almost killed me.”

“That’s when Bloomberg produced the video Why ‘Forever Chemicals’ Are Still Spreading about my curiosity about Anvil and PFAS, my personal story about my brain tumor, and the industry’s resistance to the evidence. Bloomberg Originals and Bloomberg News have continued to publish news about the science of PFAS and related litigation.”

“And I still wonder, will I ever know for sure if PFAS caused my brain tumor? No, but that’s what I believe in my heart.”

PFAS and Artificial Turf

Kyla collaborates with scientists such as Dr. Graham Peaslee, a nuclear physicist who developed a method of detecting PFAS, and national advocates such as Kristen Mello. Kristen is an analytical chemist, a founding member of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition and leader of Westfield (MA) Residents Advocating For Themselves (WRAFT). WRAFT is a community group formed in response to the PFAS contamination of their drinking water and one of the many towns working to stop the new installation and replacements of artificial turf.

In 2020, another scientist/activist, Jeff Gearhart, from the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, and Kyla were on a late night international phone call about PFAS. She heard somebody from Europe say “…we’re seeing a lot of fluorine in artificial turf.” And so the next day she called Jeff, and he said, “Let’s test it.”

Since then, Kyla’s public role has continuously grown as she is called on to be the expert spokesperson about the sources of PFAS, its health hazards and environmental damage.

BETTER ACTION NOW CAMPAIGN, NEWTON, MA | Sign credit: Eileen E. Ryan Beyond Plastics Greater Boston

She is quoted in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer series by reporter Barbara Laker and her colleagues about artificial turf causing serious illnesses and injuries in young players and professional athletes and how the industry has deceived communities with false claims and empty promises.

‘Forever Fields’: How Pennsylvania became a dumping ground for discarded artificial turf. Dec. 13, 2023

Philly officials said a new turf field was free of PFAS Not true, experts say. Feb. 23, 2024.

Why parents and coaches of cancer-stricken athletes are worried about artificial turf. Feb. 20, 2024

Eight takeaways from The Inquirer’s yearlong investigation into ‘forever chemicals’, March 12, 2024

Kyla has joined local and national panels of scientist/activists, citizen activists, lawyers, legislators and community representatives calling for regulatory certainty and science-based standards for testing, meaningful precautionary action and effective remedial measures.

Her advice includes using laws effectively. For example, Kyla says, “the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act is very strong. But it’s implemented incorrectly. Any artificial turf project that’s near a wetland is going to cause an alteration of that wetland. There’s going to be water and soil contamination from PFAS, microplastics and infill. There’s going to be thermal changes from the hot water that flows off of those steaming hot fields. But the DEP is not supporting the town conservation commissions when they try to do the right thing, and they’re not hammering them when they do the wrong thing. There is a lot of potential liability for towns now that people understand the dangers of PFAS.”

“I applaud the lifelong work of Kyla Bennett. It’s time to listen to scientists like Kyla and eliminate the use of toxic chemicals. The U.S. petrochemical industry is woefully unregulated and the proliferation of chemicals used in plastics and agriculture is killing us. It’s time to stand up for human and ecological health, to protect our air, water, and soil and to put an end to the use of toxic chemicals, including the large family of PFAS chemicals, and to hold the petrochemical industry accountable for the destruction they have created.” — Eileen Ryan, Beyond Plastics Greater Boston

Links to Kyla’s articles page on PEER.org

Links to a few of Kyla’s recent presentations:

The Myths of Artificial Turf, (18 min), ConcordCAN, February 2024

The Hazards of Artificial Turf Learn the Latest from Leading Experts, (60+ min), Norwalk River Watershed Assoc. and other concerned citizens, 2023

The Science of Artificial Turf: Dr. Kyla Bennett, (60+ MIN) Massachusetts Progressive Forum, Arlington, MA, 2023.

Testimony, Kyla Bennett, (3 min), at City Council Program and Services Committee Meeting, Newton, February 2023



Ellie Goldberg

Advocate for healthy children, safe schools and sustainable communities. www.healthy-kids.info