'DARK WATERS' is the new film from director Todd Haynes and Focus Features, that retells the real-life backstory of an ongoing legal drama featuring protagonist corporate-lawyer-turned-good-guy Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo, with Anne Hathaway co-staring as wife Sarah) facing down the DuPont chemical company in representation of workers in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who claim to have been sickened by the company’s compound perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
Big Chem giant Dupont is among the most powerful and profitable companies of the 20th century, and they’ve been able to get their patented synthetic compounds into nearly every industry imaginable – cleaners, plastics, pesticides, industrial manufacturing, paints, sealants – the list goes on. But through the veil of capitalistic dominance there is a much darker story, one of empire and cutthroat conquest, this time not of man but nature.
This quiet proliferation of Big Chem and PFOA into global ecosystems now bears witness to the reality that America’s most vital resources like clean air, water and soil are under intensifying pressure due to the buildup of toxic synthetic compounds and the current White House’s weakening of Environment Protection Agency (EPA) regulations designed to protect those resources of life. Because these integral systems are under threat, the physical and psychological well-being of everyone on Earth is too.
The story of ‘Dark Waters’ begins when, in the 1980s, DuPont purchased land to use as a ‘non-hazardous’ dumping site in Parkersburg, WV. This land connected with a local waterway that feeds into the Ohio River, and when that waterway began to sicken hundreds of cows belonging to a nearby rancher, the legal battle commenced with Rob Bilott leading prosecution against the chemical titan.
Steadily, the suit eventually grew to include 80,000 residents in the Ohio River area and initiated a study of toxic chemical exposure, coming to reveal its official link to six diseases, from ulcerative colitis to kidney and testicular cancer.
PFOA and PFOS (i.e., Scotchgard water-repellent) are part of a larger category of over 4,000 synthetic compounds called PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that have been in production since the 1940s. These compounds do not breakdown, hence the infamous moniker ‘forever chemicals’ – as they are incredibly durable compounds that accumulate over time in humans, animals and the living environment. They travel through air and water systems, recently found in Arctic ice, in the middle of the ocean, as well as in the blood of almost every American.
Because the federal government does not regulate PFAS – some states do – it is up to you to avoid exposure, which is most likely to come from contaminated drinking water, food packaging and plastic containers. Avoid Teflon and similar non-stick cookware, harsh cleaning products and polishes, synthetic clothing and furniture (especially those containing Gore-Tex or Scotchgard) and drinking/eating from plastic materials whenever possible.
Keep a wary eye, because many of these large conglomerates can easily move a carbon molecule as a legal workaround for replacement chemicals or create a different company holding to absorb liability risks, so buyers beware of shady rebranding and shiny new simple solutions.
As audiences follow the story from West Virginia to their own backyards, they’re faced with the very real and legitimate terror that our local ecosystems are gradually becoming more toxic and less livable. Also concerning is the reality that of 80,000 or so chemicals in commercial production today, only 20% have been tested in regards to their health effects on animals. Under such a system, we are the lab rats.
When seeking solutions here, it is worth addressing the complacent and corporate-sponsored political leadership that has allowed this tragic problem to proliferate into a public health crisis. As for us, the consumers, we often choose slick performance marketing and convenience values over health and environmental concerns, which only feeds into the toxic cycle of synthetic material production. For every living thing now and in the future, the chemical conversation deserves our collective attention.
Mark Ruffalo sums up the deeper sentiment in the story as heard in a recent NPR interview: “I mean what – you know, where did we come to in America where we have a choice between having a job and being healthy, whether you’re talking about the fossil fuel industry or you’re talking about farming and the pesticides that we’re using? People are choosing, hey, listen. Yeah, I might get cancer from this, but at least I have a job. And, like, that is such a sad state of affairs for American workers.”
The headline for movie promo assures us “The Truth Has A Man On The Inside.” Let's hope there is more than one Rob Bilott. Watch for legal action to pile up against Big Chem in the wake of this powerful true story of environmental justice.
RESOURCES & READINGS
+ Looking to shop smarter and avoid contact with PFAS? Check this list of brands & products that are PFAS-free.
+ Visit Safer States to learn more and join the movement for a cleaner, healthier environment for all living things.
+ Information on Teflon’s latest replacements PFBS & GenX