Harmful substances are lurking in paper cups, pizza boxes, and other food packaging. The industrial chemicals PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are present in paper, cosmetics, textiles, carpets, and even foam from fire-extinguishers. Via air, waste, and sewage, these substances seep into the groundwater, where they are absorbed by plants and animals through drinking water. Some of these substances are strongly suspected of being harmful to the human liver as well as of being carcinogenic.
U.S. lawyer Rob Bilott has been dealing with documentary evidence of such environmental poisoning for more than twenty years. He uncovered one of the biggest environmental scandals of all time. The case was initiated by a farmer from West Virginia who traced the sudden death of his herd of 200 cows to an adjacent landfill operated by the chemical corporation DuPont. The photos, videos, and preserved body parts of the herd that perished resembled a horror movie. The animals had blackened teeth; red, deep-set eyes; mal- formed hooves; and unusually discolored internal organs. This shocking evidence compelled this environmental litigation attorney who had been defending large corporations to switch sides. He took on the farmer’s case, which American film director Todd Haynes has brought to the screen with Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway.
Dark Waters tells the story of this courageous attorney who initiated a David-versus-Goliath struggle by filing a federal law suit against DuPont for its multi-billion dollar Teflon non-stick dry-film lubricant. For months, Rob Bilott poured over dozens of boxes of unorganized documents. The dedicated attorney trawled through 110,000 pages of internal corporate correspondence, medical and health reports,and confidential studies drawing on fifty years of the company’s history.
His research revealed that DuPont even had proof of the danger arising from exposure to perfluorooctanoic (PFOA). Despite this chemical’s deadly impact, 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge was dumped into a landfill which seeped into the groundwater. A study revealed that nearly 70,000 residents living near the landfill have been drinking contaminated tap water for decades. Many of them got cancer and died — like the farmer who first came to Rob Bilott.
Dark Waters was shot in the original locations in West Virginia where these historic events took place. Haynes integrated Rob Bilott and other plaintiffs in the law suit as consultants and he even gave some of them cameo appearances in the film. „The movie has burning resonance for what’s happening right now in our political landscape, in our environmental landscape, in our regulatory landscape,” says director Todd Haynes. “We’ve been watching the environmental mandates for water, air, endangered species, and of course climate change be systematically unraveled, and so everything is at stake right now.”
The production company Participant launched a campaign to educate the public about the danger of forever chemicals, so called because they take so long to degrade. PFAS, the genus for about 4,700 different substance groups, is also a relevant topic in Europe. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reduced by 1,700 times permissible levels of perfluorooctanoic, which is used for non-stick coatings on frying pans as well as for weather-resistant coatings on outdoor fabrics. The production, use, and import of PFOA will be limited within the EU starting on July 4, 2020. The Federal Environment Agency warns that other per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFC) could be equally harmful.
Dark Waters star Mark Ruffalo visited the European Parliament in February and pointed out that PFOA is highly poisonous. Meanwhile the chemical agencies in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are working on a proposal of a PFOA ban for the use of all substances which are not "indeispensable in society as whole". The Euopean Food Safety Authority will determine a "Tolerable Weekly Intake" (TWI) for four PFOA compounds which can be consumed in food on a weekly basis without dietary risks. The EFSA statement will also be the basis for the negotiations on the maximum allowable biological concentation of PFOA in food on EU level.
Photos: © Tobis Film GmbH, Daina Le Lardic/European Parliament