Dark Waters is a powerful environmental wake-up call

Bill Camp, left, as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo, right, as Robert Bilott in Dark Waters. (Mary Cybulski | Focus Features)

With so many chemical compounds in our environment known by their acronyms, how are we supposed to remember which ones are bad for us, and how to avoid ingesting them? Dark Waters director Todd Haynes and producer/star Mark Ruffalo want to make sure we all know about one of them: PFOA, which stands for perfluorooctanoic acid, also known in the chemical industry as C8. It’s just one member of a family of industrial compounds collectively called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). A colloquial term for these compounds is “forever chemicals,” because they simply do not degrade in the environment. They bioaccumulate in the liver, blood and kidneys. PFOA is present in the blood of 99 percent of all humans.

What does it do? The largest human epidemiological study ever conducted by the EPA – triggered by the events reenacted in this movie – found a clear link between PFOA and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Other studies link it to infertility and diabetes. In humans, PFOA is a known carcinogen, a liver toxicant, a developmental toxicant, an immune system toxicant, alters hormone levels and lipid metabolism. Animal studies show developmental toxicity from reduced birth size, physical developmental delays, endocrine disruption and neonatal mortality.

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And how does this highly toxic substance get into our bodies? The most famous cases involving PFOA, including the massive contamination in West Virginia that’s the subject of Dark Waters, have focused on Teflon pans. But that’s far from the most pervasive source. PFOA was developed in 1947 by the 3M company; DuPont started using it in 1951 to develop products, including Teflon, that make use of its surfactant, oil- and water-repellant qualities. In our homes, it’s most commonly found in textiles such as stain-resistant carpeting and upholstery. It used to be in Gore-Tex. It’s in food packaging, candy wrappers, pizza-box liners, microwave popcorn bags, dental floss. Firefighting foam is a major source around airports and military bases.

But in communities near where PFOA is produced, it’s in the water, the air, the dust. In Parkersburg, West Virginia, a DuPont plant used it for decades, discharged it into sewers and buried enormous quantities nearby. It leaked into the water table, and a farmer on an adjoining property, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), lost most of his cattle, their bodies riddled with tumors, their teeth blackened, their normally docile behavior turned aggressive. When his complaints to the company, government agencies and local media were stonewalled, Tennant sought out a lawyer who was the grandson of a neighbor.

That attorney, Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), was the newest partner at a Cincinnati law firm called Taft, Stettinius & Hollister whose business was defending chemical companies, not suing them. Bilott had a cordial working relationship with DuPont, one of the region’s largest employers, and DuPont attorney Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) was a longtime friend. But what Bilott saw at Tennant’s farm disturbed him (the movie uses actual footage of the deformities of the affected cows), and he began to dig for more information. He got more than he bargained for when a court injunction for DuPont to turn over data resulted in a delivery of more than 110,000 pages of documentation dating back decades. Bilott painstakingly reviewed it all, finding among other hair-raising things that the company had known about the adverse health effects of PFOA since the 1960s, and had failed to report alarmingly high incidences of illness and birth defects among plant workers, who joked grimly about having the “Teflon flu.”

Securing justice and compensation for the Tennant family, and later some 70,000 local residents whose water supplies were contaminated with PFOA, was a struggle that took nearly a decade, made Bilott something of a pariah at his own law firm, strained his marriage, his health and his income. If there’s a core message in Dark Waters – besides “The system is rigged,” a conclusion to which Bilott is long in coming – it’s that changing the world for the better is not a revolution that happens overnight. It takes extraordinary persistence and commitment.

The federal government has yet to set an official “safe” limit on its concentration in our bloodstreams, but that may change. Bilott’s latest class-action lawsuit, filed in 2018 on behalf of everyone in the US who has PFAS in their blood, seeks to force the eight named chemical companies to fund an independent science panel to study the health effects of the entire family of PFAS chemicals. The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.

A man known for his personal environmental activism – particularly on the subject of fracking here in New York State – Ruffalo the movie star disappears admirably into the role of a most unflashy, but doggedly tenacious, modern American hero. The tale told in Dark Waters is more alarming than uplifting, but it’s a movie that needs to be seen.