When it comes to so-called “whistleblower” movies, there is always a risk that the story will fall flat, resting on the assumption that public knowledge alone will satisfy any and all calls for justice.
This strategy makes for gratifying film: A wrong is discovered, a relentless hero exposes the truth, the wheels of justice turn, and the wrongdoers are punished. The audience leaves knowing justice was done, and there is little need to question the system that enabled the wrongdoing in the first place.
Thankfully, Dark Waters is not that kind of movie. It succeeds in exploring not only the wrongdoings of a power-hungry corporation but also in exposing the truth of the industry at-large and the regulatory failures that led to an ongoing public health crisis.
Directed by Todd Haynes and starring Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters tells the true story of Robert Bilott, an Ohio attorney who uncovers a plot by the chemical company DuPont to shield the public from the deadly hazards of one of its most profitable products (DuPont de Nemours, Inc., known more commonly as “DuPont,” was purchased by the Dow Chemical Company in 2017).
Based on a True Story
Through legal measures, Bilott discovers that a DuPont factory in his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia, has been dumping a toxic chemical byproduct known as PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), or “C8,” into local water supplies and landfills. PFOAs can also be likened to what are known, more commonly, as PFAs, or “Forever Chemicals,” for which there is now currently a groundswell of lawsuits in the United States.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down due to natural causes. Human exposure to high levels of PFAS is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers and can cause serious birth defects.
In Dark Waters, the presence of the substance, which is molecularly “indestructible,” is displayed in horrific fashion: Farm animals die excruciating deaths from tumors and bloated organs. Pregnant DuPont workers give birth to children with defects. A cancer cluster forms among local residents, who have unknowingly been drinking and breathing PFOAs for decades.
Watching Dark Waters, one may have to periodically remind themselves that this is a true story and that the horrors of Parkersburg are just a snapshot of DuPont’s widespread deceit and dismissal of public health. And to understand the depth of the company’s wrongdoing, one must first understand the history of a certain chemical.
From A-Bomb to Teflon
During World War II, scientists working on the Manhattan Project were looking for a substance that could resist the corrosive powers of radioactive materials. They found it in a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE.
A soap-like substance, PTFE resists surface cohesion with everything it touches, making it extremely strong and resistant to corrosion. The government commissioned DuPont to provide its engineers at Los Alamos with a supply of PTFE. In short order, the new chemical was being used to contain the enriched uranium that would later be used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
After the war, DuPont set out to find a commercial use for its slippery, anti-corrosive, and heat-resistant chemical. In the 1950s, the company discovered a use in the form of a non-stick coating for cooking pans. It was then that PTFE took on the household name we know today: Teflon.
The problem for DuPont was that the manufacture of PTFE required the use of a highly toxic chemical known as PFOA or C8. DuPont soon faced a dilemma in finding a way to dispose of a highly toxic byproduct of a highly profitable substance.
The Corporate Coverup: A Timeline
Beginning in the late 1990s, Robert Bilott and his team of investigators uncovered evidence of a coverup by DuPont to shield the truth about Teflon from the public, all while disposing of its toxic byproducts in horrifying ways.
As internal documents showed, DuPont had been aware of PFOA’s toxicity for decades. According to a New York Times Magazine story about Bilott, which Dark Waters is based on, the chemical giant had been conducting secret medical studies of PFOA since the 1950s. By 1961, it knew that PFOA bloated the size of livers in rats and rabbits — a clear sign of acute poisoning.
After learning this, the company secretly tested the children of pregnant employees at their Teflon factories, one of which was the Parkersburg facility. Two newborns out of 7 total were born with eye defects.
The following year, DuPont researchers gave cigarettes laced with PFOA to volunteer employees. Nine out of 10 of the volunteers became noticeably ill with flu-like symptoms. Internally, DuPont researchers began treating PFOA like a poison, advising “extreme care” even as they continued to expose workers to it.
By the mid-1960s, DuPont knew it was dealing with a highly carcinogenic but profitable chemical. PFOA was key to a number of the company’s products, including Teflon, and it was responsible for an estimated $1 Billion in yearly earnings.
Facing this dilemma — one of profit vs. containment of a public health crisis — DuPont chose the former. It did not disclose any information to the public and continued to mass-produce both Teflon and PFOA.
It then embarked on a secretive and criminal method of disposal.
In 1962, the company buried 200 drums of PFOA in the Ohio River. It deliberately sunk entire barges of the chemical into the Atlantic Ocean. Facing minor backlash from a public that had no understanding of what the chemical was, DuPont instead began burying it in landfills.
The U.S. government didn’t begin regulating toxic chemicals until the 1970s. With the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set about drafting a list of banned chemicals. It grandfathered in those it knew to be toxic and included any additional chemicals disclosed as “toxic” by the chemical industry.
At this stage, DuPont neglected to reveal the existence of PFOA to the EPA, which meant the chemical was never banned. This effectively shielded DuPont’s prized toxin from regulatory control, allowing the company to dispose of it in whatever way it saw fit.
DuPont would end up dumping 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ponds and landfills around its Parkersburg factory. This atrocity continued into the late 1990s, even as in-house scientists learned PFOA was causing testicular, pancreatic, and liver cancers in lab tests.
It is here were Dark Waters picks up, as the accumulation of PFOA reaches a boiling point evident to anyone with a pair of eyes.
Rob Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, is summoned to his hometown of Parkersburg to meet with a farmer named Wilbur Tennant, who is convinced DuPont is behind a string of cattle deaths on his farm. Tennant’s dilemma, which would soon be passed onto Bilott, mirrors that of the film’s central moral question: To what extent should someone sacrifice their own interests to expose wrongdoings — wrongdoings that may border on evil?
For Tenant, the need to act is moral as well as practical: The risk of doing nothing threatens his family’s health and livelihood, even as it puts him at odds with the largest employer in the community. For Bilott, the will to act is portrayed as purely moral, beginning with a lawsuit to obtain documents.
Here the film assumes a familiar form — that of the cornered investigator speaking truth to power, even as those around him question his sanity. Where it departs from the whistleblower genre is in the success of the hero’s investigation.
Bilott has undoubtedly uncovered a heinous corporate crime that is likely the cause of hundreds, if not thousands of deaths — not to mention catastrophic environmental pollution. However, the manipulative powers of DuPont to thwart investigations, obstruct justice, and deny its victims restitution is made all too clear by the end of the film.
Bilott’s Fight for Justice
In 2005, DuPont agreed to an independent medical investigation of the toxicological effects of PFOA on the Parkersburg community.
It was not until 2012 that the study was concluded, and the results were conclusive: PFOA was the likely cause of spiked levels of ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Most alarming was that even low levels of exposure could result in these kinds of diseases.
Despite the findings, which were published in more than 30 peer-reviewed articles, DuPont reneged on its 2005 agreement to compensate victims and cover their medical expenses. This betrayal is voiced through Bilott in the form of a frustrated parking lot speech: “The system is rigged,” Bilott laments. “They want us to think it’ll protect us. We protect us! We do!”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In 2017, as revealed in the end credits —after years of Bilott’s tireless work on behalf of individual plaintiffs in the Parkersburg area — DuPont agreed to a settlement. The settlement involved some 3,550 lawsuits related to PFOA exposure at and around the West Virginia plant, and it delivered $670 Million in cash to victims.
In 2007, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that PFOA, a chemical that did not exist 100 years ago, is now in the blood of 99.7% of Americans.
As part of its 2017 settlement agreement, DuPont denied any wrongdoing in its handling of PFOA.
Dark Waters is now playing in select theaters and is drawing praise from critics, as well as serious Oscar buzz. Check your local listings to see if Dark Waters is playing in a theater near you.