Unfortunately, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS or “forever” chemicals, are not a household name—but they really ought to be. And perhaps this dangerous class of toxic chemicals will get a little more notoriety after the film Dark Waters hits select theatres Friday. Earther saw the film last week and spoke with director Todd Haynes, as well as Rob Bilott, who serves as the inspiration for Mark Ruffalo’s character in the film.
This terrifying, yet inspiring, piece of cinema chronicles the lies and deceit chemical company DuPont uses to bring PFAS into countless homes around the world. It’s based on Bilott’s story as chronicled in this 2016 New York Times article. Bilott brought DuPont to its knees when he unearthed what was happening: DuPont was knowingly poisoning people. The film begins in 1998 with Bilott’s (played by The Avenger’s Mark Ruffalo) investigation into a mass cow grave on a farm in his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia. More than 20 years have passed since then, yet PFAS—which were responsible for the dying cows—remain unregulated though the federal government is slowly taking steps to rectify its delayed response.
PFAS are manmade chemicals that don’t break down in either the environment or our bodies. This class includes thousands of chemicals like PFOA, the culprit in Dark Waters; PFOS; and GenX. Their mass manufacturing in the U.S. began in the 1940s with DuPont’s creation of Teflon, which allowed for the revolutionary non-stick pan. The chemicals then spread to firefighting foams, waterproof fabrics, and protective coatings for furniture. These days, PFAS can be found in seemingly everything—including food packaging, your favorite Chipotle bowl, and your local water supply.
As Dark Waters makes clear, we can all thank DuPont for that. When Bilott, a Cincinnati-based corporate defense attorney, began looking into DuPont’s role in those dying cows, he never would’ve guessed what he’d uncover. Bilott used to defend companies like DuPont in court—not challenge them. What he discovered changed him and his relationship with his wife Sarah (played by Anne Hathaway) forever. Blowing the whistle on an enormous company like DuPont isn’t easy—particularly when the company’s actions are so evil they beg belief.
DuPont had been covering up decades’ worth of secret research and studies showing the chemical’s specific health risks. It had secretly studied its factory workers who were the recipients of these risks: all types of cancers and newborns with abnormalities. It has callously ignored the chemical’s effects preferring to continue to sneak this chemical into people’s kitchens and dump it into local waterways.
“Well, when we first took on the case, I had no idea that, really, we were gonna be dealing with an unregulated chemical that was all over the planet,” Bilott told Earther. “We thought it’d be a fairly straightforward case.”
The chemical isn’t manufactured in the U.S. anymore, but its threat remains—especially with Donald Trump in the White House. He’s done everything in his power to repeal environmental protections, and his administration hasn’t moved expeditiously to address the PFAS crisis. It’s no coincidence the movie is coming out the year before a major presidential election, director Haynes told Earther.
“That was the reason why there was such a sense of urgency, starting with the studio itself, which is rarely the case,” Haynes said. “[Participant Media] felt this film had burning relevance with what is happening under the Trump administration, especially as we power toward an election year and watch the vindictive way that our regulatory agencies and government agencies and state departments and every facet of government, really, is undermined with a sort of contempt by this administration.”
When Ruffalo and Participant Media approached Haynes with this script and storyline in 2016, he was astonished, outraged, and moved, he said. He didn’t know much about this class of “forever” chemicals before taking on this film. By 2018, the team was meeting with Bilott himself. And they were sure to cast some of the real people whose lives were affected by this mess, including Bucky Bailey, who was born with defects due to his mother’s exposure to these chemicals as a DuPont employee.
“It’s such a moment of pride to have him in the movie,” Haynes told Earther.
Even Bilott himself shows up in the film. And he couldn’t be happier with the final product, he said. Not only did the crew nail the factual happenings of the film, he said, but they were able to capture the complicated science in a way that’s easy for the everyday person to understand. That’s important.
Yet as informative as Dark Waters is, it’s also just a very good thriller, with terrifying moments that seem more at home in a 90s Grisham adaptation than in an account of a man’s actual life. Stepping up to multinational corporations is no little thing. Bilott suffers health issues (seemingly related to stress) in the years he sues DuPont, and he has some seriously scary moments where he worries about his physical safety including one tense sequence where he sits in his car after meeting with the DuPont’s CEO and hesitates to turn his car key for fear of imminent death.
I won’t spoil the ending, but in real life, Bilott continues to litigate on the subject of PFAS despite the many obstacles he’s faced. The battle is far from over. Until the federal government prioritizes public health and regulates these chemicals, the fight will continue. Dark Waters gives us a nuanced and frightening look into that battle being waged as we speak and reminds us that while there might be a toll for fighting, a healthy future is worth it.
Dark Waters will be in select theatres on November 22 and will expand to more on November 29. It’ll be available nationwide on December 6. Those who feel compelled to take action can do so via this website the filmmakers launched this week.