In the new thriller “Dark Waters,” stay-at-home mom Sarah Bilott is fast asleep when she’s awakened by a ruckus coming from her kitchen. Fearing an intruder, she creeps out of her bedroom and down the stairs, and then cautiously pushes open the kitchen door. What she sees alarms her. Her husband, Rob, has pulled up some of the kitchen floor and is now yanking all Sarah’s Teflon-coated pots and pans out of the cupboards. She thinks he’s gone crazy. And in a way, he has, so intense is his concern that the fluorinated chemicals that make Teflon “non-stick” is poisoning his family.
Attorney Rob Bilott, has discovered that Teflon, which the DuPont company is making from chemicals called C-8 or PFOA, is linked to six kinds of cancer, a variety of birth defects, the deaths of hundreds of cows, and even two-headed frogs. It’s not a discovery Rob, played by actor/activist Mark Ruffalo in the film, would normally have made. He works at Taft, a big law firm in Cincinnati that rakes in millions of dollars defending companies like DuPont. Rob would have never known about the threats PFOA pose if Wilbur Tennant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia three and a half hours away, hadn’t tracked him down and shown him grisly images of the almost 200 cows that died on his property after DuPont put in a landfill to bury PFOA waste on a site that drained into the same creek the farmer’s animals drank from.
The more Rob digs into the case, the more horrified he becomes. He visits Parkersburg and notices young girls out for a bike ride who smile at him with black-stained teeth, a symptom of the kind of PFOA contamination the community may be dealing with. Rob starts to hear stories of miscarriages, or women not being able to get pregnant at all. He is given a picture of a little baby boy named Bucky who is born with only one nostril and a deformed eye.
As he pours over the thousands of pages of DuPont’s records he gets the courts to order the company to send him, Rob finds proof that DuPont has known for years that PFOAs are “forever chemicals.” In other words, once they get into the air or the water, and they break down so slowly that they may as well last for eternity. Rob realizes that as many as 70,000 people in Parkersburg and the surrounding communities have been drinking PFOA-laced water for decades; workers making the stuff have been bringing clothing coated with its dust into their homes. One woman, Darlene Kiger (played by actress Mare Winningham), recalls how DuPont gave her husband PFOA-based cleansers to put in her dishwasher. Eventually her husband told her that he couldn’t bring his work clothes home anymore because DuPont told him that PFOA caused health problems for women and children. Sadly, she’d already had an emergency hysterectomy.
Rob’s dedication to finding out the truth about PFOA and getting justice for DuPont’s victims takes a toll on his marriage. Wife Sarah, played by actress Anne Hathaway, wants to be supportive but wonders how long it will take to bring the chemical giant to justice. She’s not alone. The thousands of victims want to know, too.
And of course, so does Rob. “The system is rigged,” he tells his wife plaintively, “They want us to think they protect us, but that’s a lie.” And then, in a statement all of us at Moms Clean Air Force can relate to, he declares, “WE protect us. We do. Nobody else!!”
Ruffalo, a long-time campaigner for clean water and against fracking, said he wanted to make the film as soon as he read about Rob’s battle in the New York Times Sunday Magazine because it’s not an isolated incident. “We’re seeing this happen through all different industries,” he told Christiane Amanpour, from “Monsanto, to the fossil fuel industry telling us fracking doesn’t harm water – to what’s happened with lead in the water in Flint, Michigan.” He hopes his film will reach – and maybe empower – the millions of Americans whose health is being threatened by dangerous chemicals every single day.
Actor Tim Robbins, who portrays Rob’s boss at law firm Taft shares Ruffalo’s concerns. “The reason I wanted to play the part was because I believe that through storytelling we can inspire others who might be in similar positions to take those kinds of stands,” he said. “Is it going to be best for your economic bottom line? Perhaps not. But it’s best for all of us. It’s best for our health. It’s best for our souls to do the right thing and make sure that companies act responsibly.”
As “Dark Waters” premieres around the country, lawyer Rob Bilott has written a new book to document his now 20-year battle for justice. He is still suing DuPont on behalf of the thousands of people in West Virginia suffering from PFOA exposure, even as contaminations in other parts of the country start to emerge.
Despite the court victories Rob has already won, and the documented finding that PFOA can now be found in the blood of almost every American, to the detriment of the health of everyone, the EPA has not outlawed this toxic chemical.