“Forever chemicals” get the Hollywood treatment

Participant Media

Participant Media

The makers of "Dark Waters" hope a big-budget feature film will raise public awareness about PFAS pollution—a crucial environmental issue that still flies under the radar.

For years, a subtle danger has lurked, unnoticed, in our homes and gardens, in our water and food. The unwieldy acronym PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, refers to a broad class of fluorinated “forever chemicals” that don’t biodegrade, have been linked to serious health effects, and are, quite literally, everywhere—in products we buy, in our blood, in rivers and oceans and arctic snow. But while PFAS have become ubiquitous, used in the manufacture of carpeting, cookware, computer cables, and even, as I reported this summer, those fancy plant-fiber takeout bowls, they have so far played only a bit part in the American consciousness. 

That may be about to change: Forever chemicals are getting the Hollywood treatment. 

On November 22, theaters in select cities will host the first public screenings of Dark Waters, a live-action legal thriller that dramatizes fluorinated chemicals’ toll on communities and the environment. It’s produced by Participant, a studio with a reputation for films that shape the public discourse, including An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Food, Inc. (2008), and Spotlight (2015). As with many of Participant’s flagship productions, Dark Waters will be paired with an intensive awareness campaign, which kicks off this week. 

On Tuesday morning, Participant launched fightforeverchemicals.com, a tie-in website that presents resources, research, and calls to action related to the film. Also today, the film’s lead actor, Mark Ruffalo, arrived on Capitol Hill to host a press conference and screening of Dark Waters with federal lawmakers, part of what Politico calls a “flurry” of PFAS-related activity taking place in Washington, D.C. this week.

At a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday, actor Mark Ruffalo smiles at Rob Bilott, the lawyer-turned-activist he portrays in the new film Dark Waters (November 2019)Associated Press

At a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday, actor Mark Ruffalo smiles at Rob Bilott, the lawyer-turned-activist he portrays in the new film Dark Waters

“We are a company that believes powerful storytelling can inspire and empower people to engage around positive social change,” David Linde, Participant’s CEO tells me, in an interview by phone. “Everything is contextualized by the fact that we see ourselves as a partnership company—a unique form of connective tissue between people and organizations who are not used to working together.” 

Linde says Participant’s feature films often take two to five years to produce, and Dark Waters was no exception. The film was inspired by a 2016 New York Times Magazine story, Nathaniel Rich’s “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” about the corporate defense attorney Rob Bilott’s dramatic transformation into an anti-pollution crusader. The saga began in 1998, when Bilott received a harrowing videotape from Wilbur Tennant, a rancher whose West Virginia ranch was located downstream from a landfill where DuPont had dumped 7,100 tons of toxic sludge. 

The recording documented the stuff of nightmares. According to Rich, Tennant described how he’d noticed a strange, foamy substance in the creek bordering his property, and how he’d had to pull away dead deer from the water’s edge. But worst of all was what happened to his cows. The animals began to present bizarre deformities—blackened teeth, hunched backs, matted hides—and were dying “left and right.” The internal organs of dissected animals revealed darkish-green discolorations. Ultimately, Tennant had lost more than 153 cows by the time he finally reached out to Bilott, who recounts the ensuing legal battle in a memoir, Exposure, published by Atria Books this October. 

With Rich’s reporting as its basis, Dark Waters tells the story of how Bilott, played by Ruffalo, took on Tennant’s case, ultimately using his knowledge and access as an industry insider to diagnose the problem, and unearthing more widespread issues in the process. At a key moment, the lawyer unearthed a letter the company had sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledging that the sludge it had dumped contained PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a variety of PFAS it used to make the non-stick lining of Teflon pans. That revelation became pivotal, but it wasn’t all: Bilott discovered that DuPont already knew PFOA wasn’t safe, even as it continued to use it and dump it into the environment.

Through internal testing it conducted in the 1990s, the company determined that PFOA caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic, and liver tumors in lab animals; possibly caused DNA damage in humans; and had been linked to prostate cancer in workers. 

Even more damning, Bilott revealed that DuPont, concerned about potential health effects but mindful of its bottom line, had developed a PFOA replacement it deemed to be more safe—and yet chose not to use it. “DuPont decided against it,” Rich wrote. “The risk was too great: Products manufactured with PFOA were an important part of DuPont’s business, worth $1 billion in annual profit.” In 2000, Bilott won a settlement on behalf of Tennant, but he did not stop there. In 2017, he won a $671-million personal injury lawsuit on behalf of more than 3,500 claimants. (That massive figure, according to Reuters, was still $300 million below what some analysts had projected; Dupont’s stock rose 1 percent on the news.) 

By now, as I’ve reported, so-called “long-chain” PFAS like PFOA—polymers that contain eight or more carbon-fluorine bonds—have been either banned or voluntarily phased out by industry. While they’re still present in a range of household products, companies shouldn’t be able to sell or import goods that contain PFOA. But hundreds of “short-chain,” replacement chemicals are still in use today, including in “compostable” food packaging. And while these chemicals have a shorter half-life in the body—they take days or months, not years, to excrete—they have not been studied for health effects. 

In fact, some advocacy groups and scientists say these replacement chemicals have the potential to be more dangerous, not less. As I reported in August, a recent peer-reviewed survey of existing research came to an alarming conclusion: Short-chain PFAS appear to travel more easily in the environment, suffuse vital organs more rapidly than long-chain, and cannot be screened out by existing water filtration technology the way long-chain compounds like PFOA can. They’re also more likely to contaminate soil and be absorbed by food, another reason that throwing plant-based molded fiber bowls made with PFAS into compost bins is probably not a good idea. 

“They are probably even harder to deal with from an environmental compatibility standpoint,” Dongye Zhao, the report’s co-author, told me.

So while Bilott’s battle against PFOA was ultimately victorious, the broader war on PFAS has only just begun. That means Dark Waters, and Participant’s “Fight Forever Chemicals” campaign, comes at a critical time, a moment when anti-PFAS advocacy work has reached a fever pitch, but the broader public has not yet taken notice. Part of the campaign entails working with non-profit groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and others that have led the way on PFAS research and organization, to distribute information and help with calls to action. 

“We’re going to continue to promote the impact campaign, including PFAS assets that Participant creates, in conjunction with our own materials,” says Daniel Hinerfeld, NRDC’s director of content partnerships. Hinerfeld says NRDC is doing a significant amount of digital advocacy and fundraising around the movie, including a contest for NRDC members to attend Dark Waters premiere events in New York and Washington, D.C. 

“We see ourselves, in some ways, as visitors in the space,” says Amanda Chen, Participant’s vice president of social impact. “So when we started on this campaign, we started doing as much research as we could talking to dozens of organizations who were in the space of toxic chemicals and other environmental health issues. By teaming up with organizations like EWG and NRDC that are really the experts and advocates, we can ensure that the film campaign can help to fuel their work. We have a feature film we hope can make a splash on the issues depicted, but we can’t do it alone.”

Left, a promotional poster for Dark Waters. Right, screenshot from a Dark Waters tip sheet produced by Participant Media, in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, that highlights the dangers of PFAS (November 2019)Participant

Left, a promotional poster for Dark Waters. Right, screenshot from a Dark Waters tip sheet produced by Participant, in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, that highlights the dangers of PFAS

For these organizations, a high-profile Hollywood film with A-list actors—not just Ruffalo, but Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and others—may have the potential to reach more people than in-the-trenches research ever could. It’s not just the power of the silver screen. Hinerfeld points out that a documentary about Bilott that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, The Devil We Know, never became a blockbuster (unfairly, in his view). Hinerfeld feels that powerful works of live-action cinema have a special power to move audiences. 

“It’s a self-selecting group people who tend to watch documentary films—and I say this as a documentary filmmaker,” says Hinerfeld. “They tend to be already interested in the issue and, you know, feel about it more or less the way the filmmaker does. But that’s not true with with a scripted Hollywood feature film. A good narrative film really transports people. They kind of forget who they are while they’re watching it. They drop their defenses, they perhaps drop their identity affiliations. And I think they can become open to ideas that they wouldn’t ordinary be receptive to.” 

According to Linde, that transformation seems to be taking place already. “I’ve got people who I haven’t heard from in years, who are going to screenings of the movies, and calling me and and emailing me and texting me to say, ‘I’m throwing out my pans and I’m ripping up my carpet,’” he says. 

After Tuesday’s Capitol Hill launch, which will include Ruffalo testifying with PFAS activists before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the Dark Waters campaign will take to social media and go on the road. As the film enters wide release on December 6, Participant will begin a tour to four states that have been especially hard-hit by PFAS contamination: Vermont, North Carolina, Michigan, and Colorado. The goal, Chen says, is to elevate the stories of real-life people who are still struggling with the toxic legacy of forever chemicals, even after Bilott’s narrative draws to a close. 

“This is a film in the great tradition of films from All the President’s Men to Erin Brockovich, about individuals who are taking on institutions because they believe that we can all do better,” Linde says. Still, until now, it has been hard to galvanize the kind of dedication to PFAS issues that Bilott demonstrated in his fight against Dupont. Though forever chemicals are now everywhere, they’ve remained mostly invisible, too easy for companies, legislators, and the public to ignore. We’ll see if Dark Waters is what it takes to finally shed some light. 

Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.