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December 13, 2019

‘Dark Waters:’ A study in the obsession required for pursuing justice

by: Esther E. Berezofsky

Collapsing 17 years of struggle into a two-hour movie to bring the truth about PFAS chemicals to light is no small feat. “Dark Waters”, a movie starring Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who took on a chemical company, managed it well, indeed with an element of drama that bordered on riveting.

PFAS chemicals, also known as man-made per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or perflourinated chemicals, became popular in the 1950s for their grease, water and oil resistance properties, including providing the non-stick coating on cookware and stain-resistance in fabrics and carpets. Studies have shown, however, that these chemicals are toxic to humans and animals, and may cause an increased risk of cancer, thyroid disruption, low birth weights, and other severe complications. These chemicals are also particularly troubling as they are resistant to breaking down once contamination has occurred, whether in the environment or in the body, earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.”

As dramatic as the portrayal of the concealment of studies that linked birth defects in babies of pregnant women employed at the facilities that manufactured PFAS and the systemic corporate culture that concealed the toxic effects of their persistence in people, animals and the environment were, the lingering tragedy here is that to this day these forever chemicals are still not regulated.

Although I have been immersed in PFAS litigation for several years, the film’s portrayal of the dying animals and the impact on agricultural life was still profoundly disturbing.

If people watched in horror thinking this can’t be true, the film was successful. Its importance is in educating people about what happens when the EPA is asleep at the wheel, or seemingly under the control of a powerful lobbying campaign by the chemical industry whose mission seems to be to keep chemicals from being regulated.

It is also a glimpse at the extraordinary lengths ordinary people have to go through – sometimes obsessing for decades without rest, and with limited resources – in order to hold billion-dollar corporations accountable. While we’d like to believe otherwise, this is far too commonplace. Especially if chemical manufacturers create and advance “science” that is self-serving, misleading and sometimes flawed.

Notwithstanding all the TV ads attempting to portray the humanity of manufacturers, after watching “Dark Waters” it appears as though the decision to suppress critical health and risk information was made for the sole purpose of increasing profits. If so, this was done at the expense of consumers and has wreaked immense collateral damage.

The cinematic lighting was aptly tailored to correspond tonally with the relentless darkness of the subject matter/content/mood of what the film was portraying. Because it is a true story, and not fiction, there is no light leading to a satisfactory ending. 

Sadly, one of the most important messages that viewers should take away from this film is that what was depicted in “Dark Waters” is not unique to West Virginia and the Ohio Valley, where the film took place. Indeed, there are communities throughout this country impacted in virtually identical horrific scenarios as in the film. In short, the fight to shed light, abate and remediate the contamination, and obtain compensation for injured people and impacted communities, is ongoing and will be for years to come.

Fortunately, there are advocacy groups, activists, lawyers and others who have taken up the mantle for pursuing justice on behalf of people whose water supplies, properties and communities have become contaminated by PFAS. Litigation, in particular, has proven to be an effective tool in unearthing alleged misconduct by companies such as Dupont, 3M, Saint Gobain and others accused of failing to inform people about, and protect them against the harms resulting from exposure to these chemicals. While much more needs to be done to safeguard communities and hold manufacturers accountable for the incomprehensible harms suffered by innocent victims, awareness raised by “Dark Waters” is welcome and timely.

For more information on “Dark Waters,” visit www.focusfeatures.com/dark-waters.