Movies based on real-life situations often alert the general public and call us to action. Dark Waters is such a movie. Based on a 1997 legal action, the movie stars Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott. As a former corporate defense lawyer, Bilott fights for a farmer in Parkersburg, WV whose cattle are poisoned by chemical runoff from a nearby DuPont-owned landfill. As the case unfolds, the toxic nature of an unregulated chemical called PFOA is revealed and Bilott is compelled to seek justice for the community of 70,000 whose water supply was contaminated with this toxin. The reality is that this contamination is widespread and impacts all of us.
What is PFOA and why is it harmful?
PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) belongs to a larger group of chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). PFOA was invented during World War II and subsequently used in the production of Teflon (e.g. nonstick cookware), fire-extinguisher foam, waterproof fabrics, carpeting, and more. PFOA molecules cannot be naturally eliminated by our bodies. At high levels, they can adversely affect liver function, cholesterol levels, reproductive and immune systems, and are strongly linked to birth defects and cancer. Traces of PFOA are in the bloodstream of almost every living organism on the planet, including 99% of human beings. The need to remove these toxins from our environment is imperative.
The current state of PFOA contamination
Since Bilott’s discovery of the effects of PFAS, they have become regulated and U.S. chemical companies have stopped producing them. However, they are still used in manufacturing abroad for products imported into the United States; whereas domestic chemical manufacturers now use replacements like GenX and PFBS, which are reported to more easily break down and evacuate from the body. The use of these replacement chemicals remains controversial.
What we can do to mitigate the risks of PFOA
The greatest risks from PFOA occurs when it seeps into soil and water supplies, such as the runoff from the Dry Run Landfill in Dark Waters. New Jersey has 1.3M residents whose drinking water is contaminated by PFAS. Areas where fire suppression foams were tested and industrial sites are likely locations where these agents were used. To avoid exposure to this family of toxic chemicals refrain from using non-stick cookware, avoid waterproof sprays and fabrics and consider a carbon filtration system for drinking water. Most importantly, public officials should be encouraged to take action on protecting drinking water supplies.
For more than 30 years Brinkerhoff has been helping companies and communities eliminate dangerous chemicals from the environment. As an advocate for environmental sustainability and awareness, we are dedicated to environmental justice through sound policies and corporate social responsibility. We welcome your thoughts on this issue.