During the pandemic, since we don’t eat out at restaurants or go to movie theaters, we have fallen into new weekend patterns. We order takeout on Saturdays to support local restaurants, and we find movies, through either a streaming service or our Xfinity on-demand library, and watch them on Friday evenings. Last month, we found a movie with solid ratings from both the popcorn eaters and the critics, that ended up being a sobering reminder of a topic I have written about from time to time.
The movie is Dark Waters, a surprisingly accurate, based-on-real-events legal thriller about Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney who takes on the case of Wilbur Tenant, a farmer and friend of his mother’s, whose cows have been dying of horrible illnesses. The farmer suspects—and as Bilott investigates, he confirms—that the problem stems from chemical waste being dumped into a stream that runs through Tenant’s property. The odd twist in this tale is that Bilott and the law firm he works for end up suing one of their biggest corporate clients, DuPont.
The chemical waste being dumped was a substance identified in corporate documents as PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical DuPont used in the production of Teflon and that turns up in all sorts of other products, such as stain-resistant carpet. Through court-ordered discovery, Bilott learned that DuPont had hidden four decades of internal studies that showed PFOAs caused all sorts of diseases in both animals and humans, including various types of cancer. Why hide this evidence? Money, of course. Teflon was a huge cash cow for DuPont. And why did the government not regulate this dangerous chemical? Well, for many reasons, but one is that there are an estimated 60,000 synthetic chemicals that companies have released into the world without any regulatory oversight. The government can’t keep up, and lobbyists often make it worthwhile for lawmakers to bind the EPA’s hands. How many of these 60,000 unregulated chemicals, we might ask, are as dangerous as PFOAs? The answer is unknown. According to a New York Times article about Bilott and DuPont, “Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the E.P.A. can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the E.P.A. has restricted only five chemicals, out of tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years.”1 And while PFOAs may be more dangerous than many of these unregulated chemicals, this one example should cause us to question the whole idea of deregulating corporations and trusting them to self-regulate.
The movie shows how Bilott won an initial slap on the wrist for DuPont, a fine of $16.5 million, which is peanuts when you consider that this amount represented less than 2 percent of the profits DuPont earned on PFOAs in the year the fine was levied. But Bilott didn’t stop there. First, he filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of the 70,000 people in the vicinity of the PFOA plant whose drinking water had been contaminated. Dupont eventually settled for $70 million and an agreement to install filtration plants in six affected water districts and to fund a scientific study to determine whether there was a ‘‘probable link’’ between the chemical waste and any diseases.
Bilott and his team of lawyers received fees of $21.7 million in this settlement. One might expect them to have patted themselves on the back and deposited the money in their bank accounts. But that isn’t what they did. Bilott offered the 70,000 affected people the option of trading a blood sample for a $400 check. “The team of epidemiologists was flooded with medical data, and there was nothing DuPont could do to stop it. In fact, it was another term of the settlement that DuPont would fund the research without limitation. The scientists, freed from the restraints of academic budgets and grants, had hit the epidemiological jackpot: an entire population’s personal data and infinite resources available to study them. The scientists designed 12 studies, including one that, using sophisticated environmental modeling technology, determined exactly how much PFOA each individual class member had ingested.”2 The study took seven years to complete, but at the end the results showed probable cause that PFOA caused kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, and ulcerative colitis. Thousands of victims filed lawsuits, and after losing several cases in court, DuPont settled in 2017 for $671 million.
That is a large pile of cash, but it is nothing compared to the lives lost, the impaired health of thousands of people, and the sheer amount of PFOA that has been released into the environment. PFOA is one of several chemicals in the larger PFAS (per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances) family. The problem with PFAS chemicals, aside from their toxic qualities, is that they do not break down and therefore remain in the human body (and the bodies of animals) for decades. Studies indicate that 99 percent of Americans have PFAS chemicals in their bodies.
Remember, PFOA was only one of some 60,000 unregulated synthetic chemicals that have been released into our environment. Think about this when you cheer government efforts to deregulate corporations. Big business is in business for one primary reason—to make a profit. This motive encourages behavior such as DuPont exhibited: hiding evidence that one of their products caused serious diseases in those who were exposed to it, especially DuPont employees. Nonstick pans are a great invention. But at what cost?
PFOA happens to also fall into a broader category of chemicals that have been designated as endocrine disruptors. This morning, I came across an interesting column by Nicholas Kristof about the long-term effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.3 One study Kristof cites calculated that the sperm count of average men in Western nations had fallen by 59 percent between 1973 and 2011. Girls are increasingly experiencing early puberty, and adult women are seeing a decline in egg quality and an increase in miscarriages. Endocrine disruptors are suspected as the cause, and they are almost everywhere: in plastics, shampoos, cushions, pesticides, canned foods, and even in ATM receipts. The effects appear to compound over generations. When mice are exposed to these chemicals, after three generations 20 percent are infertile. This doesn’t mean the extinction of the human race, but it could severely affect population replacement, as well as human health in a number of ways.
Europe and Canada have taken steps to regulate endocrine disruptors, but chemical companies are lobbying against even safety testing in the United States. So, we’re the guinea pigs, and it may take decades for us to learn all the consequences of the widespread use of these chemicals. As Kristof points out, “Most issues won’t matter much in a decade, let alone a century. Climate change is one exception, and another may be the risks to our capacity to reproduce.”
Republicans have become defenders of deregulation and oppose government interference in business. But quite often the costs of government inaction are high. In short, if government does not investigate and regulate these dangerous manmade chemicals, who will?
1. Nathaniel Rich, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” New York Times, January 6, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html.
2. Rich, “Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare.”
3. Nicholas Kristof, “What Are Sperm Telling Us?” New York Times, February 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/20/opinion/sunday/endocrine-disruptors-sperm.html.