Pamela Connellan


Dark Waters is a scary movie. Here’s Why…

Dark Waters is a scary movie. Here’s Why…

Many people have said Dark Waters is more terrifying than any horror movie. That’s because the most frightening thing about Dark Waters is the fact it actually happened. A US corporation – Dupont – put money before human lives and jeopardised the health of every person on this planet by dumping toxic PFOA waste in waterways in West Virginia for years.

This makes Dark Waters one of the scariest movies you’ll see but don’t let this put you off. We all need to see this movie because it’s about how corporations think they can get away with polluting our planet in shocking ways, as long as they keep it hidden. Yes, it’s a bit like Erin Brockovich but even a bit more sinister.

Why is it sinister? Because in Australia, we can usually watch a film like this and thank God we live on a remote island in the South Pacific. But that argument doesn’t hold any more. There’s a scene in Dark Waters where Mark Ruffalo (playing lawyer Robert Bilott) asks what’s a safe level of the pollutant – PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) and the answer is – one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool!

You see Ruffalo’s face as he mentally adds up the amount of this chemical he’s seen flowing in streams near Parkersburg in West Virginia, and you know from his expression, pretty much the world’s water supply has been wiped out. Dupont has illegally dumped so much of this chemical that by now, it would have worked its way into the underground water system and there’s no saying how far it’s travelled.

What’s the story behind Dark Waters?

Dark Waters is based on real-life events to do with the lawyer, Robert Bilott. Back in 1998, Bilott was working as a lawyer in Cincinnati when a cattle farmer called Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp) visits him at work saying his cows are dying and he’s convinced the DuPont Chemical plant in town has something to do with it.

At first Bilott isn’t interested – he tells the farmer he’s a defence lawyer and he “defends chemical companies.” But, as a favour to his grandmother, who knows the farmer, Bilott later drives to the farm to check it out. Once he gets there, he sees the property is a graveyard and the farmer tells him 190 of his cows have recently died.

Bilott agrees to do some research and to find the environmental report DuPont, and the Environmental Protection Agency, wouldn’t share with the farmer.

But what Bilott finds is far more deadly. He discovers a cover-up involving DuPont’s plant in the town of Parkersburg. He finds a synthetic chemical known as PFOA, which was created to coat army tanks in the war but was later used as a coating for cooking utensils – commonly known as Teflon – has been dumped in the area’s waterways for years.

From his research, Bilott finds DuPont has known about the dangers of PFOA and the fact it’s linked with deformities in babies and cancer in people. Even worse, he learns these synthetic chemicals are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because our bodies can’t break them down – so they stay in our systems forever. Bilott is hooked and knows he has to chase this case down to the very end and show Dupont they can’t do this sort of thing.

As Bilott says later in the movie: “The system is rigged. They want us to think it will protect us. We protect us. We do.”

Just how serious is this PFOA toxic waste?

PFOA is one of a class of PFAS toxins or Perfluoroalkyl substances. They are are all man-made toxins and it’s estimated the majority of living creatures on earth now have PFASs in their bloodstream.

Dark Waters is the first movie to document this story about PFASs and the film has had a major impact. When it was first released late in 2020 in the US, DuPont suffered a stock price fall.

The full cinema release of the movie was delayed because of COVID-19 earlier this year but now you can watch the film on Binge, Apple TV and Prime Video.

Does Dark Waters get its message across?

Dark Waters is two hours long and a lot of it is fairly harrowing, documentary-style viewing. But to make sure we understand the fully story, this is the most realistic and compelling way.

Some reviewers have said the subject matter deserved more but the low key, intense nature of how the film is made – produced by Todd Haynes – is far more persuasive than any other style. The understatement wins you over to the seriousness of what’s unfolding.

We see the effect this harrowing, drawn-out legal battle has on Bilott’s family life with his wife, Sarah, (played by Anne Hathaway) and their sons. Ruffalo gives a strong, intense performance as Bilott and we can feel his commitment to the situation. Tim Robbins delivers a great performance as Bilott’s boss at his company, allowing him to keep working on this case even though it ends up taking 13 years to resolve.

What’s the story behind PFOA and PFAs?

Dark Waters highlights the dire reality of pollution from this class of harmful chemicals called PFAS. PFOA is just one of these and it’s found in Teflon, carpets, waterproof clothing, grease-proof paper and some packaging.

Most people have heard of the dangers of PFOA and many frying pans now have packaging promoting they are ‘PFOA free.’

At a time like this with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting most of the world’s population, it’s even scarier to know that the health issues linked with PFAS contamination include a reduced response to vaccines.

The threat of PFAS contamination is not limited to the US. There have been major contaminations in Europe and unfortunately, here in Australia, we’re not exempt either.

A story in the Sydney Morning Herald, written by Carrie Fellner and Patrick Begley in June 2018, reports at least 90 sites across Australia are now under investigation for elevated levels of PFAS chemicals.

You can limit your exposure to PFAS

The NSW Health Department’s website has lots of information about PFAS and what you can do to limit your exposure. Our Defence Department has manufactured these chemicals as well and so did an American company called 3M which operated within Australia.

You can see the 90 sites where PFAS have contaminated the area on the map below. (This map is republished from a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, written by Carrie Fellner and Patrick Begley in June 2018.)

Dark Waters map

The NSW Health Department website has some tips of what you can do to minimise your exposure to PFAS if you live in a PFAS affected area. This list includes being careful not to use groundwater, bore water or surface water for drinking or cooking. They say, using town water from the taps is OK but to be even safer, filtering your tap water would be a good idea.

Images: Dark Waters


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