Some public safety risks are impossible to ignore, such as the prevalence of fires on the West Coast or hurricanes in the South East. These dangers are very real and we should be doing all we can to combat them. Yet, there are a  number of equally dangerous threats to public safety that are much more difficult to perceive, making them all the more dangerous as a result. 

2019 Film Dark Waters

The 2019 film Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway explores one of these invisible dangers, namely the prevalence of PFAS or polyfluoroalkyl substances. In a recent expert panel conducted by the Think-Film Impact Production entitled From film to policy – Is it time for a global accord on toxic chemicals? explored the film’s impact a year after its release, from the legislative changes that have occurred to the efforts by corporations to reduce PFAS reliance.

The film centers around the real-life story of a former corporate defense lawyer turned environmental attorney named Robert Bilott, who also appeared on the panel. Bilott, after discovering that Dupont Pharmaceuticals has been dumping toxic chemicals in the water surrounding Parkersburg, West Virginia, sues the corporation, and, after a lengthy legal battle, eventually wins hundreds of millions of dollars for the thousands of plaintiffs he represented. 

This story brought to light the prevalence of PFAS and the harmful impacts they have on everyday citizens who have no say over whether or not corporations use these chemicals.

Corporations and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) 

PFAS constitute a class made up of thousands of different chemicals, meaning that oftentimes when one chemical is phased out, it is very easy for corporations to simply use a different, similarly harmful chemical, as a replacement.

According to  director of the World Health Organization’s department of environment, climate change and health Dr. Maria Neira says, “is that one of the problems with advancing the anti-chemical agenda is that even with the most well-funded research, “we only see the tip of the iceberg.”

In a recent assessment conducted by the WHO, the ten most harmful chemicals represent an estimated 1.7 million deaths each year. Despite such a high mortality rate, Dr. Neira says that this does not even capture the full picture of the harm that these chemicals cause. The widespread and persistent use of so many harmful chemicals has more negative effects than can be solely captured with numbers such as mortality rate. The long-term impacts are still widely unknown.

As exemplified in Bilott’s efforts to reduce Dupont’s reliance on hazardous chemicals, large corporations are some of the worst abusers of these chemicals. This is in part due to the fact that these chemicals can serve to make the production of goods easier for the company.  The negative impacts are placed upon everyday citizens while the corporations themselves largely avoid consequences. 

“No to PFAS” Campaign, Joe Biden, and the Military

One organization that is aiming to make inroads in this area is the International Chemical Secretariat, which launched a “No to PFAS” campaign aimed at getting corporations to agree to support legislative limits on the use of these chemicals while also committing to “end all non-essential PFAS uses in products and supply chains.”  34 companies have signed onto this pledge, including H&M, New Balance, and Lacoste. 

According to Anne-Sofie Bäckar, the organization’s Executive Director, there are two primary motivations driving companies to sign up for this pledge. “They don’t want PFAS in the products. They don’t want to sell hazardous chemicals to us normal human beings. In addition, man-made hazardous chemicals are of commercial risk to companies and in the US, liability  claims could happen.”

Bäckar claims that some of these companies aren’t even aware that their products have PFAS in them, and that even when they do notice, oftentimes the companies that care are too small to impact the supply chain to really make any difference. 

Dr. Arlen Blum says the military has done a remarkable extent towards reducing the reliance on PFAS over the past four years. The military used to be required to use PFAS fire-fighting foams, which she says served as, “a source of major contamination to communities.” Going forward, the military is required to use non-PFAS foams. 

In addition, President Elect Joe Biden has come out and said that he wants to list PFAs as hazardous substances and increase government research into the impacts of these chemicals. 

Bilott believes that the attention given to this issue is important because of the severity of the problems posed by the use of PFAS, but remains realistic about how much has changed. 

“It’s been incredible to watch…the growing awareness of what this is, which is a massive worldwide public health threat,” Bilott said. “I am also cautiously optimistic that things are changing, and changing in a big way.”