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We’re All Being Used In ‘Massive Human Experiment’, Warns Lawyer Who Fought Chemical Giants

by : Cameron Frew on : 27 Feb 2020 15:37

‘This is a story that goes far beyond just one farm in West Virginia. This is something that affects everyone on the planet.’ 

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Calm, collected, eloquent, polite – yet, a chat with Rob Bilott leaves a chill. His layman’s breakdown of a worldwide contamination scandal is impossible to shake. A cold glass of tap water now carries a noticeable hesitance.

He betrayed his corporate defence alumni in aid of a vital truth. However, Bilott’s crusade against the chemical giants on the banks of our rivers isn’t complete in history – it’s a raging red tape battle, coloured by the poisoned blood of billions.

Robert Bilott and Mark Ruffalo attend premiere of Dark WatersRobert Bilott and Mark Ruffalo attend premiere of Dark WatersPA Images

His story is the subject of Dark Waters, a bone-chilling procedural from Academy Award-nominated Todd Haynes. A large departure from the delicate romance of Carol, it’s a whistleblower exposé thriller in the vein of All the President’s Men and Spotlight – with a pertinent edge.

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It chronicles the legal pursuit of Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a mild-mannered, unpartisan corporate environmental defence attorney whose life is thrown into moral chaos when two West Virginia farmers contact him, believing chemical company DuPont to be dumping toxic waste in the landfill, destroying their fields and killing their cattle en masse.

Bilott’s natural wariness, understandable considering his position as a company shield, is quickly disturbed – the links between the health of the land, animals, people and the local chemical plant in Parkersburg become disconcerting.

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However, Bilott’s initial hesitance was echoed among townsfolk, who held DuPont in high regard. The company was one of the biggest employers in Parkersburg – most people either worked at the factory or had family or friends who worked there. Not only that, but it also helped support local community organisations and charities.

He told UNILAD:

I think a lot of folks don’t want to believe that a company can do something like this.

People were fearful of their jobs, there was a lot of information being spread that doing something like this, taking on the company, could result in jobs being lost. There are a lot of towns like Parkersburg that still exist and still have this mindset where the town really is defined by that company and most people work there – their livelihood depends on the company.

With the support of his supervising partner Tom Terp (The Shawshank Redemption‘s Tim Robbins), he filed a complaint and undertook a targeted suit intent on discovering just what was ravaging the literal lifeblood of this corner of Hill Country.

Via the carrier of DuPont (which dumped 7,100 tonnes of sludge into Dry Run Landfill), perfluorooctanoic acid – also known as PFOA – flowed in the water. For decades, 70,000 people in West Virginia were drinking poisoned water, with tests later revealing links between the chemical and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.

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However, this was never an isolated contamination. ‘This is something that affects everyone on the planet. This is a chemical, and we now know a family of chemicals, that’s in water all over the planet – in soil, in our air, in the blood of virtually every person on the planet and animals all over the planet,’ Bilott said.

A recent study from the Environmental Working Group found that out of tap water samples from 44 places in 31 states across the US, only one location had no detectable polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS (which includes PFOA and PFOS).

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Bilott added: 

Most of us have been exposed to these chemicals, without any of us knowing it. We’ve all been used in a massive human health experiment without our consent and without us even knowing it’s happening. They’re known to cause different health conditions, and yet they are continually put out there in a way they know will get into us.

Is that something that should be allowed to continue? Is that something that our laws should allow, or should we be doing something to make sure people can take steps to stop that without having to spend decades in the courts fighting, spending millions of dollars for years and years and years?

It’s not just the US – Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK are all purported victims of chemical exposure against their population’s will.

While there’s no primary manufacture of PFAS chemicals in the UK – as per the Stockholm ban – GenX (a shorter chain, replacement PFOA that’s potentially toxic) is not yet banned or restricted – the UK even abstained from listing GenX as a Substance of Very High Concern, as advised by the EU.

Bilott hopes the film will push people to seek out the information on ‘how these chemicals, are used, the different products they’re used in, which companies are switching away from these chemicals and trying to use alternatives. The more information that can be made available, so the people at least know how they’ve been exposed and can at least start making choices about this going forward’.

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It can’t be made easier in the US with a tumultuous figurehead – just in January this year, President Donald Trump’s administration repealed Barack Obama’s Waters of the United States regulation, dismantling federal protections for more than half of wetlands and hundreds of small waterways across the country.

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However, Bilott isn’t as concerned with political fiddling. For him, it’s a systemic issue. He explained: 

I don’t view it as a partisan or political issue. I think this is something that transcends party politics or even particular administrations. The problem with PFOS and our inability to properly regulate, control and limit these chemicals goes back over multiple administrations in the US, through different political parties – this is something that’s gone on for decades and continues to this day.

I think it’s really more of a systemic issue with just the way chemicals are regulated, the way our legal systems are set up – putting the burden on the exposed people to have to prove that they’re being made sick by these chemicals when they don’t have the resources, and often times the ability to do massive studies that are often demanded before anyone will accept there are health effects.

His biggest hope for the movie? Inspiration. ‘It’s such a fundamental problem with the whole systems that are in place at this present time… but one person can stand up and speak out, take action and talk to the folks in your community and get together and demand that things change.’

Dark Waters hits UK cinemas on February 28.

Rob Bilott also wrote a book – Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont – tackling the film’s issues and themes with wider lens, which is available to buy here

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Featured, Dark Waters, DuPont, Environment, Film, Mark Ruffalo, Parkersburg, Pollution, Rob Bilott