Can Hollywood superhero save Europe from chemical contamination?

Mark Ruffalo brings Hollywood magic to Europe’s political capital next week as part of a publicity tour for his hard-hitting new film Dark Waters.

Based on a US chemical scandal that saw DuPont knowingly poison tens of thousands of its own factory workers and nearby residents, the episode is billed as “one of the deadliest cover-ups in American history”. It is leaving European audiences outraged too, for good reason.

The parallels to Europe are striking

All Europeans have, on average, 300 industrial chemicals in their blood that their grandparents did not. DuPont’s water-resistant ‘forever chemicals’ (PFAS) are among them. EU governments admit that, like in the US, these substances are now everywhere, nearly impossible to avoid or clean up. There is no viable method of removing them from drinking water, for example. Scientists say PFAS poisoning in Europe could be a serious public health problem and they are finding “alarming” levels in children. Almost every newborn in every corner of the planet is contaminated with PFAS.

The health consequences are grim, serious, and costing European taxpayers a fortune; €52 – 84 billion annually, according to Nordic governments. Beyond PFAS, health costs from chemical contamination in general may exceed an astonishing 10% of global GDP.

There are some 100,000 factories thought to be emitting PFAS in Europe. That’s likely just the tip of the iceberg though. Many of the PFAS that pollute the environment in Europe are not even registered. That means the authorities are blind about who is using what, where and how toxic it is.

The water near to factories making PFAS, such as those living near Veneto, is a health hazard, and heavy pollution is also found near airports and military bases, where PFAS are used in firefighting foams. The parallels with the West Virginia community at the heart of Dark Waters is striking.

Much bigger than PFAS

Dark Waters is based on a real-life legal fight that surfaced some ugly truths about a chemical industry that had lost its moral compass. DuPont suppressed the toxic truth about PFOA for decades, a chemical so incredibly persistent that it came to be known as “the devil’s piss”. Regulators were ‘captured’ to maintain sales; fines were dwarfed by profits.

These problems are not unique to America. It was only in 2012, once PFOA was regulated, that companies in the US and EU switched to another substance. Yet the alternative substance, HFPO-DA, also known as GenX, is proving just as troubling.

“The government agency that should have been responsible, the EPA; those people were captured by Dupont. It’s called corporate capture. It’s a complete scam, an utter scam, and it was very successful.”

Mike Papantonio, Dupont trial lawyer

As in the US, the European chemical industry is powerful. With a turnover of €507 billion a year, the EU industry is owned by some of Europe’s richest and most politically powerful individuals. It is the single biggest client of one of the largest private lobby firms in Brussels.

In the US, DuPont hired Michael McCabe, who had previously worked as the EPA’s number two, benefiting from his insider knowledge to help it defend its forever chemicals. DuPont was eventually fined a total of $16 million, at a time when its annual earnings were $25 billion. The regulator was notified 18 years ago that PFOA in drinking water presented a public health threat. There is still no US federal regulatory limit.

In Europe, many chemicals are allowed onto the market before adequate safety tests are completed. It can take over a decade to catch up with dangerous ones and phase them out. The flagship REACH chemical regulation aimed to eliminate 1,400 such hazardous substances already in use. Over a decade since it came into force, just 43 are ‘banned’ unless specific permission is granted.

Even when safer alternatives exist, the EU’s REACH committee still approves the continued use of restricted substances in 99% of cases. Enforcement is low. The European Chemicals Agency and national governments have presided over widespread breaches of chemical safety laws for many years. Most chemicals found to be in use dangerously are not acted on. There are recent signs of improvement from the EU, and Nordic countries remain the gold standard. But sanctions are typically soft, such as verbal warnings.

If the law does eventually catch up with a chemical, as it did for DuPont’s PFOA, industry in the US and Europe has an ace up its sleeve. There are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS, and industry has been cycling through them to keep ahead of regulators. In Europe, PFOA (C8) was substituted for shorter chain PFAS (C7 and below, including PFAS used in GenX). Industry claimed shorter chain PFAS were safe alternatives to C8. However C4 have now been identified as substances of very high concern.

Europe has been ready to crack down on PFAS (C9-C14) for over a year, but a decision to regulate them has been gathering dust inside the European Commission. One to two-year delays like this occur on all such decisions, without good reason. Today, no regulatory risk management is in place for any PFAS except for C8. Many PFAS, including GenX and PFBS, which is the most-detected PFAS in the environment, are not even registered in Europe, so lawmakers have no idea where or how they are used.

A dark industry

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Dark Waters is what it reveals about the questionable morality of the chemical industry.

“If I sprinkle arsenic around and it gets into people’s water and they slowly get poisoned and die, they would arrest me and charge me with murder. [Dupont executives] ought to go to jail.”

A. Paul Brooks Jr., M.D – a resident of Parkersburg, US, interviewed for BBC documentary The Devil We Know.

A US court jury found that Dupont acted “with malice” in relation to PFOA. The dictionary definition of malice is: “The desire to harm someone; ill will.” Dupont later spun off its PFAS operations to Chemours. Chemours is currently trying to avoid providing a test about the potential of GenX to cause cancer by challenging an EU request – and the case is set to be lengthy.

Meanwhile, industry is ready to supply PFAS to manufacturers of all kinds of goods, from fast food packaging to dental floss, no matter that the benefits pale in comparison to the risks.

While it fights to maintain production of GenX, Chemours sent (from 2014 until at least 2017) the related industrial waste from the Netherlands to the US, despite an objection from the US regulator.

Beyond PFAS, Chemours was among the legion of firms trying to thwart European attempts to classify and label another widely used substance as a suspected carcinogen – titanium dioxide. This did not stop France recently banning the substance from all foods.

“This issue is about poisoning us, and poisoning ourselves, and allowing businesses to poison us and our children. It’s about exposing us to health risks without our consent… Can you imagine if people put cigarettes in your mouth, lit them, and demanded that you smoke them? I mean no! But we’ve somehow consented to companies being able to inject hundreds of toxic chemicals into our bodies without [our] consent…. This is just a gross violation of our rights.”

Baskut Tuncakt, UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes

Hollywood moment

Mark Ruffalo will speak at the European Parliament on Wednesday, alongside Dark Waters director Tod Haynes and crusading lawyer Robert Bilott. Other confirmed speakers include special the UN special rapporteur, EU environment commissioner and the European Environmental Bureau’s new president Johanna Sandahl. The European chemical industry CEFIC was invited to attend the meeting, but declined the offer.

Dark Waters is playing in cinemas in the Netherlands and Spain, and goes on release in Italy, France, Belgium and the UK in late February, and in Germany on 16 April.


  • This article was updated at 12.57 (CET) on 30 January 2020 to correct an error in Michael McCabes career path.