In the film Dark Waters, corporate lawyer Robert Billott, played by Mark Ruffalo, takes on an unusual client: West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant. Tennant’s cows began dropping dead after chemical company DuPont built a landfill upstream on the creek that the livestock drank from.
Billott begins investigating the waste at the site, uncovering DuPont’s own internal research on a chemical called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which was used to make water- and stain-repellent finishes in Teflon pans, furniture, and carpeting. Billott’s work eventually leads to a massive study of the residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia that finds a clear link between PFOA exposure from drinking water and numerous health conditions, including kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, and thyroid disease. DuPont paid the largest fine in the EPA’s history—$16.5 million—and paid an additional $671 million to the 3,535 West Virginians who filed personal injury lawsuits.
The movie is based on a true story and a lot of details are correct (here’s the New York Times Magazine feature it’s based on). DuPont workers did, in fact, get sick after volunteering to smoke Teflon-laced cigarettes to test of the chemical’s effects. And two of seven pregnant employees working with Teflon did have children with eye defects. DuPont kept these cases and decades of studies on laboratory animals out of public hands for years.