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26 February 2020

Now screening: the perfluorooctanoic acid health scandal

Dark Waters

Todd Haynes’ new film, “Dark Waters”, hit European cinemas in February. The film portrays the scandalous poisoning of the population of Parkersburg in the US state of Virginia by water contaminated by perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) synthesised in the local plant of the US Dupont corporation.

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Also known as C8, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is used in the production of Teflon, a non-stick coating for pans and other cookware. Exceptionally stable, this toxic substance is not biodegradable and can stay in a person’s blood for decades. It is known to be a cause of birth defects and kidney and testicular cancer.
Based on the article in the New York Times Magazine  entitled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, the film tells the real-life story of Robert Billot, the lawyer who took Dupont (now Chemours) to court for its shameless practices and won.

Invited to the debate following the film’s pre-release screening in Belgium, Marian Schaapman, head of the working conditions, health and safety unit at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), had this to say: “This film shows that our health is not up for sale and that strict regulations banning or at least restricting the use of highly dangerous chemicals are more than necessary”.

In the Netherlands, Dupont is also involved in a lawsuit on female workers’ exposure to reprotoxic substances and their severe consequences such as miscarriages and developmental problems in children.

The screening of this film comes just at the right time, in line with the European Commission’s announcement that it will be publishing its new strategy on chemical substances in the context of the European Green Deal.

In the European Union, PFOA and its salts have been identified as substances of very high concern  (SVHCs), with their use banned under the REACH regulation. At a global level, they are also banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). However, traces of these substances remain omnipresent, whether in the soil, water, fauna or humans.

PFOA and its salts are just some of the wider family of at least 4700 man-made substances known generically as PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These have been used since the 1950s in a host of mass-produced consumer articles – including textiles and cosmetics – on account of their resistance to stains, water and grease.

A recent study financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers reveals that our knowledge of PFAS substances remains fragmentary and that their various subgroups can be dangerous for human health and the environment.

Without waiting for the final results of this study, in late 2019 Sweden called on the European Commission to come up with an action plan for the period up to 2025 aimed at progressively banning non-essential uses of PFASs between now and 2030. It also put forward the suggestion that all members of the PFAS family be handled as a group by EU legislation to avoid regrettable substitutions.

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