The Devil We Know is a documentary like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s a terrifying look at the chemical industry’s impact on the environment and human health. It sounds like a familiar story on the surface, chemical company dumps waste in the river and lies to the local town until they get caught. The end.
Don’t make the mistake that this is the case here. It’s not hyperbolic or even melodramatic to say the actions of DuPont and 3M have implications that literally reach every corner of the world, affecting nearly every living creature; a point this film goes to length to drive home. This film highlights a group of compounds produced first by 3M and later by DuPont and others that are now in the blood of 99% of people around the world. The short name for the chemical, C8 is used in hundreds of products because of it’s non-stick qualities, most notably but far from limited to Teflon and Scotchgard.
The film begins with an ominous home video and voice from Parkersburg West Virginia farmer Wilber Tennant, who sold a large parcel of his farm land to DuPont for discharge of “non hazardous waste”. They go back to Mr. Tennant’s video throughout the movie.
To tell the complex story that spans decades and has a large cast of characters the film creates a vehicle of three major people: Rob Bilott, Bucky Bailey and Joe Kiger.
Rob Bilott is an attorney who first gets involved by agreeing to represent Wilber Tennant in a lawsuit against Dupont for the contamination of his farm downstream from the Dupont plants waste runoff. Mr Tennant has video of frothing stream water, dead fish and deer, and his cattle. The cattle is shown, with the farmers narration, with tumors on their bodies, black teeth and eye deformities, Mr. Tennant exclaiming, “they’re born that way, I’ve never seen anything like it”. The Tennants and DuPont quietly settled on an undisclosed sum in 2001. Mr. and Mrs. Tennant would die of cancer a few years later.
Joe Kiger and his wife Darlene get a letter Lubeck Public Works in 2000 informing the residents of Parkersburg that a chemical called ammonium perfluorooctanoate also known as PFOA, or C8, was found in samples of well and drinking water. The letter described the unregulated chemical as “persistent, slow to be eliminated from the blood steam”. The term persistent is a euphemism for a chemical the is bio-resistant, it can’t be broken down. Not by sunlight, not with heat, not with microbes. It never goes away. You’re born with it, you die with it. Chemists working with the development of C8 gave it the nickname “Devils Piss”. The letter assured residents that the level of exposure in the water was well under DuPont’s standards for safety. The chemicals found in their water are completely harmless. Turns out legally speaking, the letter comes with a time stamp. From the time the letter is sent there is a two year statute of limitation for lawsuit among the people who receive the letter, this information was not disclosed. Joe Kiger like most people in Parkersburg took LPW and DuPont at their word until it started to become clear that something was happening to their town. Mr. Kiger began to notice the dogs in the neighborhood were developing tumors and even some of the kids teeth were turning black. He started contacting different agencies and the EPA sent him a letter abstract of the Tennant case, mentioning the condition of the cattle, tumors, black teeth, deformed eyes. The letter included Rob Bilott’s name and contact info.
Around that time 3M, the producer of C8 and Dupont’s supplier had come to the conclusion that the chemical was too dangerous and was to phase out it’s production by 2002. This would cost 3M $300 million. That same year DuPont took this as an opportunity to produce the chemicals themselves and began production in Fayetteville N.C. The 3M announcement along with the news that DuPont would be continuing production caught the attention of Rob Bilott who then began to send his files to the EPA asking them to investigate the PFOA chemical. DuPont tried and failed to get a gag order against Bilott. According to an internal DuPont communication Bilott had shared “130 of our worst documents” to the EPA. And that was just from the Tennant case. Documents found in discovery from the Tennent case (and a lawsuit to come) show that 3M and DuPont conducted studies as far back as the 1960’s that show these chemicals would likely do serious damage to the environment and cause cancer and other illness in animals and humans. One rather frightening comment in a report said “C8 could be affecting DNA”.
The film portrays another person, Bucky Bailey, who’s mother worked for DuPont making Teflon in their plant. Bucky was born having only one nostril and deformed eyes. They weave Bucky’s story in throughout the film to great affect. In spite of his deformities and the more than 30 operations to address them, Bucky displays incredible strength, an enduring faith in humanity and and a quite touching aura of genuine happiness. His existence is marked with tragedy yet, as with most people the complexity of life offers him so much more; like parents who stand by him with fierce love and loyalty, he gets married and with his wife makes the incredibly tough decision to a child of their own. Bucky Bailey would be named in the class action lawsuit to come.
Rob Bilott was already on DuPont’s trail, and when Joe Kiger contacted him it opened up a floodgate. They decided a class action lawsuit would do the best by everyone involved. This is where it gets interesting. The discovery process which includes letters, emails, internal documents, depositions uncovers a mountain of information going back decades and shows what 3M and DuPont knew and when they knew it. One document shows a DuPont communication discussing the decision whether to go the 3M route and spend millions developing another chemical or take their chances with what they had. The memo describes C8 as “the devil we know”. The decision was made to go forward essentially with a cover up. The lawsuit would eventually include six water districts and 70,000 people.
Doing scientific study was nothing new to DuPont but when Bilott starting turning up the heat the company began to employ measures that add up to little more than public relations. They used any scientist they could find to publicly announce that C8 was harmless. They also used their power in the government, specifically by employing Mike McCabe who in 2000 was the Deputy Administrator to the EPA. His firm, McCabe and Associates were hired as consultants to DuPont in 2003. Communications circulating throughout DuPont indicates they were feeding the EPA with comments that the EPA should include in public statements. They had to resort to this because the decades of studies by their own scientists showed they knew of the damage they were doing.
In one such study done in the late 70’s DuPont wanted to test the blood of their employees against a control group of uncontaminated blood. They started out with archived blood but there was a problem, the archived blood they got was also contaminated. They the began to search by using volunteers from men and women, old and young, all contaminated. They expanded their search across the planet, all contaminated with C8. They finally found an uncontaminated control group, in archived blood of army soldiers from the beginning of the Korean War. They had to go back to the early 1950’s to find uncontaminated blood because since then they had managed to infect the entire planet with C8. Another study conducted by DuPont involved gathering water samples to see how far their chemicals from the plant were reaching. They found high concentrations of PFOA as far as 40 miles from their plant contaminating much of the Ohio River Valley.
As the film progresses it goes into great detail of DuPont’s influence over the towns they inhabit, a major part of the community not just by employing every other person in it but by making a conspicuous presence in their schools, churches, community centers and local media. Right down to the names of some of the roads, DuPont is everywhere.
In 2005 DuPont agrees to settle the lawsuit for $343 million dollars. However the plaintiffs who could have taken the money and walked decide to counter with a different offer; they’ll take the money and set up a science panel to study the effects of C-8 on their community and under the settlement if any illness is linked, anyone diagnosed with such illness could further pursue legal action against the company. DuPont rolled the dice assuming that no study could be done large enough to produce conclusive a link between C8 and human illness. They were wrong.
Parts of this film feel like a horror movie rather than a documentary but when it sinks in that 3m and DuPont have managed to, in the words of one attorney, permeate the living world with C8, you realize that no fictional movie can rival the reality of DuPont. This film is a strong indictment of the business practices and moral compass of a company that put it’s own well being in the form of profits in front of the health and lives of not only the people in proximity of the plants, people who receive the highest exposure, but indeed every living person and creature on the planet. You, everyone you have ever known and everyone you ever will know have C8 in his or her blood.
Chemical company dumps waste in the river and lies to the local town until they get caught. In order to reduce exposure to lawsuit they create a spin off company called Chemours and produce a different non stick chemical called GenX which is already showing up in waterways. And is known to cause cancer in rats.
Want to know more? Go to The Devil We Know
As the credits roll at the end they give “very special thanks” to a lot of people and groups including Sharon Lerner of The Intercept. You can find her series on this subject here The Teflon Toxin