A new documentary film shines a light on lawsuits against DuPont, revealing a history of employee and consumer dangers, cover-ups and important questions about corporate social responsibility—and potential hazards lurking in our everyday products.
“The Devil We Know” takes aim at DuPont and 3M, following the story of a West Virginia community and its legal battle against the health and environmental impacts of the patented chemical Teflon. The film places human faces on the story of how the synthetic chemical allegedly contaminated the community and the impact of subsequent lawsuits asserting that the corporations knew about its toxic impact.
Poster Courtesy of atlas films
But this isn’t just a story about West Virginia. Nearly all Americans are affected by exposure to non-stick chemicals in food, drinking water and consumer products, says filmmaker and director Stephanie Soechtig.
Soechtig says she first became interested in the culture of chemicals in America while making the film “Tapped” more than a decade ago. Her award-winning documentaries are known for taking on serious societal issues. “Under the Gun” explored the debate around gun violence in America, “Fed Up” tackled America’s sugar addiction and the ensuing obesity epidemic, and “Tapped” uncovered issues within the bottled water industry.
“At the time, there was a lot of talk about phasing out Bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics,” she says. “Since then, I have been wanting to make a film about chemicals that would be remotely palatable for people, considering it’s such a daunting topic.”
After reading a 2016 New York Times article highlighting the story of the West Virginia lawsuit against DuPont, Soechtig says she was surprised the story didn’t have even more national exposure.
“On one hand, it’s a tale as old as time—corporations just looking out for their bottom lines,” she says. “But we did some digging and discovered all the layers in the ongoing litigation and found that there were these very interesting characters eager to tell their stories.”
The film tells of a legal fight that spans decades, though the defendant now exists under the new moniker Chemours, still headquartered in Wilmington. In 2017, the merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical formed DowDuPont Inc., creating the world’s largest chemical company in terms of sales. The manufacturing of chemicals including Teflon and other fluoroproducts now exists under the umbrella of their Chemours spinoff brand.
After 3,500 lawsuits in the Ohio River Valley over the main chemical in question, C8, the result was a relatively minor EPA fine and the agreement to gradually phase out of C8 by 2015. However, Chemours now manufactures Teflon with a substitute chemical called GenX, which is quickly building its own notorious reputation.
In fact, there is current class action litigation against Chemours and DuPont surrounding the spill of GenX into North Carolina waterways and its effect on the drinking water.
“Advocates feel like they have a victory when they shine a light on one chemical and the company stops making it,” she says. “But often the company just uses a ‘regrettable substitute’—they just make minor tweaks and go to market with something similarly harmful.”
DowDupont and Chemours have had no official response to the film, though the filmmakers say they gave them multiple opportunities to be involved.
With very little oversight on the chemical industry in this country and many corporations putting financial gain over consumer health, the film begs the question, what can consumers actually do?
Soechtig says not to underestimate purchasing power.
“We can make people aware of the issue and the changes they can make in their own lives,” she says. “You can stop buying Teflon not just for yourself, but for the people affected by the manufacturing and waste disposal.”
Soechtig believes the only way we can pressure companies to come up with safer chemistry is if there is a tipping point of people not buying harmful products. And her films aim to bring that message to a wider audience.
“We don’t want to preach to the choir but to inform people who may not have heard about this yet,” she says. “We also need to make sure we aren’t overwhelming people, so they don’t turn off and say, ‘Well, basically we’re screwed.'”
Soechtig says there are changes you can make that aren’t horribly disruptive or cost prohibitive, some of which can be found on the film’s companion website thedevilweknow.com.
“If everyone who watched this film threw away their Teflon and told their friends to do the same, I think that’s a great takeaway.”
“The Devil We Know” is available on iTunes, Amazon and screenings in select cities.