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A small silver lining

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
November 17, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 45


I just finished reading Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont. It’s a book written by Robert Bilott, the lawyer that pursued the case against DuPont over the contamination of drinking water with perfluorooctanoic acid, also called PFOA or C8. PFOA is one of a family of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are used in the manufacture of a suite of consumer goods, including water-repellent clothing, nonstick cookware, and more.

On the heels of Exposure and based on it comes the movie Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, which will be released Nov. 22. Given the relatively high profile of the actors headlining, it is likely to be viewed widely across the US and beyond.

Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink, written by Seth Siegel, is a book that was published last month. It also focuses on contamination of drinking water across the US. I just checked the promotional blurb, and it is certainly provocative: “If you thought America’s drinking water problems started and ended in Flint, Michigan, think again. From big cities and suburbs to the rural heartland, chemicals linked to cancer, heart disease, obesity, birth defects, and lowered IQ routinely spill from our taps.”

These are just some recent examples of books and movies that center on the impact that the chemical enterprise has had on people and the environment, be it through error, negligence, or deliberate action. But of course, this genre is not new.

Looking back, there are plenty of similarly themed titles that come to mind and that will be familiar to most of you. Earlier this year, HBO’s five-part series Chernobyl dramatized the accident that happened in the Soviet Union nuclear plant in 1986 and the cleanup efforts that followed. The year 2016 marked the release of Deepwater Horizon, a movie based on the explosion of a BP drilling rig located in the Gulf of Mexico, which ignited a massive fire that killed several members of the crew and caused extensive discharge of oil in an area of great biodiversity. The 2000 film Erin Brockovich is another water contamination story, which dramatized the fight of an environmental activist against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric. And let us not forget Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring, a book that documented environmental damage resulting from indiscriminate pesticide use.

How do these stories and accounts affect the way the public perceives chemistry and the chemical enterprise? What seems to be missing from many of these stories is a broader discussion of the role of the general public. Do consumers understand how their choices drive product development? Are they equipped to critically consider the benefits of drugs, fuels, and household goods against their environmental impacts?

These are some of the questions that we should be prepared to discuss and answer now and as more of these movies and books emerge in the future. One thing that is clear to me is that in the cases cited, there are no winners. The companies and regulatory agencies involved lose the public’s trust. The companies are often saddled with the financial losses associated with lawsuits and remediation work. Members of the public lose because their health or the quality of the environment around them deteriorates, often irreparably.

Does science lose too? It does if it means that children are put off from going into a career in chemistry. It does if children grow up believing chemicals to be a bad word. However, there can be small wins for the public perception of science if, for example, companies and regulators step up to protect the health of people and the environment. It’s also a win if these events drive scientists to innovate and find or create alternative chemicals or processes that are less harmful and less risky to use.

There is always a silver lining.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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