The list of modern conveniences that will sooner or later take a toll on your — or somebody’s — health gets a lot longer with “The Devil We Know.” Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary exposes the apparently decades-long efforts by the DuPont corporation to deny the adverse effects of chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon kitchenware, which they knew about at least as early as 1982. They’re still denying them, even as birth defects and other problems have increasingly surfaced among factory workers and nearby residents whose water has become polluted with industrial waste.
This cogent, powerful indictment will most likely make its primary impact in small-screen exposure — though the Trumpian war on industrial and environmental regulation lends it a particularly urgent relevancy.
What we first see is rough old video footage shot by Wilbur Tennant, a West Virginia farmer who’d sold part of his property to DuPont. They’d said they’d use the land only to dispose of “non-hazardous” substances, but he soon suspected otherwise — particularly once dogs, wildlife and his entire livestock herd died. His belligerent citizen activism was later echoed by Joe Kiger, an area schoolteacher turned whistleblower who grew uneasy about the impact of chemicals in drinking water, then more so as his questions to authorities (including the Environmental Protection Agency) were brushed off with evasive PR blather.
Their community of Parkersburg, WVa., is the epicenter of woes from commercial use of C8, a compound long used in the manufacturing that is the town’s economic engine. Its variants are deployed not just in creating non-stick cookware, but everything from microwave popcorn bags to waterproofed Patagonia sportswear. There’s little discussion here of the potential impact on everyday consumers, beyond the fact that C8 can now be found in the bloodstream of nearly every American, and that it has a very long shelf life in landfills.
Those who worked directly with the chemicals at the plant were the first to suffer ill health effects, including cancer and birth defects that in the case of Bucky Bailey required more than 30 corrective surgeries when he was just a child. Eventually the problems began drifting downriver to other towns whose water was contaminated by the same factories’ pollution.
Damning evidence is presented here that DuPont knew of C8’s impact but hid and denied that knowledge — then took over production of the hazardous substance from 3M when that company stopped making the stuff due to the research findings. A class-action suit finally staggered toward a heavily compromised win for residents. Yet even that seemed to offer little assurance for the future: DuPont and others remain free to slightly change C8’s chemical formula and continue producing it, as indeed they’ve done.
Mixing footage of public hearings, news reports and corporate ads, plus input from scientists and activists, “The Devil We Know” is a riveting tale of long-term irresponsibility and injustice. It’s made particularly infuriating by the contrast between workers who placed all trust in their employers’ goodwill, and the government agencies that did very little to intervene when it became obvious those workers were being often fatally victimized by knowing corporations. As with numerous other environmentally focused docus of late, this one underlines the extent to which the EPA has its hands tied by Byzantine federal/state control limitations, as well as excessive influence from the very corporate interests it should be patrolling.
Soechtig presents an unusually engrossing docu for this type of subject, with human interest always in the forefront despite the complex timeline of events, issues and information presented. The director, whose prior docs “Under the Gun” and “Fed Up” were also well-received exposés (of the gun lobby and obesity-promoting food industry, respectively), presides over an expert assembly that’s sharp in every department.