FILM REVIEW: “The Devil We Know”

The award-winning 2018 investigative documentary, ‘The Devil We Know’, follows claims of health hazards associated with the manufacture of Teflon, which contains the chemical PFOA (commonly known as C-8), a type of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), and related corporate practice. The documentary focuses on proceedings associated with the manufacture of C-8 by DuPont in West Virginia, and considers the broader potential human health and environmental impacts associated with PFAS-containing products across the globe.

The documentary presents the historical view of manufacturers that asserted that PFOS and PFOA were a group of ‘miracle’ chemicals. These chemicals had ‘wondrous’ properties, and their unique properties were exploited for being non-stick, and oil and water repellant. Advertising at the time proclaimed that Teflon was ‘the greatest advancement in cookware’, and that ‘almost nothing sticks to it’. It further explained that PFAS are used across a wide range of industries for the manufacture of products each of us use in our day-to-day lives.

Perfluorinated materials were identified in human blood prior to 1977. These materials bioaccumulate and are persistent in the environment. The main sources of exposure are still uncertain, but likely sources include industrial waste and consumer products, which release these compounds with use over time. The statistic that PFOA is in the blood of 99 percent of Americans is confronting — the statistic for Australians is unknown. Every baby born in the developed world today will have some level of PFOS and PFOA in their blood.

The film opens with West Virginian farmer Wilbur Tennant documenting contaminated wastewater discharging into a stream and the death of 151 cattle since, “this stuff has been coming down through this water”. Mr Tennant had sold part of his land to the adjoining DuPont facility, and he soon began to observe changes in the water, fish kills and dead animals along the waterway. Within a couple of years Mr Tennant’s entire herd died. After settling with DuPont in 2001, Mr Tennant passed away in 2009. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and later suffered a fatal heart attack. His wife died of cancer two years later.

We then meet Sue Bailey, mother of Bucky Bailey, who worked at DuPont when pregnant with Bucky. Sue didn’t know what she had been exposed to; however, Bucky suffered from birth defects. Another baby had been born to a mother who worked at DuPont with similar deformities. Sue had been in direct contact with Teflon during her pregnancy. DuPont was reluctant to acknowledge that exposure to C-8 may potentially cause harm to human health.

These cases and others ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit against DuPont. As part of this class action, a scientific panel was established to ascertain if PFOA in drinking water can cause harm to human health. An estimated 70,000 people participated in a seven-year blood-testing program, which was the largest study of this type in the world, and was completed in 2012. The study concluded that there is a link between PFOA in drinking water and a range of health impacts, including cancers. More than 3,500 lawsuits were subsequently filed against DuPont.


What about corporate responsibility?

Corporate responsibility and due diligence is required to manage and mitigate PFAS risks. The scientific community is well progressed in understanding the breadth of potential risk, but the potential long-term exposure risks of PFAS are not yet known. PFAS investigation, risk assessment and remediation practices continue to advance as new information becomes available and further research is undertaken. As environmental practitioners, we must continue to support our clients and industry partners to be at the forefront of the management and mitigation of potential PFAS risks to human health and the environment.

Various industry groups have held screenings of ‘The Devil We Know’ across Australia in 2019. Sharon Suzor, AECOM’s Communication and Engagement Lead, will be attending the Australasian Land & Groundwater Association (ALGA) screening in Brisbane on 30 May and participating in an industry panel.

The film’s director, Stephanie Soechtig, has produced other investigative documentaries including, “Under the Gun” and “Fed Up” about the gun lobby and obesity-promoting food industry, respectively.


From a community engagement perspective, this documentary could potentially raise some unwarranted concerns, including:

  • Presenting the risk of congenital birth defects as a high-potential outcome of historic PFAS exposure.
  • Being unclear about the potential exposure pathways for the factory workers. It could be inferred that dermal exposure was a primary pathway.
  • Being about a site where the sources and exposure pathways, are very different to the known PFAS-contaminated sites in Australian.

Author: Melissa Saunders