The Devil We Know dumps on DuPont

Park City, Utah — Chances are good that you have never heard of perfluorooctanoic acid. But chances are nearly 100 per cent that it knows you.

This acid, known alternatively as PFOA or C8 (for the number of carbon atoms that make up the backbone of the synthetic molecule) is found in the blood of 99 per cent of all Americans. As we learn in Stephanie Soechtig’s new film, The Devil We Know, which premiered here in Park City today, C8 is everywhere in consumer products — in our furniture, our carpets, our clothing, our footwear, and even our recreational gear. For decades, it was used in the industrial production of Teflon and its slippery, water-repellent cousins Gore-Tex and Scotchgard.

Now known to be a toxin and carcinogen, C8 is no longer being made; a different but similar synthetic compound is now used in anti-stick coatings. But C8, such a nasty chemical that it earned the moniker “the devil’s piss,” did a world of damage to the people who worked at the DuPont Chemical company in West Virginia where it was made, and to those who had the bad luck to get their drinking water from the Ohio River watershed.

The Devil We Know tells the story of a group of brave whistleblowers who take on DuPont, stating that the multibillion-dollar chemical company knew for decades that C8 was an environmental nightmare. All the way back to the 1960s, DuPont knew C8 was a toxin with long-term health effects, that it was a confirmed animal carcinogen and likely human carcinogen. In 1984, Dupont admitted that it had been liable for 32 years, saying in legal documents shown in the film that “C8 is the devil we know.”

The doc begins with blurry images of farm animals dead from drinking contaminated water, and an all-too-sharp photo of infant Bucky Bailey, who was born with severe facial deformities (his mother worked with C8 at the DuPont plant when she was pregnant with him), then rattles along with the speed of a thriller. There are plenty of characters to follow, from people suffering with health issues to scientists to legal experts, but all are well-identified and we are never left with the feeling that the film is full of boring talking heads.

Director Soechtig has this type of involving but easy-to-consume film down to an art, having earlier produced and directed Fed Up (2014), about the obesity epidemic, and Under the Gun (2016) about U.S. gun laws in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.

With The Devil We Know, Soechtig proves once again that she can make a complicated issue extremely watchable and entertaining, even as we are awakened to an issue that makes our blood boil.

Stephanie Soechtig/Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

A still from producer-director Stephanie Soechtig's new doc, The Devil We Know, which premiered at Sundance on January 21, 2018.

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© 2016 M.L. Bream