(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A new movie, “Dark Waters,” shines a bright light on a group of dangerous chemicals that are likely in your bloodstream right now. It tells the true story of a polluter that manipulated research and kept evidence hidden from the public – and shows just how crucial it is that scientific evidence be produced by researchers free of conflicts of interest.
The chemicals that drive the film’s drama, known as PFAS, are remarkably effective at repelling water and oil. They’re used to make familiar products such as Teflon, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex, and are found in the coating of pizza boxes and microwave-popcorn bags. Unfortunately, in recent years, they’ve also gained attention for their links to cancer, liver and thyroid disease, increased cholesterol, and depressed fertility. They’ve been found in the blood of almost every American ever tested, and they contaminate the water in communities across the U.S.
“Dark Waters” focuses on how the chemical company DuPont manufactured Teflon in a West Virginia town, and in the process fouled the local drinking water with a PFAS compound. Over the course of the drama, viewers learn that DuPont hid much of what it knew about its effects. In 1981, for example, DuPont was informed by 3M (from which DuPont purchased much of its C8) that the chemical caused birth defects in rats; DuPont then learned of two apparent birth defects among children of its Teflon division employees. Both the PFAS-exposed babies and the rats were born with eye defects, making the link particularly alarming. But the firm never reported this in the scientific literature or revealed it to the public.
When the first public concerns abound the compound emerged, DuPont did what too many corporations do: They took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook and hired a firm to sow doubt about the scientific evidence. ChemRisk, whose top staff had consulted for cigarette manufacturers, produced a risk assessment with exactly the conclusion DuPont wanted: exposures around the plant were thousands of times lower than levels that cause illness.
The film captures how a courageous attorney working virtually on his own was able to document DuPont’s coverup. Armed with those documents, the Environmental Protection Agency eventually issued its then largest-ever fine, and required DuPont to clean up the local water supply.
Significantly, DuPont also agreed to fund a series of studies on C8’s effects on the plant’s workers and local residents. To ensure the research would be truly independent and credible, the two sides together selected scientists to direct the studies. The results were startling: C8 exposure increased the risk of testicular and kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and elevated cholesterol. DuPont has since paid more than $600 million in compensation to thousands of people sickened with these conditions.
As more studies document the wide range of toxic properties of PFAS compounds, manufacturers are rapidly eliminating the chemicals from their products, and lawmakers are eyeing legislation to clean up contaminated water systems. After hiring two product-defense consulting firms, Exponent and Gradient, to dispute the C8 studies, 3M settled a PFAS pollution claim made by the state of Minnesota for $850 million. But as the PFAS debacle has painfully made clear, the system through which scientific evidence is produced also needs to be cleaned up.
First, corporations shouldn’t be allowed to sequester important scientific findings about the harms of their products. Stiff penalties could be applied when case reports of disease or the results of health-effects studies are not made public. The few corporations that get caught hiding data, like DuPont and 3M did, eventually pay large amounts to settle claims. But this is too late for people made sick or whose environment was damaged.
Second, the public shouldn’t believe the results of studies done by product-defense consulting firms. After all, their business model is to provide clients with the ammunition to sway public opinion, slow regulation and defeat court claims. If they did otherwise, they would never be hired again.
And finally, the model of scientific investigation highlighted in “Dark Waters” should be rule rather than the exception. To some extent, this is the model of the Health Effects Institute, a research organization that commissions research into the health effects of air pollution, set up and funded jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and motor vehicle manufacturers. But for the most part, corporations have been reluctant to fund research over which they have no control.
We badly need a new model for production of the evidence necessary to protect the public. When government agencies consider potentially harmful exposures and activities, from vaping to opioids to glyphosate to payday loans, they should insist the regulated industries provide data produced by unconflicted scientists. In this paradigm, the firms responsible for the potential harm would be required to pay for the research, but the studies would be conducted by scientists without conflicts of interest, under provisions that ensure their complete independence. Only then will we have confidence in the integrity of the results.
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David Michaels is a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. He served as assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2017, and is the author of the forthcoming book "The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception."
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