Hollywood’s ‘Dark Waters’ calls attention to water contamination

The Hollywood environmental thriller “Dark Waters” premieres Friday, promising to call attention to the dangers of pollutants that may find their way into our nation’s drinking water.

It’s a topic that one University of Cincinnati researcher has tackled for years. Dr. Susan Pinney, professor in the UC Department of Environmental Health, says the drinking water contaminate perfluorooctanoic acid or (PFOA) deserves attention.

MORE: Drinking water safety: Lessons Ohio and Dayton can learn from other states

She also discussed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — that are a group of man-made chemicals that include different types of substances including PFOA, PFOS and others.

These substances can be found in some firefighting foams, household products like water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products like Teflon, waxes, polishes and food packaging, according to the EPA.

The contaminants have been found in parts of the city of Dayton water supply and are suspected to be leaching into the aquifer from firefighting foams used at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the city’s fire training center.

Dayton’s water is safe to drink by federal guidelines, city officials have repeatedly said.

The city of Dayton and state of Ohio have sued PFAS manufacturers.

The contaminants persist in the environment; do not breakdown and were used in stain-resistant carpets, water-repellent clothes, paper and cardboard packing, and foams used to fight fires.

MORE: Oakwood to begin testing its water for PFAS chemicals

Studies in humans show that the contaminants can cause liver and thyroid damage, testicular and kidney cancer and problems leading to low birth weight babies, early puberty in children and immune system problems.

Earlier this month, Pinney delivered a congressional briefing to the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senators and their staff members on this issue.

“Perhaps 30 million people across the United States drink water from systems with lead and up to 110 million people could be drinking water with PFOAs,” Pinney told the Dayton Daily News on Tuesday.

Pinney will be at the Friday premiere of the movie and said it should have an impact on people who go see it and hopefully they will spread the message to others.

“Often there’s no action taken on these types of environmental issues until there’s litigation or some dire consequences,” she said. “What this movie illustrates is that there were clearly some health effects to animals that died and with some investigation it was found that PFOA was responsible and out of that has come some real action by EPA.”

MORE: Ohio to test for PFAS chemicals in drinking water, including in Dayton

Pinney authored a 2017 study that found that residents of the Mid-Ohio River Valley (from Cincinnati north to Huntington, West Virginia) had higher than normal levels of PFOA based on blood samples collected over a 22-year span. The exposure source was likely from drinking water contaminated by the industrial discharges upriver described in “Dark Waters.”

In the movie, actor Mark Ruffalo plays a whistleblowing corporate lawyer who tries to hold a big corporation accountable for polluting the wells of a West Virginia farming community.

The story is based on the real story of Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott and an environmental lawsuit he brought against one of the world’s largest chemical companies, DuPont. The movie was filmed in the Cincinnati area, including scenes in a Hamilton neighborhood.

MORE: County expresses concern about region’s drinking water quality

Pinney thinks environmental issues are still slow to be acted on, but hopefully it will be an issue that is front and center in society.

“I do understand that there are PFAS/PFOA issues in Dayton,” Pinney said. “Hopefully, over time people and our government will become more sensitive to this issue.”

She is encouraged that Gov. Mike DeWine has asked the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health to develop an action plan by Dec. 1 to test public and private water systems that are near firefighting training sites and manufacturing facilities.

MORE: Dayton, Montgomery County at odds over water

“It is my belief that when that testing is done, we will discover lots of places that have PFOA and other PFAS in their water,” Pinney said.

She said a major concern is that many health professionals know little about these chemicals.

“I think we have a big educational challenge,” Pinney said, regarding educating the public on PFOA. “People are going to ask in affected area when they go to their physician, ‘I’ve been drinking this water what is it going to do to my body?’”

MORE: Ohio lawmakers react to new EPA plan for PFAS contaminants

She said physicians will want to be ready to answer those questions.

“What the research has shown so far is that exposure to these contaminants causes thyroid function problems,” Pinney said. “Some research that we haven’t published yet shows that it lowers levels of certain reproductive hormones in children. None of those things are good.”

MORE: Progress slow in addressing chemicals in local water systems: Here’s what we found

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