Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo will feature in a new Australian documentary exposing the multibillion-dollar David and Goliath battle to hold the world’s largest chemical companies to account for decades of toxic contamination.

Revealed: How To Poison A Planet exposes the shocking extent to which man-made “forever chemicals” used in dozens of household products from school uniforms and contact lenses to make-up and cookware have spread globally and can now be found in the bloodstream of 98 per cent of the world’s population.

“There were companies and people that knew the nature and extent of this threat but did it anyway,” Ruffalo says in the documentary. “This is so incredibly evil.”

The documentary, which will screen on Stan, is an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age journalist Carrie Fellner in collaboration with director Katrina McGowan of iKandy Films. Stan and this masthead are owned by Nine Entertainment Co.

The trailer for the documentary was released on Thursday after a US court finalised the details of a $US12.5 billion ($19 billion) settlement to be paid by chemical giant 3M Company, one of the world’s largest forever chemicals manufacturers.

The funds will go towards compensating thousands of drinking water providers across the United States for the contamination of their supplies with forever chemicals contained in a firefighting foam sold by 3M.

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The per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also known as PFAS, were invented in the 1930s and became a billion-dollar industrial powerhouse because of their stain, water and oil-repelling properties.

They are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment and linger for years in the human body.

Journalist Carrie Fellner on location in Wreck Bay.

Journalist Carrie Fellner on location in Wreck Bay.Credit: Rhett Wyman

The documentary chronicles a years-long crusade for justice as tens of thousands of communities worldwide discover their blood, properties and water supplies are contaminated with PFAS.

It goes behind the scenes as US lawyers Gary Douglas, Rebecca Newman and Ned McWilliams take on 3M in one of the largest water pollution cases in American legal history, equipped with explosive evidence, some of which has been suppressed for decades.

How to Poison a Planet will be available on Stan from April 28.

How to Poison a Planet will be available on Stan from April 28.Credit:

“If you’re aware that a product that you manufacture – and are essentially the exclusive manufacturer of – and you know that it’s in the blood of the general population all around the world, how is it that you could in good conscience not tell folks?” Douglas asks in the film.

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The documentary also follows Fellner’s investigation into how the chemicals that helped turn 3M into one of Wall Street’s most profitable companies have dealt a devastating blow to an ancient culture in one of the most secluded parts of the world.

Fellner’s investigation uncovers alarming levels of sickness and death in Wreck Bay, an Indigenous village near the NSW tourist mecca of Jervis Bay, where the food and water supply have been contaminated with forever chemicals.

Resident Aunty Jean Carter is among those speaking out about fears of a cancer cluster in the Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay.

Resident Aunty Jean Carter is among those speaking out about fears of a cancer cluster in the Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay.Credit: Rhett Wyman

The toxins have a stranglehold over the village’s most sacred spiritual site and have poisoned the waterways where children and pregnant women have bathed for decades.

The documentary will contain new revelations by Fellner, detailing cases of cancer and heart disease, both linked to PFAS exposure in overseas studies.

Fellner’s body of work over the past nine years has also included investigations revealing two other clusters of cancer in communities heavily polluted by PFAS: the town of Williamtown in regional NSW and an American high school adjacent to 3M’s headquarters. Her investigations have won three Walkley awards for excellence in journalism.

Fellner smiles at comparisons to Erin Brockovich, the famous US case that focused on a similar water contamination lawsuit.

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“The thing that is a bit Erin Brockovich is that this is a story about going into the homes of really ordinary families who have been plunged into their worst nightmare,” Fellner said.

“But unlike Erin Brockovich, it’s not just one small community in California, it’s communities in every single country all over the world.”

The US legal team is being advised by Robert Bilott, the dogged US attorney who first uncovered the existence of forever chemicals at a farm in West Virginia in 1998 where scores of cattle were mysteriously dying.

Gary Douglas, a partner at New York law firm Douglas and London and the lead trial counsel in a landmark case against 3M Company over the forever chemicals that have contaminated the world’s population.

Gary Douglas, a partner at New York law firm Douglas and London and the lead trial counsel in a landmark case against 3M Company over the forever chemicals that have contaminated the world’s population.Credit: iKandy Films

Bilott discovered the root of the problem was forever chemicals waste in a landfill operated by Dupont and launched a successful class action, in a case that was dramatised in the 2019 film Dark Waters.

Even though 3M’s recent settlement for contamination is 10 times the size of a similar one reached by Dupont, until now, the chemical giant has evaded the same type of scrutiny.

How to Poison a Planet turns the spotlight onto 3M’s role in the scandal and unearths decades of damning evidence buried in the company’s corporate files.

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In never-before-seen deposition footage, a 3M employee admits that a forever chemical found all over the world in rivers and oceans, fish, polar bear blood, house dust, human blood, umbilical cord blood and human breast milk “more likely than not” came from 3M.

“I think once people start to see this story and see how much information was known by this company going back as far as it does and knowing how much of the current PFAS contamination problem could have been prevented – I think there are going to be a lot of people who are very angry,” Bilott said.

The documentary is the result of Fellner’s work with producers Katrina McGowan, Janine Hosking and Mat Cornwell.

They brought Fellner on board after they came across her research into PFAS. It was McGowan’s suggestion that she investigate the Wreck Bay case.

“It became obvious that it was something we could do together because she’d done such a great job on her investigation,” McGowan said.

Fellner contacted Bilott, who agreed to be interviewed and introduced the documentary team to actor Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo had starred as Bilott in the Dark Waters film and the pair subsequently remained friends.

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“Mark has done so much campaigning on environmental issues and over the past few years he has done a lot of advocacy work over forever chemicals,” McGowan said. “His team came back and said he’d like to be involved.”

Ruffalo was shocked by the material unearthed during the legal discovery process against 3M.

“The thing that was always astonishing to me, that people made the decision to go forward with putting these chemicals in our environment, they knew what they were doing,” Ruffalo said in the film.

3M Global Headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota.

3M Global Headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota.Credit: Bloomberg

“You can’t help but ask, what kind of people do that?”

Fellner says she was never put off by the David-and-Goliath scale of taking on large US corporations with substantial legal machinery, but “it adds another layer of scrutiny to your work when you’re taking on powerful players like that and knowing you have to cross every T and dot every I.

“There were also, at times, several Goliaths to contend with,” Fellner says.

“You’re dealing with 3M but you’re also dealing with the Australian government, which unlike Europe and the United States is arguing there’s no serious health effects from PFAS and which has been fighting all of its own legal spot fires.

“There were times when I was nervous because there’s been times when I have felt like the lone voice in the media,” Fellner adds. “Often in the media you get sort of a pack mentality. But with PFAS, there hasn’t been a lot of broad interest from the media until recently, so that leaves you sometimes feeling a little exposed.”

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McGowan said she hoped the documentary would raise awareness of the issue.

“Since we started the film, you’re starting to read about it more, and even since Carrie began reporting on it, the research and science has come a long way and so it seems to be an issue that is gaining a lot more attention globally,” she said.

“It feels like an issue that people are now starting to become aware of.

“Which is really important because these chemicals are in all our blood. They are everywhere. There isn’t really anywhere on earth where they haven’t been found.”

Bevan Shields, the editor of the Herald, said Fellner had delivered an important and substantial body of work over nearly a decade.

“Carrie’s dedication to the pursuit of justice for communities and families from Newcastle, to Minnesota and the Indigenous community of Wreck Bay is a tribute to her journalism,” Shields said.

“The dangers of PFAS are lurking in every home and Carrie’s work in this documentary is increasing awareness of those risks and what you can do about it.”

The documentary was produced with funding from Screen Australia, Shark Island Foundation and Screen NSW and is executive produced by Stan’s chief content officer Cailah Scobie and head of Stan Originals Amanda Duthie.

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In a statement to the filmmakers, a 3M spokeswoman noted the company’s decision to exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of next year was based on careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of the evolving external landscape.

“As the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves have evolved, so has how we manage PFAS,” she said.

“3M’s products, including those that contain PFAS, are safe and effective for their intended uses.”

The Stan Original Documentary Revealed: How To Poison A Planet, premieres April 28, only on Stan.

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