The highlight of my week was seeing Senator Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, stick it to ‘Big Chemical’ with the very simplest of questions.
But I didn’t get that thrill at a hearing in Washington. In fact I was much closer to home, in New York City’s West Village, at the premiere of the very compelling and entertaining HBO documentary Toxic Hot Seat, co-directed by filmmakers Kirby Walker and James Redford. The film was part of DOC NYC – New York’s annual documentary film festival.
In 90 minutes time, Toxic Hot Seat clearly and expertly unravels the history behind our country’s decades-old love affair with flame retardant chemicals and delves into the purported efficacy and dangers of those very chemicals, all the while weaving in the personal stories that triggered the movement to rid these persistent poisons from our homes, our bodies, our lives.
Now, it’s no secret that this sort of stuff automatically gets me going; just the idea of a movie that uncorks the conversation about the toxic soup in which we all live is exciting to me. But this doc will resonate even with those who don’t readily buy into the idea that we’re all a bunch of guinea pigs in a massive, unregulated toxic experiment. The movie is not preachy or forced — it just tells a good, interesting story and offers us the added benefit of an important revelation, however frightening: that the flame retardant chemicals in our furniture, home furnishings, clothes and electronics are not only ineffective and worthless, but actually neurotoxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic, especially to children.
Speaking of which — back to Senator Boxer’s star turn. The film takes us to a July 2012 hearing focused on whether the EPA had the authority necessary to regulate hazardous chemicals. Senator Boxer posed a direct ‘yes or no’ question: Should chemical manufacturers be required to unbiasedly prove that their products are safe for pregnant women, infants and children before they can be sold?
Babies. Children. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, not exactly for the chemical company reps. The first representative, a marketing director from Great Lakes Solutions, a Chemtura business, struggled to muster a response (and when he did, it was begrudging and quiet) and the second, a lawyer representing big chemical interests, was unable to answer the question at all.
This really speaks to the heart of the movie — the fact that we, the consumers, have been living at the whim and will of chemical companies seeking only profit and power, regardless of the devastating consequences. It’s not news that this happened with the tobacco industry, but most people would never dream that companies have been hurting us with basic consumer products that should be utterly harmless. Alas, many chemical companies have been doing just that: they’ve been pushing their chemicals for decades – citing flawed studies and erroneous, outdated flammability laws – and have poisoned our living rooms, our family rooms, our bedrooms.
The movie engages a host of people who tell us this sobering tale from many angles. Among them are firefighters, most notably San Franciscans Tony Stefani (who I had the great pleasure of meeting) and Karen Kerr Stone, who have struggled with illness and loss as a result of high level toxic exposures faced by firefighters country-wide; Patricia Callahan, the award-winning Chicago Tribune investigative reporter who co-wrote “Playing with Fire,” a series which exposed, among other things, chemical industry deception; Arlene Blum, an environmental health chemist who has dedicated her life to pushing for safer chemical standards; Andrew McGuire, a burn victim and grassroots lobbyist; and Hannah Pingree, a young mother and one time politician from Maine. One of the climaxes of the movie was seeing many of these scattered players physically united in Washington, empowered by truth and connected by the common passion to push for reform in order to save lives.
The timing of this movie could not have been more appropriate for me and my family. We are currently looking for new furniture and I’m dedicated to only buying from furniture companies that have pledged to buck the trend and not use toxic flame retardants (instead they use wool, often organic, which passes all flame tests). But the search is not easy, because most furniture companies still feel compelled to abide by the outdated flammability laws which require the use of the toxic retardants. The good news is that very soon – starting in 2014 – it will become somewhat easier to find safer furniture, as stricter guidelines and even some bans (depending on the state) on the use of toxic chemicals will be set in motion and companies will expressly have the option to opt out of abiding by old flammability laws.
After the movie I had the honor of talking with one of the directors, Kirby Parker. We bemoaned the fact that not enough people are aware of the problem – something her movie is setting out to change. We discussed that although the fight is a tough one, and one that will not find success overnight, it is of great importance to our nation’s health. If sweeping change is to happen, then the demand for safe homes has to be loud and clear; we all must insist on healthy spaces for ourselves and for our children. And if the groundswell develops, the furniture companies that provide us with the settings in which we live our lives will have a real impetus to leave the past – and the chemical companies – behind and institute permanent, positive change.
Toxic Hot Seat premieres on HBO on November 25th at 9pm.