“Every reform at some point needs a reform.”
— Governor Jerry Brown
“That mindset,” says Michael Hawthorne, “This is the world we live in, that one of the consequences of modern living is having chemicals in our body.” Hawthorne’s observation in Toxic Hot Seat follows a clip from one of DuPont’s television advertisements extolling the virtues of chemicals in our body: a quartet of dancers in white jackets and dresses move in vintage unison about a stage, singing, “Better things for better living through chemistry.”
The dated nature of both the ad and the sentiment is clear in the increasingly blurred out image and the so-square chorus. As Hawthorne suggests, however, public assumptions about chemicals have both changed and remained the same: then, they were promoted and sold, now, they just are — and still sold, whether consumers are aware of what they’re purchasing or not. Following on the work of Hawthorne and his fellow Chicago Tribune investigative reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, Toxic Hot Seat looks at the marketing and effects of a particular set of chemicals, those found in flame retardant furniture.
James Redford and Kirby Walker’s documentary — which showed at DOC NYC 2013 and premieres on HBO 25 November — traces the consequences of these changes in attitudes. At first, the idea of flame retardant chemicals seemed all good. Certainly, as Callahan narrates at film’s start, “Everyone has a fear of fire,” which makes it an effective point of departure for an ad campaign for anything promising to protect people against it. What’s not apparent in this first look, however, is what the reporters’ investigation reveals, that the most effective version of this campaign was mounted by Big Tobacco. “Who would have thought cigarettes had anything to do with your couch?” asks Callahan.
As the film indicates, this connection is less circuitous than you might guess, having to do with the tobacco industry’s longstanding self-conception as untouchable. Most viewers will recall the industry’s alarmingly successful efforts to deceive consumers regarding the danger of cigarettes per se, as products containing both known carcinogens and addictive additives (say, nicotine) that were pitched otherwise, if not healthy, at least not abjectly destructive. Even if these lies have been exposed, the damage is done, of course, and for all the corrected statements and apologies that might be issued, millions of people have died because they smoked cigarettes.
This frankly contemptible history provides a context for the investigation presented in Toxic Hot Seat. When the notion was raised that cigarette manufacturers might make their product self-extinguishing, and so help to reduce the many number of fires caused by lit cigarettes, the executives argued that this would be too difficult. “This would be a very highly technical and complex undertaking,” submits one executive at a 1983 hearing of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. In order to avoid a legal mandate that it reduce the possibility of ignition, by making fire safe cigarettes, the industry pointed to the “fuel,” that is, the furniture that was ignited.
The film makes explicit the dangers of flame retardant chemicals in interviews with firefighters exposed to the “toxic soup” such retardants produce during fires. Primary among these subjects is Tony Stefani, who developed cancer while working in San Francisco and eventually became an activist, through his Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. As the film reports, California is a particular flashpoint for the problem of exposure to flame retardants, as it was the first state, in 1975, to pass a Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), requiring the use of such chemicals in the foam used in furniture. As manufacturers met this requirement, they used halogenated organic flame retardants, and because given that the California market is so large, companies made the decision to use these in all products sold in all states and Canada, even when not mandated, to simplify the manufacturing process.
When questions came up as to the toxicity of flame retardants, the three primary makers — Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israeli Chemicals Limited — made their case with faulty studies or deliberate misreadings of studies; the film points out the lies told about a seminal report, by fire protection engineer Vytenis Babrauskas, who appears here to denounce the manufacturers’ distortion of his science (specifically, the chemcicals are not only poisonous but also don’t do the job they’re supposed to do). It comes as no surprise when you see a title card saying that the American Chemistry Council (whose stated “mission is to deliver business value through exceptional advocacy, using best-in-class member performance, political engagement, communications and scientific research”), “declined requests to be interviewed,” or even that one group advocating for the use of toxic flame retardants, the Citizens for Fire Safety, is revealed to be comprised not of “citizens” or a “broad coalition” as its now-deleted website once claimed, but instead to be an Astroturf organization, with exactly three “members” listed: Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israeli Chemicals Limited.
As galling as this story of deception, abuse, and greed might be, the other story told by Toxic Hot Seat is more hopeful. That is, the work done by the Chicago Tribune‘s watchdog reporters — who insist, “We’re just trying to find out the truth” — leads to manifest results. These results include raising public awareness and even passing legislation, when Governor Jerry Brown gets on board with bills proposed by California state senator Mark Leno, and the US Senate organizes hearings featuring, among others, Maine’s speaker of the house Hannah Pingree. The tweaking of TB117 doesn’t ban flame retardants, but makes it possible for manufacturers not to use them. It’s just one step, but it’s a step forward rather than back.