Friday, December 20, 2013

Toxic Hot Seat (2013): Unraveling the story

Toxic Hot Seat (2013)
dir: James Redford, Kirby Walker

Toxic Hot Seat is one of this year's premiere HBO Documentaries, and it's a blistering one. James Redford and Kirby Walker unravel a story of government influence, misused reports, corporate money and influence, and ill-conceived laws to outline how America is sitting on furniture that are filled with toxic chemicals under the guise of fire safety.

It starts with San Francisco firefighters coming down with cancer at rates that far exceeded national averages. If I remember right, the rate of cancer among SF firefighters was 11 times that of the national average. The main reason is because they go into fires which has all of the chemicals in our house burning into the atmosphere, especially furniture.

This all started in the 1970s, when there was an observation that most house fires started by a burning cigarette. But, Big Tobacco wouldn't develop and/or release a cigarette that self-extinguished in order to reduce the fires that an ignored cigarette could cause. Instead, they pushed for the furniture to be less flammable. Which lead to the development of flame retardants in furniture, which was launched by a study that said it could reduce escape time by half a minute.

This led to a law in California, where all furniture now had to have flame retardants in them, with a negligible increase in escape time. Since that law existed, it was cheaper just to have all furniture with padding that had those flame retardants in them, and so all of America got the furniture.

Fast forward into the '00s where we have discovered these chemicals, after 20 years of being in the houses, are now causing cancer. The fight is on. Maine and California had dual state initiatives to ban flame retardants, and the chemical companies spent huge amounts of money to astroturf the hell out of these states. Maine wasn't used to it, and suspected something was up. They successfully banned flame retardants. But, California was duped and the bills continuously failed due to astroturfing.

Where Toxic Hot Seat is successful is that it isn't just a bunch of hippies talking about hippy things, like a lot of radical documentaries. Toxic Hot Seat starts with Salt of the Earth firefighters, moves on to PhD scientists teaching at U-C Berkeley and Chicago journalists, and then moves on to mothers and female freshmen senators to tell the story. There is no voice over used in Toxic Hot Seat. And, while the details of the chemicals are glossed over on occasion, there's enough there to know that the research has been done. There is something wrong at stake here.

To me, the most important part of Toxic Hot Seat is the story of astroturfing that exists in its modern day sections. The chemical companies created groups with innocuous sounding names, and paid children and colored people to testify on behalf of the flame retardants in order to dupe the politicians and the voting public that there was a grassroots movement for the use of flame retardants. It took journalists from the Chicago Tribune to do an expose on the toxic chemicals in our furniture and lives to properly call out the astroturfing. And, while even journalists can be bought, this is why we need to have independent journalists at newspapers which are not beholden to giant corporations. We need some unbiased information to discover the roots.

Toxic Hot Seat is a vital documentary not just on flame retardants, but also on the political processes that we've let develop. It's about astroturfing, and complacency. And, it's about how legal misinformation and deception actually is. This is required viewing for Americans who need to know what strings are being pulled how...not just on flame retardants, but every issue that is against the big bad corporations.

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