Judge Russell Engebretson will never make the mistake of taking siding for granted again.
Every three seconds another house in America is sided with vinyl.
The documentary Blue Vinyl bills itself as "the world's first toxic comedy," but it's long on tragedy and short on humor. In their travels—which included jaunts from New Jersey to Louisiana, Venice, California, and Georgia—the filmmakers gathered data and conducted interviews that allowed them to deliver two compelling arguments: People the world over are being poisoned by the byproducts of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturing, and the owners of the vinyl industry, with malice aforethought, covered up the facts for decades.
Facts of the Case
The parents of Judith Helfand (The Uprising of '34) had their house sided with vinyl in 1994, and Judith filmed the work process. She had no idea that years later, purely through serendipity, her footage would become the opening sequence for her investigation of the vinyl industry. Along with cameraman and producer Daniel B. Gold, Helfand traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana, site of a massive vinyl manufacturing plant. They interviewed several residents of Lake Charles, filmed a meeting between residents and managers from the plant, filmed aerial shots of the factory at dawn (for a roughly equivalent cinematic image, imagine the opening of Blade Runner), and met with spokespeople for the vinyl industry.
Back at the Helfands' home in Merrick, New Jersey, Judith invited biologist Joe Thornton (author of Pandora's Poison) to explain to her parents how vinyl production produces toxins. Two Greenpeace members gave a slideshow presentation to her father of the vinyl manufacturing process, but her father, skeptical of Greenpeace, wanted more evidence of PVC toxicity, so Judith sought out George Lucier, PhD (former director of the environmental toxicology program at the National Institute of Health), for a second opinion. He discussed how the manufacture of PVC creates the unwanted byproduct of dioxin, a potent carcinogen.
Returning to Louisiana, the filmmakers interviewed Billy Baggett, an attorney who represents vinyl chloride workers with health-related claims. According to the narrator, Baggett's archive "is the most extensive collection of internal chemical documents anywhere." Investigative journalists and other lawyers have used Baggett's documents; once Baggett's archives were paid a visit from an officer of the High Court in Venice, Italy, accompanied by an Italian epidemiologist and a U.S. Deputy Marshall with a subpoena. They spent a week photocopying documents.
So Helfand and crew jetted to Venice, home of gondoliers, canals, and Enichem, one of the largest vinyl manufacturing plants in Europe. At the time of filming, the government was prosecuting a landmark case against PVC manufacturers for knowingly polluting the Venice lagoon and endangering the health of their employees. Rather than naming the companies in the suit, the case tried 31 individual vinyl executives on criminal charges of manslaughter. The outcome of the trial is one of the extra features on the DVD.
The documentary also includes an interview with Patrick Hayes of Marin County, California, a builder of ecologically friendly houses, who offered to take a look at the Helfand home and make siding recommendations. After discussions with the builder, the Helfands decided to re-side the house with reclaimed lumber.
Blue Vinyl, winner of the Excellence in Cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival, is densely packed with interviews, organic chemistry lessons for the layman, vignettes of Helfand's mother and father, clever animations, and continual narration. The filmmakers provide a strong case for their arguments, backing them up with many interviews and a great deal of documentation. They also speak with several people from the vinyl industry, who mostly come across as insincere or downright ridiculous; one industry apologist equates chlorine with salt and says that without salt your body would not respond to thought impulses (a real Bill Nye the Science Guy moment).
On the following points, Blue Vinyl is not reporting anything new, though it may be shocking news to some viewers: Dioxin (a byproduct of certain industrial processes) is a potent carcinogen, which is now present in groundwater, the soil, and even mothers' milk; it was a byproduct in Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam; and it is cancer causing in over 250 parts per million (ppm). None of this is news to people who have followed the debate over dioxin. The few scientists who dispute the toxicity of dioxin are almost all in the pay of corporations. The central revelation in this documentary is the joint effort between European and American vinyl companies to bury evidence of the toxicity of vinyl manufacture since the early 1970s.
Italian scientist Dr. Cesare Maltoni conducted an industry-sponsored study in 1972 on the toxicity of PVC exposure. Laboratory rats exposed to as little as 250 ppm—half the amount legally allowed for European and American workers—suffered from ear and liver tumors, and the very rare angiosarcoma. The European vinyl industry was unhappy with Dr. Maltoni's results and decided to keep his research secret; however, they shared the results with their American counterparts after the Americans agreed to sign a formal secrecy agreement forbidding them to share information about the dangers of vinyl chloride with anyone.
Because of the secrecy agreement, attorney Billy Baggett believes that the international vinyl industry knew that their workers could get cancer just by coming to work, and that they acted together to hide the truth. When Baggett represents a client with a PVC-related claim, he attaches conspiracy allegations, which means that 32 PVC manufacturers are implicated in each suit.
Baggett also talks about the use of vinyl chloride in hairspray, which seems to have been prevalent in the late '60s and early '70s. Women spraying their hair were often exposed to vinyl chloride levels higher than those of industrial workers. He says that the industry was aware of the unlimited potential liability if millions of women realized they were spraying carcinogenic clouds around their faces, so the vinyl industry kept that information secret as well, and quietly withdrew PVC hairsprays from the marketplace.
Several scenes show Judith trying to educate her parents on the dangers of vinyl; some of them are mildly amusing (they are the most comic portion of the movie), but just as many seem superfluous. After a while I tired of Judith's mother and her contentious bullheadedness. She seemed to fight Judith every step of the way toward re-siding the house, and even after Judith paid a handsome sum out of her own pocket for the lumber, her mother childishly insisted they stain the wood blue to match the old vinyl siding. Of course, Judith is the filmmaker, and she may be putting a personal spin on the movie to cast herself in a more favorable light, but she seems to strive for fairness and balance throughout the documentary. My take is that her mother is indeed just bullheaded. Her father is skeptical at first but slowly comes round to Judith's point of view (but we fathers know what softies we are for our daughters). In the end, I felt there was too much footage of the Helfand parents and of Judith bickering with her mother.
One other complaint I have is with the loss of interviews of English workers. These interviews are mentioned in the commentary and listed in the credits, but they are not included even in the extra material. So that's another strike against all the family material, for pushing out what might have been compelling footage.
The disc is loaded with extra features. The audio commentary with Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold is excellent, with interesting technical commentary from Gold (explaining, for example, how the crew did lightning fast shots of a vinyl plant using a jib before the security guard arrived to warn them away), and Helfand adds detailed insights on the many interviews. The dissection of the interview with vinyl spokesman William Carroll is quite revealing. Other substantial extras are interviews with animators Emily Hubley and Jeremiah Dickey (including some edited cartoon material and discussion on how the animation was created) and the Venice vinyl verdict. The Venice verdict is riveting, with the expected outcome (the wealthy owners walk away without even a slapped wrist). What is remarkable is the solidarity and anger of the victims' families, who appear to be within a molecule of tearing the defendants apart. It was almost uncomfortable to watch such raw misery and loathing on the screen, but it impresses on the viewer that this movie is not fiction. It's about real people suffering the real consequences of industrial poisoning.
There is also a very extensive catalog/trailer feature that includes 90 film titles with blurbs, and nine of those titles include full-length trailers. It was fun to browse.
The DVD authoring is decent. Colors are vivid, and the picture is usually crisp and detailed. There are a variety of cameras used, from professional to small handheld, so the quality is slightly uneven, but overall very impressive. Sound is clear and clean, mostly dialogue from the center speaker. The music soundtrack by Marty Ehrlich and Sam Broussard is marvelous. It ranges from sax-driven New Orleans jazz to ominous electronic pulses, and weaves itself unobtrusively into the background.
This is not low-budget, guerilla-style documentary making with a shaky, handheld video camera. There was enough cash to send the film crew to several states, and even overseas; and there was enough equipment—and, most important, filmmaking savvy and editorial skill—to produce a documentary that is a delight to watch. Blue Vinyl guides the viewer through the thicket of information with surefooted aplomb. I highly recommend this muckraking epic.
The documentary makers are free to go and encouraged to film again. The vinyl captains of commerce are sentenced to a life of labor in their own factories.
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