Toxic Test 

Blue Vinyl (not rated)
Toxic Comedy Pictures/HBO

With a deft comic touch, Peabody Award winning documentarian Judith Helfand explores the origins of the blue vinyl siding her parents have chosen to spruce up their Long Island home. Turns out the siding is made of polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, a popular plastic that produces deadly toxins when it's manufactured, when it's broken down and when it's destroyed. It is the second-largest selling plastic in the world.

Lake Charles, Louisiana is the PVC manufacturing capital of America, so that's where Helfand ends up, talking with wives of dead plant workers, a dogged environmental lawyer, and working people who've been forced out of their neighborhood because of groundwater pollution from the PVC plant. What she learns there leads her to Venice, Italy, where the Italian government has brought suit against a pack of corporate executives who are implicated in sloppy safety practices in a large PVC plant there, resulting in the pollution of the Grand Canal, and rare and unusual cancers among an inordinate number of workers.

Helfand is a cancer survivor. When she was 25, she underwent a radical hysterectomy as the result of a rare cervical cancer caused by her mother's ingestion of DES, a synthetic estrogen, decades earlier. She chronicled that period in her life and the impact of toxic chemical exposure on her relationship with her mother in A Healthy Baby Girl, her 1997 film, shown at Sundance and awarded the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in journalism and public education. Her style is light-handed but brutally honest, infused with brash Long Island wit and deep affection for her parents Ted and Florence.

In Blue Vinyl, she poses the question that haunts many of us in our decidedly consumer culture: "Is it possible to make products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle -- when manufactured, when used, or when disposed of?" The answer is complicated and uncertain, but Helfand concludes that when a product is known to be life threatening, as was the case with asbestos when it was driven out of the market by public outcry in the 1970s, manufacturers should be encouraged to use alternative products and consumers should demand that safer products be made available.

In 98 minutes, Helfand and cinematographer/co-director/co-producer Daniel Gold educate us about the introduction of dioxins to the food chain, the known dangers of exposure to polyvinyl chloride by-products, the available alternatives for manufacturers and the responsibility of consumers to ask difficult questions. Award-winning documentarian Judith Helfand hauls her little piece of blue vinyl siding across the continent, across the Atlantic Ocean and back, trying to come up with a suitable solution to her parents' siding problem, keeping us entertained and intrigued every step of the way.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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