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Interview With James Redford and Kirby Walker

Toxic Hot Seat

HBO

How did you discover the issue of toxic flame retardants?

Kirby Walker

I first heard about the issue from Dr. Sarah Janssen, who works at UCSF [University of California, San Francisco]. It just got under my skin. I called her and said, "I want to know more about this." She said, "Go to this day-long symposium Dr. Arlene Blum is putting on in Berkeley." By by the end of that day I thought: These people are so incredible. There's a film here.

HBO

When you started the project, did you have any idea that this issue would get attention from the federal government?

James Redford

Not at all. We experienced the same journey the audience does.

Kirby Walker

We thought that it was going to be a film about watching change happen in the California state legislature -- a simple story of one state and one chemical representing bigger things.

The Chicago Tribune hadn't published [its Playing With Fire series] yet. We were three months into shooting before that happened. Did we ever dream that Tony Stefani, our firefighter from Station 1 in San Francisco, was going to testify in Washington, D.C.? Never.

HBO

The film chronicles the turning points in the Chicago Tribune's investigation. Did you have your own "ah-ha moment while making the documentary?

Kirby Walker

I think an ah-ha moment was when the Tribune published; we saw that all of the main characters they profiled were all of the people that we were interviewing. We knew the right characters were telling our story.

James Redford

On our second day of shooting, California state senator Holly Mitchell from California dropped the bill that she'd sponsored. [Assembly Bill 2197 was co-authored by Mitchell and Leno in 2012, and proposed the reversal of TB 117 in California.] From that point forward, the focus shifted from trying to push the change through the legislative bodies to going directly to the governor. The technical bulletin is not a law, so it can be changed by administrative order. That's why [California] Governor Jerry Brown was able to make the difference. That was a big ah-ha moment; the fact that the lowest point was the genesis of victory.

HBO

How did you first meet Tony Stefani?

Kirby Walker

Tony was one of the incredible people who was presenting for the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation at Dr. Blum's symposium. He was just the most charismatic, honorable, selfless man. He's this amazing story of American heroism in some ways.

"Citizens standing up can make a difference. We feel this film is much more about a system that is broken than one regulation or one chemical."

HBO

Is he cancer-free?

Kirby Walker

Yes. It's been 12 years. He is still going to his UCSF doctors for check-ups. But he's lost five firefighters from his same station to transitional-cell carcinoma.

HBO

The film breaks down a large amount of hard science. How did you make it digestible for the viewer?

Kirby Walker

At one point in the film, Hannah Pingree, the Maine legislator, struggles to say all the names of the chemicals. We decided early on that we had to not get bogged down in the specifics and focus on the big picture.

HBO

Was there one scientific statistic that struck you hardest?

James Redford

There are more than 60,000 unregulated chemicals. People say, "Salt is a chemical. Water is a water." The word "chemical" doesn't automatically mean "bad." But with 60,000 unregulated chemicals, if even 1 percent are toxic, that's 600 toxic chemicals. That's a staggering figure and why I'm really happy that we were able to raise the big question about reforming at the federal level.

Kirby Walker

Michael Hawthorne, the investigative journalist at the Chicago Tribune says it best in our film: People have to stand up and say, We don't want to take this any more. We want to know what's in our products. We're not equipped with that knowledge and we should be."

HBO

What is the status of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act?

Kirby Walker

The film's final epilogue card was just changed two weeks ago [the week of November 4, 2013]. The initial card said that the California regulation TB 117 was changed in June 2013, which did not happen. The change is most likely going to happen in January 2014, but that shows how fluid things are.

The federal reform is a bipartisan bill that was co-authored by Senator Frank Lautenberg, who passed away, and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. The problem is that the bill actually gave us less regulation and took away states' rights. For instance, California couldn't come up with its own rules and regulations. The EPA was limited in certain ways that weren't acceptable.

The bill has been marked up again with changes that hopefully can give it some teeth. Our hope is that after people see this film, they push their senators and congress people to vote on this change if it becomes the bill we hope it will be. Right now it needs some reform.

HBO

What about the California state law?

Kirby Walker

As of January 2014, you will be able to buy furniture in the state of California -- and therefore, the country -- that does not have flame retardants in the foam. But the chemicals have not been banned or mandatorily removed from furniture, so the ownness will be on consumers.

HBO

What should consumers look for?

Kirby Walker

The labels are going to be different now. It's going to say, "Meets California fire safety standards TB 117 2013," even though it's going into effect in 2014. We think some retailers are going to add to that: "Does not contain flame retardant chemicals." The important thing for people to know is that every piece of furniture is still going to have to be fire safe. Furniture will still be smolder resistant -- the difference is that the foam inside the chair isn't going to be tested by open flame.

HBO

What do you hope viewers take away from this film?

Kirby Walker

I think our takeaway is that citizens standing up can make a difference. We feel this film is much more about a system that is broken than one regulation or one chemical. It's about the need for investigative journalism for democracy and campaign finance reform, as we saw in the difference between California and Maine.

HBO

What can viewers do to take action today?

Kirby Walker

Join Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 450 organizations from across the country. Speak up.

Toxic Hot Seat

Monday, November 25 at 9 PM

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