Chemical flame retardants are everywhere. Our furniture. Our homes. Our bodies. Yet they don’t seem to stop fires. They do, however, seem to make us sick.
TOXIC HOT SEAT takes an in-depth look at a nexus of money, politics and power – and a courageous group of firefighters, mothers, journalists, scientists, politicians and activists as they fight to expose what they assert is a shadowy campaign of deception that has left a toxic legacy in America’s homes and bodies for nearly 40 years.
Set against the backdrop of the award-winning 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative series Playing with Fire, TOXIC HOT SEAT tells an intricate story, detailing how chemical companies that produce flame retardants spend millions of dollars on lobbyists, publicists and influencers, and how Big Tobacco had a hand in convincing fire-safety officials to back a standard that, in effect, requires all furniture to be filled with toxic flame retardants.
Known as California Technical Bulletin 117, the 1975 law was meant to reduce the escalating death rates from house fires caused by cigarettes. It mandated that all fabrics sold in California needed to contain flame retardants. To streamline operations, furniture makers opted to use the fire-retardant chemicals in all polyurethane foam-based furniture sold in the U.S., not just those items intended for sale in California.
TOXIC HOT SEAT shows how a handful of large chemical companies ended up being accused of obscuring public-health risks and misrepresenting chemical safety data by paying “experts” to alarm legislators and the public about the risk of removing chemical flame retardants from homes. In addition, the film highlights the argument that the tobacco industry effectively colluded with chemical companies back in the 1970s, lobbying for the use of chemical flame retardants in furniture, rather than developing a self-extinguishing cigarette, at a time when fires ignited by cigarettes were the main cause of home fires in the U.S.
TOXIC HOT SEAT features interviews with Chicago Tribune journalists and with brave citizens willing to fight for the truth against powerful industries, including:
Tony Stefani, a 30-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department who loved his job but had to quit when he found out he had a rare form of cancer. Tony was not alone. Firefighters are particularly vulnerable because of the toxic fumes caused by the burning of flame-retardant chemicals during fires. Among 40- to 50-year-old female firefighters in San Francisco, for example, the breast-cancer rate is six times the national average for that age group.
Dr. Arlene Blum, an award-winning chemist at U.C. Berkeley, who proved in the 1970s that flame retardants in pajamas showed up in children’s urine. Though they were subsequently banned in children’s clothing, flame retardants continue to be used in many other children’s products. High levels of flame retardants are linked to decreased fertility, cancer and learning problems.
Hannah Pingree, a former state representative in Maine, who had her chemical levels tested. Though she lives on a small island off the coast, the testing discovered flame retardants and other chemicals in her body that could harm her health. Her activism against flame retardants in furniture ultimately led to a statewide ban.
Director and producer Kirby Walker is an independent documentary and educational filmmaker-video producer. Director and producer James Redford’s other credits as a director include the 2012 HBO documentary The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, and as a producer, Mann v. Ford, which aired as part of the 2011 HBO Documentary Films summer series, as well as The Kindness of Strangers, which aired on HBO in 1999.
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TOXIC HOT SEAT is directed and produced by James Redford and Kirby Walker; editor, Jen Bradwell; cinematographers, John Kiffmeyer and Tylor Norwood; music by Daniel Lanois. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.