Blue Vinyl: A Toxic Comedy


The film "Blue Vinyl" -- not to be confused with "Blue Velvet" -- is what filmmaker Judy Helfand calls a "toxic comedy." It's not easy to make the tale of polyvinyl chlorides -- also known as PVCs -- into an understandable, accessible and funny movie, but Helfand succeeds.

Helfand's movie, made with producer and Sundance award-winning cinematographer Daniel B. Gold, airs on HBO on Sunday night, just after the hit HBO show, "Six Feet Under." Ironically, there is an unintended connection between the two shows. Even though "Blue Vinyl" is funny, it's also about death. It's about the underbelly of the chemical industry, and the processes implemented to produce the stuff consumers use trustingly everyday. And we find out that what we don't know could kill us -- and sometimes does.

"Blue Vinyl" begins simply enough: A middle-class Jewish couple is arguing with their daughter about their decision to re-side the family home with "Blue Vinyl." In a hilarious exchange, Judy Helfand urges her mother to search for other, greener alternatives. Convinced that vinyl isn't the way to go, Helfand embarks on a research mission to find out more about the material Greenpeace calls "the poison plastic."

What she uncovers is frightening, enlightening, and unbelievably, even comic. Though cheap and durable, vinyl -- found in such everyday items as infant toys, hospital IV bags, computers, cell phones, car dashboards and food containers -- is terribly corrosive on many fronts. "Blue Vinyl" captures Helfand's odyssey on film, taking her from New Orleans, Louisiana, where one-third of PVC is produced, to Venice, Italy, the world's largest PVC producer.

Helfand says she is trying to reframe what it means to "buy cheap." Millions of Americans use vinyl siding on their houses because it is affordable and also safe -- unless your house happens to catch fire, that is. Greenpeace reports that 60 percent of PVC is used in construction alone. When burned, PVC produces lethal gases. But that's not the point Helfand is making.

She wants her viewers to understand that vinyl extracts a price higher than the one consumers pay at the cash register. She wants us to look at the toxic material's entire life cycle, from its production in chemical factories to the tricky disposal problems it presents. (As a compound toxic vinyl is completely unbiodegradable).

Besides hurting the environment, especially when it's dumped in landfills, PVC takes lives. In Lake Charles, in an area known as Cancer Alley, we meet some of the PVC plant workers who, one by one, are dying of cancer. In comes one of the film's many colorful characters, Billy Baggett, a Louisiana attorney who, with the support of workers and their families, has challenged the chemical industry. By filing lawsuits that charge various chemical companies, the Vinyl Institute and the PVC trade association with criminal conspiracy, Baggett has been given access to millions of sealed, covert documents.

Some of these documents were used in the powerful Bill Moyers special, Trade Secrets, which aired last year on PBS. Many of them are available online at the Environmental Working Group.

As Helfand tours Baggett's document-filled office, we get the feeling that vinyl is much more than it seems, and of course, that suspicion is correct. Halfway across the globe in Venice, we learn that what happened in Lake Charles is also happening in this Italian city.

An Italian doctor discovers that his lab rats, exposed to half the ppm of PVC used in manufacturing vinyl, suffer from an extremely rare form of cancer called angiosarcoma, which explains the plight of so many PVC plant workers.

"It was a choking, murderous job," says one worker, who speaks through an eerie voice box.

Then, in a landmark case, 36 vinyl executives are charged with manslaughter for the deaths of 100 workers and chronic symptoms of 600 more.

There are many more scandalous stories to be heard and seen in "Blue Vinyl" -- the fact, for instance, that for decades of the 20th century, thousands of women used hairspray that had higher levels of dioxin, the chemical emitted from PVC, than the average industrial worker was exposed to in a PVC plant. There is also the heartbreaking sight of the revered organization, Habitat for Humanity, building houses with parts donated by the Vinyl Institute.

"Everyone say 'Vinyl,' " says the photographer to the assembled crowd of volunteers and Institute heads.

What happens to the Helfand family's own house of vinyl? We can't be the spoiler here, but we can say that greener pastures are ahead.

"Blue Vinyl" has received support from an array of grassroots organizations. The filmmakers are working closely with the "My House is Your House" campaign and its efforts to transform the PVC industry -- in the way asbestos and lead were phased out through vigorous protests and reform -- so that it ceases to be a source of environmental and human harm.

"Blue Vinyl" was partially funded by HBO, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation and the Education Foundation of America, among others. It airs at 10pm Sunday, May 5, as part of HBO's venerable "America Undercover" series. It airs again at 11pm May 8; 11:30am May 11 and 7:30am May 16.

Don Hazen is executive director of the Independent Media Institute and executive editor of

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