When Judith Helfand's parents put blue vinyl siding on their suburban Long Island house in 1994, it didn't cross her mind that one day those extruded panels would take center stage in a documentary and lead her to the Sundance Film Festival.
Helfand's documentary about the PVC industry, Blue Vinyl, picked up an award for cinematography at Sundance this year, and will be shown May 5 at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT on Home Box Office.
Using her parents' decision as a jumping-off point, the film follows Helfand around as she invites Greenpeace over to the family homestead to talk about PVC and attends a vinyl industry home-building project with Habitat for Humanity. It follows her to Italy, for a trial of PVC industry executives charged with manslaughter for the deaths of workers exposed to chemicals in their plants. (As the film notes, the executives were acquitted.)
The documentary takes a clear-eyed look at the vinyl industry's sometimes-disturbing past, such as the estimated 200 former PVC plant workers who industry acknowledges were killed by cancer they got from their jobs. But, given the heavy subject matter, the film also has a surprisingly light touch in spots.
At one point, Helfand films a ``family meeting'' she has with her parents to discuss whether they should remove the vinyl from their house. In another example, she invites over a green builder who lives in a tent to try to get her parents to choose a vinyl replacement.
VI gives thumbs down
Vinyl industry officials admit the movie makes interesting viewing, but they maintain that it's not accurate.
``Judith presents an entertaining and troubling picture, but it's troubling because she has her facts wrong,'' said Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based Vinyl Institute.
For example, the film interviews Greenpeace staffers and former government officials about the dangers of dioxin. But industry officials said it lacks context - the film does not note, they said, that vinyl manufacturing is responsible for just 1.1 percent of all dioxin emissions, and that dioxin emissions have fallen as PVC manufacturing has skyrocketed.
The film reviews a host of vinyl issues - that vinyl was responsible for injuries in some high-profile fires in the 1970s and 1980s; that the PVC industry conspired to conceal groundbreaking studies by Dr. Caesare Maltoni that vinyl chloride monomer exposure caused tumors in the early 1970s; that there is a link between VCM exposure and brain cancer; and that living near chemical plants can cause cancer.
VI contends the film gets it wrong in all those cases. VI officials said the vinyl industry published its studies in open journals, kept the government informed and only signed a confidentiality agreement with Maltoni because he wouldn't share the data without it.
And, VI said, there have been no documented cases of angiosarcoma of the liver among VCM workers who started after new safety standards were put in place in 1975.
``It implies you are destroying the environment if you put up vinyl siding,'' said Don Evans, senior counsel with American Chemistry Council, also in Arlington.
The vinyl industry plans a Web site, www.aboutbluevinyl.org, to respond. The filmmakers have two Web sites, www.bluevinyl.org and one that makes the film part of an anti-vinyl campaign, www.my house isyourhouse.org.
The film covers a lot of ground, some of it previously covered in a Houston Chronicle series and a Bill Moyers documentary, and raises some troubling assertions.
It shows an apparently doctored PVC industry document that played a key role in a lawsuit brought by sick PVC workers in Louisiana. The document about workplace exposure noted a level that ``exceeds short-term exposure'' and urged that the document not be forwarded within the company.
The film takes a very personal approach, and for Helfand, the topic of chemical exposure is one that hits close. She got a rare form of cervical cancer from diethylstilbestrol, or DES, a synthetic estrogen that her mother ingested to prevent miscarriages. Helfand had a hysterectomy when she was 25. She chronicled that in a 1997 film, A Healthy Baby Girl, for which she won a Peabody Award.
She jokes at one point in the movie about getting her ``uterus money'' to finance the project, but early on in the film she lays out the profound effect it had on her.
``Up to that point, the dangers of toxic chemical exposure hadn't really worried me,'' she said. ``But then I started to question everything.''
Helfand said she was in Lake Charles, La., for a 1997 screening of A Healthy Baby Girl when she met people who lived around PVC plants and who complained about chemical exposure. One community leader interviewed in the film believes, but can't prove, that her cancer came from living around the plants.
For Helfand and her co-director, Daniel Gold, the film points up the need for the precautionary principle, given the long litany of problems they tie to the PVC industry.
The PVC industry's arguments on dioxin, for example, assume that incinerators always operate perfectly, said Gold. And the film reviews new research at Columbia University that suggests genetic mutations occur among PVC workers at current exposure levels, not the much-higher levels that killed workers decades ago.
``The point that we make is how difficult it is to make definitive links,'' Helfand said in a telephone interview. But she said, given PVC's past and current problems, ``If you wait to make definitive links, it's too late.''