Billy Baggett, attorney for the victims of Lake Charles PVC exposure, prepares to enter the factory with his now patented 360 degree camera platform.
Dan Ross, a victim of PVC exposure as an employee in the Lake Charles facility, struggles for his life.
This photographic evidence reveals the industry’s attempt to cover up its knowledge of the dangers of PVC exposure.
In this shot, Helfand carries her ever-present example vinyl siding while moving through the canals of Venice, Italy. Here she and Gold document the culpability of the European PVC producers in a worldwide cover-up of the hazards of dioxins in vinyl.
Helfand struggles with her drive to expose the hazards of PVC when she sees and films a Habitat for Humanity home built from vinyl and financed by PVC companies.
In this scene, Helfand prepares to interview a PVC industry expert while the PVC industry interviews her. The interview is limited to 30 minutes, and the expert relies on talking points, so little new information is revealed.
The filmmakers connect the dangers of PVC in home construction with the discovery of hazards from asbestos contamination in homes across the U.S., drawing hope from the eventual success of asbestos protestors.
The first level of environmental injustice occurs at her parents’ house when the siding installer removing the rotting wood tells Helfand that vinyl will only emit dioxins and other toxic chemicals if burned in a fire. Later we learn at least one of these fires prompted the vinyl companies to form a vinyl organization “to protect and promote vinyl” or, according to Helfand and Gold, for damage control after fires in the 1970s and 80s culminated in a huge conflagration at the MGM Grand Hotel where smoke and toxic fumes fed by PVC piping, wallpaper, and plastic mirrors contributed to the majority of the 87 fatalities and 700 injuries. Greenpeace calls PVC the poison plastic because it causes permanent respiratory disease when burned, producing dioxins so powerful that people die from inhaling its gases before the flames reach them.
Although the toxicity of the contents of Helfand’s parents’ vinyl siding is an everyday ecodisaster, the production process for the PVC vinyl contains highlights a second level of environmental injustice and a second set of victims: those who work in and live in proximity to PVC plants. To uncover the truth about vinyl, the now detective Helfand goes to the source of vinyl siding—St. Charles, Louisiana, where PVC, the main ingredient in the vinyl, is produced in enormous chemical plants that dominate Mardis Gras celebrants, recreational lakes, and fields where cattle graze. Near the factory, the owner of a local restaurant, the Pitt Grill, and workers talk about what causes cancer. It’s the smoke in the air, they explain, broaching at least one violation of environmental justice and human rights. Their environment is clearly not “secure, healthy, and ecologically sound.” But the plant managers argue that hazards near PVC plants may be a relatively good thing because the company takes care of toxic spills fast.
As evidence of the blatant environmental injustices caused by the plant, however, several area residents note the repercussions of living near this toxic plant. In the town of Mossville, for example, African American resident Dianne Prince has cancer and believes she received it from the factory. She asks, is safety a big issue in Lake Charles? At Community Risk Management meetings, other residents discuss the hazards of raw materials from the factories. Residents near the factory are unable to breathe. Trees are brown on the side facing the plant, green on the other. But factory owners only refer Helfand to the Vinyl Institute website where scrolling graphics extoll the uses of vinyl and its “green” recyclable footprint. Vinyl is everywhere, “making a difference every day,” according to the website. And at a conference devoted to alternatives to PVC, the Vinyl Institute was there to exalt the benefits of their product. Other evidence Helfand uncovers tells a different story:
To substantiate the flagrant environmental injustices occurring for both workers and residents living in vinyl sided homes, most studies indicate that any benefits of PVC are outweighed by their risks. Helfand calls PVC “the Watergate of molecules,” since it is more dangerous than any other plastic. A single PVC fire can cause disease and death. But the danger doesn’t stop there. Dioxin is produced at both ends of the PVC life cycle, so PVC and its vinyl output is not easily recycled. PVC ends up in landfills causing more disease and death. According to Helfand, the damage caused by PVC is similar to what DES did to her. All evidence demonstrates that dioxin is an unwanted contaminant caused by PVC, a toxic waste that is not degraded by humans or the environment. If dioxin is getting in the atmosphere, it’s getting in the food chain and building up in our bodies, Helfand explains, highlighting the breadth of environmental injustices associated with use of PVC.
The environmental injustice associated with PVC production, use, and disposal extends to human rights issues when Attorney William (Billy) B. Baggett, Jr. reinforces Helfand’s claims. As a lawyer, he can legally film areas where exposed workers have been, but he is only allowed one plant visit. When he enters the factory, he uses five cameras on a handheld platform to get a 360-degree view, hoping to show where workers he is representing might have been exposed to polyvinyl chloride. To augment Baggett’s evidence, Helfand and her crew provide examples of workers afflicted with cancer and other diseases due to PVC exposure. One afflicted worker’s wife holds a hand-written note on a bill that proves the company’s culpability: “Exceeds short-term exposure. Do not include on wire to Houston,” the note explains, a message whited out on the versions Baggett receives from the company. This blatant omission provides proof and lays the groundwork for conspiracy allegations against all PVC manufacturers, with Baggett, the lawyer, leading the charge.
This omission serves as strong evidence of human rights violation, as criminal activity that puts people who work in or live near the factory or live in vinyl-sided homes at risk. The industry’s knowledge of the negative effects of PVC exposure is confirmed in the documents Baggett and his clients find, including internal industry documents from Venice, Italy to all parts of the United States warning about the dangers of PVC toxins. According to Blue Vinyl, the European Vinyl industry researched PVC repercussions in 1972 and discovered that low doses of vinyl chloride caused cancer in laboratory mice, even in amounts that were less than the legal levels to which workers were exposed. None of this was revealed to the public, however, because a secrecy agreement was signed in Europe, and American companies agreed to it.
Ailing or deceased employees in Venice and Lake Charles and residents in Lake Charles and Mossville, Louisiana highlight the human costs of such a violation or rights and environmental justice. To prove that PVC causes cancer and that residents are breathing PVC too, testing buckets are created to measure toxic exposures and warn residents in Lake Charles. When tested, the air was found to be full of chloride and other chemicals, and those toxins also contaminated nearby water sources.
The most extreme environmental consequence of PVC and dioxin revealed by the film, however, transforms environmental injustice into environmental racism, when residents of Mossville, a predominantly African American community in the region, are forced to leave because PVC toxins from area factories have contaminated their water. As further evidence of blatant environmental injustice and racism, these residents are not only left without a community but also without recourse for future health issues. In order to sell their homes at low prices, the PVC companies required all residents sign an agreement that they would not file suit against the company if they developed health problems caused by the contamination. Clearly, these residents have lost their right to a secure, healthy, and ecologically sound environment.
Although choosing a more environmentally sound product will not solve industry-wide problems, to at least minimize one aspect of environmental justice, the negative environmental consequences of home construction, Helfand looks for eco-friendly siding alternatives for her parents’ house. Despite setbacks, including struggling with the dilemma of Habitat for Humanity’s vinyl homes being funded by the Vinyl Institute and Helfand’s ineffective programmed meeting with the Vinyl Institute, Helfand discovers reclaimed wood as an alternative for the vinyl that also proves aesthetically pleasing to her parents. Since it costs a small fortune, however, she misses her goal to find an economically feasible alternative and, ironically pays for the new siding herself with money from a DES settlement, her “uterus money,” as she calls it.
Blue Vinyl provides a clear case that vinyl siding is hazardous to human and nonhuman nature but ends with an ambiguous view of alternatives too expensive for Helfand’s family or Habitat for Humanity homes. Yet it also broaches some wider-reaching solutions to the environmental hazards of PVC, condemning vinyl companies for their knowing endangerment of their employees and of residents near their plants. Blue Vinyl addresses environmental justice issues on both an individual and universal level. Helfand’s film unearths inequities related to geography and racial and class bias, illustrating the extent to which Lake Charles and Mossville, Louisiana, and Venice, Italy, have become “sacrifice zones” in which toxins are tolerated because residents and factory workers lack power. Helfand and Baggett help provide them with a voice in both Helfand’s documentary film and the court cases Baggett leads.
PVC, vinyl, and industrial ecology
The dangers of PVC have been widely documented in research reports, but so have studies that demonstrate the viability of safer and affordable alternatives. According to David T. Allen,
Yet, in their Tufts University study, Frank Ackerman and Rachel Massey effectively document the hazards of PVC and vinyl over its life cycle, but they also note the availability of viable and safe alternatives for PVC products, including wood shingles or clapboard, fiber cement, and simulated stucco. They also refute claims that vinyl is “maintenance free,” arguing that fiber cement is “more durable than vinyl” and “does not warp or burn.” Although Helfand and Gold conclude that environmentally sound alternatives are available but costly, Ackerman and Massey disagree, challenging “economic arguments for continued use of PVC” and asserting that alternatives to PVC are not only viable but also economical. According to their report, “academic studies have shown that the costs of environmental protection are routinely overestimated in advance, and decline rapidly after implementation.”
Ackerman and Massey’s results are reinforced by the research conclusions of both G.K. Al-Sharrah, et al and David Goldsmith, engineers who highlight the need to insert environmental objectives in industry analyses that “represent sustainability giving good results in selecting environmentally friendly processes and at the same time profitable” outcomes (1). Goldsmith, on the other hand, argues against “an anthropocentric model of nature as a supplier of resources” and instead asserts “that it would be beneficial to critically examine the ethical basis for sustainable built environments. These studies demonstrate the viability of an environmentally sound approach to PVC and other chemical production.
Despite these studies, PVC production and consumption continue at an astronomical pace. In fact, in 2011, nine years after the release of Blue Vinyl, Mossville, Louisiana, the predominately African American community right next door to Lake Charles, lost its case with the EPA to establish the community and its PVC plants as a Superfund Site. The EPA Superfund Strategy Recommendation on May 3, 2011 explained away both water and soil contamination as “within the range of the background for the area” or “naturally occurring.” With these justifications, the site score fell below the required 28.5. For us, however, this oversight implicates the EPA in the environmental injustice and racism suffered by the residents of Mossville, as well as the residents of Lake Charles and the thousands of PVC plant workers in the region, issues addressed with strong emotional appeal in Blue Vinyl.