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HBO’s 'Toxic Hot Seat' is Two-For-One Corporate Exposé
November 25, 2013  | By David Sicilia  | 1 comment

There is no mistaking the message of this crisp, linear documentary.  We’ve known since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that chemicals can pose an insidious, invisible threat to land, sea, and air.  The danger that walks like a zombie through this two-hour special is more specific.  Hint: Look at the subtitle.  You are sitting on it, dear television couch potato.  Almost certainly, your sofa has been treated with fire retardant chemicals.  If you wish to check, look for a label that cites “Technical Bulletin 117.”  If you find it, you’re safe.  Right?

Furniture fire retardants were a terrific idea back in the mid-1970s, when something like 40 percent of U.S. adult males still smoked cigarettes.  Doze off, drop your smoldering butt into the La-Z-Boy, and within seconds, you and your loved ones could be engulfed in flames.  Household fires were a regular occurrence, and smokers caused nearly all of them.

The chemical industry rose to the challenge by conjuring up concoctions that – when impregnated into furniture fabrics, draperies, and pajamas – would make them difficult to ignite and very slow to burn.  It was another ingenious technological fix.  Trouble is, we know that wherever technology goes, so goes that great parable of technology, Frankenstein.  Many of those fire retardant chemicals can cause cancer when breathed or absorbed through the skin.  And when they burn, they produce a toxic cloud that far too often sickens or kills firefighters.  One is known as tris, short for tris(hydroxymethyl)aminomethane.

The good guys in Toxic Hot Seat, which premieres on HBO tonight (Monday, Nov. 25, 9 p.m. ET), are firefighters, moms, investigative journalists (I thought they’d all been fired by now … get them!) at the Chicago Tribune, underfunded EPA regulators, and the good people of California and their redux governor, Jerry Brown.

The bad guys are the chemical industry and their lobbyists – or, as one talking head puts it none too subtly, “Money versus People.”  But the story, as the documentary itself offers evidence of, may be as much about technological hubris and regulatory lag as about cold-hearted profitmaking.  

But producer/directors James Redford and Kirby Walker don’t want to go there.  They want to rake some muck themselves.   A story that pits moms and firefighters and muckraking journalists against Corporate America is worth cheering for.  Okay, maybe not if you’re Republican, especially the part about why we should expand the EPA.  Red Staters may find themselves smoldering in their seats at this particular piece of HBO advocacy.
As if the chemical industry weren’t bad enough for the black hat corner, the program also delivers the most reviled industry of all – Big Tobacco!  According to Toxic Hot Seat, one feasible solution to the flammable furniture problem was to force the tobacco companies to produce self-extinguishing cigarettes (or, more precisely, to stop treating them chemically to stay lit).  Instead, the cigarette companies and their lobbyists pushed for furniture – instead of cigarettes – that wouldn’t burn, and the laws to enforce them.  

It’s an intriguing thesis, even a plausible one, given the stakes for the cigarette producers.  For the chemical companies, who surely felt good about making homes safer from fire, the profits from those couches have been small potatoes.

A decade ago, I published an academic study of three industries that Americans love to hate:  chemicals, tobacco, and nuclear power.  If Walker and Redford could have worked nukes in here, they’d have hit the trifecta.

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Um, almost all of the science in Silent Spring has been debunked since it's publication - you can read about that here: http://reason.com/archives/2002/06/12/silent-spring-at-40. Using that as the intro calls the rest of the post into question.
Nov 25, 2013   |  Reply
Perhaps. But, that's sort of like saying your use of "it's" instead of "its" calls your comment into question.
Nov 26, 2013
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