Toxic Hot Seat: Film Review

Eye-opening doc does for furniture what "Psycho" did for showers.

James Redford and Kirby Walker explain the deadly consequences of well-intentioned safety regulations.

NEW YORK -- Just in case the world needed more reasons to despise the tobacco industry, James Redford and Kirby Walker's Toxic Hot Seat shows how cigarette companies have given people cancer in ways having nothing to do with smoking or even secondhand smoke: By deceitfully pushing for flame-retardants in furniture, they've surrounded us with toxic chemicals that are untested and ineffective, finding their way into mothers' breast milk and poisoning firefighters. Despite its clumsy title, the eye-opening film is sure to increase attention to efforts to pull back from the use of these chemicals; upcoming screenings on HBO will do much to spread the word.

Since a 1975 law mandated the use of certain retardants in goods sold in California, the furniture industry has made them ubiquitous in the US despite a lack of evidence of their benefits in real-world conditions. It turns out this law was pushed by companies unwilling to invest in making cigarettes that would self-extinguish when dropped, instead of burning long enough to start house fires.

That was good news for Big Tobacco and for the three major chemical companies that sold these retardants, but over the decades more and more Americans began to feel it was terrible for the rest of us. We meet firefighters who have unwittingly spent years inhaling carcinogens -- a group of female San Francisco firefighters suffers six times the incidence of breast cancer typical for their demographic.

The film follows a few citizen activists attempting to curb chemical use, showing what a boost their efforts got from three investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune, whose "Playing With Fire" series won a slew of awards by uncovering the fake-grassroots organizations chemical companies created to fight regulation.

More than just a film about frightening hazards in our man-made environment, Toxic Hot Seat becomes a damning look at the effect of money on democracy -- more proof that the "speech" of a deep-pocketed multinational corporation has advantages that make a mockery of ordinary citizens' rights to petition their government. The movie has plenty of scandal on its hands before it even gets to the pathetically underfunded EPA, which has tested only a tiny fraction of the over 84,000 chemicals currently being used in manufactured goods.

Production Company: HBO Documentary Films

Directors: James Redford, Kirby Walker

Producers: James Redford, Kirby Walker, Nancy Abraham

Executive producers: Sheila Nevins

Directors of photography: John Kiffmeyer, Tylor Norwood

Music: Daniel Lanois

Editor: Jen Bradwell

No rating, 91 minutes