Blue Vinyl (2002) Movie Review

Posted July 20, 2008

Blue Vinyl (2002) , by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold begins and is centered around the blue vinyl residing of the exterior of Judith’s parents’ modest suburban house. I watched the film at my New Orleans home on the Sundance channel in summer 2007.

The film tells a story about the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from the plant to the consumer. It focuses on workers and surrounding communities’ exposure to toxic chemicals from plants during the production phase. Judy travels from home to Lake Charles and Baton Rouge Louisiana, to Italy and back searching out the truth that corporate executives knew all along…. PVC makes workers sick, but petrochemical companies hide that so they can rake in the money. By the time the public knows, the corporations are awash in profit (and capitalists can reinvest that profit into other industries).

Blue Vinyl is a fun documentary. It makes use of animated sequences, has good cinematography, and employs the best comedic techniques of a skilled muckraker. It delivers on the information. I knew Louisiana’s chemical corridor was vast, but had no idea that almost half of PVC plants in the US are in Louisiana. The documentary also finds hard targets: the petrochemical industry, corporate managers, the Vinyl Institute (industry trade association), and even Habitat for Humanity. As a result of the film’s stand, in March 2004, builders broke ground on the first PVC free Habitat for Humanity house in New Orleans. Oh, and the film has one of my favorite lawyers, Monique Hardin of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

The political weakness is the film’ consumer-oriented approach. Hefland admits that affordability is a key selling point of vinyl, and that the alternative to vinyl siding she used at her parents house was not affordable. Despite this, she reverts to the consumer choice mantra. The organizers of “My House is your House”, a non-profit set up at behest of the filmmakers- engage in corporate campaigns, but their main focus- and the focus of the film- is primarily on making the information available. Increasing the information available to consumers is useful, but consumer protection under capitalist “choice” has obvious limits.

Judy highlights some innovative alternatives by visiting a green building materials conference in California. Unless and until these “alternative” building methods become the new standard (through legislation and building codes) they will remain obscured in a certain California niche of those who can afford it.

In the film Helfand shows us that chemical workers are often the most at risk. First the workers get sick, then though collective action (union and/or class action lawsuits) they raise the profile and hopefully enact contract and policy changes. In parallel, the adjacent (often low income) community engages in calls for reduced emissions, careful monitoring, and maybe even plant closures. But even this is not enough. A very small percentage of the population works in a PVC plant or lives in the adjoining communities. And the petrochemical industry is tough. Collective approaches need to be more explicit: stronger workplace protections, tougher regulations (OSHA enforcement and stronger EPA), and an outright ban on PVC.

Background information/ research A-
Entertainment Value B+
Political Conclusions D

For more information:


3 responses to “Blue Vinyl (2002) Movie Review”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I discovered the existance of this film and its info when I saw it listed on ScreeningHQ. When I attempted to view the fil, the screen went to static and a banner across the screen read, “This video is not available in your country”. WHAT???! Is this the work of the cultural hegomony in our “free” country? Can you shed some light on the details for me, please? Thanks!

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Explosion and Chemical Release at PVC Plant in Geismar, LA

    This morning (March 22, 2012), Just a little over one month after the EPA announced new rules on regulating pollution from plants producing polyvinyl chloride, an explosion, chemical release, and fire was reported at Westlake Chemical’s Geismar Vinyls Complex near Geismar, LA in Ascension Parish.

    “Incidents like this one highlight why LEAN has worked hard for 26 years to demand that the industrial facilities in Louisiana be held to the strictest environmental and safety standards possible,” said Marylee Orr, Executive Director of Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), “Our experiences have shown us that fair but stringent and consistent oversight and regulation is necessary to reduce the number of these kinds of incidents as well as ‘everyday’ emissions. It is not too much to ask that the health and safety of our communities be protected.”

    While the fire is reported to be under control, residents are concerned about the possibility of exposure to the chemicals released during the incident. Residents are also concerned by any ongoing releases that may have resulted from the explosion and fire.

    Jean Kelly, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Quality said, “the plant was releasing vinyl chloride monomer, hydrochloric acid, chlorine and hydrochloric acid solution,” in an interview with the Times-Picayune.

    “The fire at the facility is of grave concern to the community because of the toxicity of the particular chemicals released,” said Wilma Subra, Technical Advisor for Louisiana Environmental Action Network, “vinyl chloride is a known human cancer causing agent and known to be toxic to the lungs and liver and chlorine and hydrochloric acid are potent respiratory irritants. There are concerns about day-to-day exposure to these chemicals by residents living near PVC facilities due to ‘normal’ , ‘everyday’ emissions but particularly during events such as this explosion and fire.”


    For more information see the following article:

    Westlake plant fire extinguished
    The Advocate
    March 22, 2012

    GEISMAR – A fire at Westlake Chemical’s Geismar Vinyls Complex has been extinguished and a one-mile shelter in place order has been lifted for Ascension Parish residents, authorities said.

    Also, a section of the Mississippi River near the plant that was closed earlier Thursday morning as a precautionary measure has been reopened, said Petty Officer Steve Lehmann, spokesman for the U. S. Coast Guard, Eighth District in New Orleans.

    The river was reopened because the plant fire or fumes no longer posed a threat to traffic on the river, Lehmann said.

    An explosion and subsequent fire occurred at the vinyl chloride monomer portion of the facility at the intersection of La. 73 and La. 30 at 8 a.m., said Karen Khonsari, environmental health and safety manager with Westlake.

    Go to the full article at The Advocate here:

    For more information on the recently released EPA PVC rules see the following article:

    EPA issues PVC pollution rules

    The Advocate
    February 18, 2012

    A long road for environmental groups appears to have ended Tuesday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released final rules on regulating pollution from plants producing polyvinyl chloride.

    Six facilities in Louisiana come under the new regulations that expand the number of pollutants these plants need to control and reduce how much can be released. Previously, EPA only required that plants control for and measure vinyl chloride to represent all of the hazardous air pollutants, according to an EPA fact sheet on the new rule.

    Now, in addition to vinyl chloride, facilities will need to meet limits for chlorinated di-benzo dioxins and furans (dioxins) as well as hydrogen chloride, which creates hydrochloric acid in contact with humidity in the air or water.

    Vinyl chloride is a known cancer-causing pollution, according to EPA. In addition, the new rule reduces the amount of these pollutants that can be released.

    “It’s a big deal because these are very, very toxic to communities,” said Wilma Subra, president of Subra Co. and an environmental chemist who works with communities on pollution issues.

    “Clearly, it’s a victory for clean air,” agreed Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which has been pushing for the new rule.

    Go to the full article at The Advocate here:

  3. Sandie Ritter Avatar
    Sandie Ritter

    I am very much interested in the outcome of the workers afflicted in the factories where PVC is utilized for various products, espically “Vinyl siding”. Is there documentation of consumer’s of Vinyl sided homes becoming afflicted? If you wouldn’t mind reading a condensed version of my personal afflictions and sharing your thoughts I’d appreciate it greatly.

    Because I’ve been trying to find some make some sense out of a non-senseable situation. My health began declining in 1997 with an onslaught of many afflictions including suddenly having extreme chemical reactive asthma & fibromyalgia as just 2 from my onstant growing list; last week a nodule was discovered in one of my lungs.
    We had Vinyl siding installed on a 2,300 sq ft house with approx. 100′ of the house done in brick, back in 1987 or 1988 and I’m wondering if all this is somehow connected.
    I was intially hit with several afflictions in 1998 and my health has declined since. None of my many doctors, including U.C.S.F., can put it together and explain a cause for sudden sickness and why things keep happening. I am 100% disabled since 1998. Can you hook me up with someone who truly knows what’s going on with me if it is indeed connected to our siding? Orginally installed on our new wood framed home WITHOUT plywood or insulation, we had to fight with Sears to get them to tear it off after the walls (siding) started “breathing” with the high winds and we were freezing. We bought sheeting and their installer recovered the bottom floor of the home.
    How does a person find out whether or not their environment causes such sickness?