Company Town. Directed by Natalie Kottke and Erica Sadarian. New York: First Run Features, 2017. 90 minutes.
Complicit. Directed by Heather White and Lynn Zhang. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2019. 89 minutes.
Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story. Directed by Soozie Eastman. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2019. 71 minutes.
Toxic Environmental Exposures around the Globe
Each of these three films include similar themes of environmental injustice, toxic exposure, and corporate malfeasance. As a whole, they represent the myriad ways personal choices make up only a small fraction of the toxic exposures we experience every day. Since the post–World War II era, chemicals used in industrial manufacturing and agricultural practices have skyrocketed. We are now seeing unprecedented toxic exposures in our workplaces, our homes, and our food that were previously undetected, and the average worker and consumer are largely unaware of these exposures until they find themselves ill. Most people in the United States assume that regulating bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work to protect us; however, the deficiencies of these agencies within the United States and across global borders have proven that they often fail to do so. The film reviews that follow showcase three unique issues centering around toxic exposures in the workplace and everyday life.
Company Town, directed by Natalie Kottke and Erica Sadarian, offers a chilling yet all-too-familiar occurrence of environmental injustice in the Black, rural, poor town of Crossett, Arkansas. This film focuses on the financial and political power of Koch Industries with specific attention to the Georgia Pacific (GP) paper mill located in Crossett, a place that represents the many vulnerable communities across the United States and beyond that are victimized by their dependency on polluting mono-economies. The film follows disgruntled residents led by Pastor David Bouie as they discuss their experiences with cancer and numerous health problems they attribute to the Georgia Pacific factory in their neighborhood. These residents try to engage local environmental groups to address their health concerns related to the hydrogen sulfide emissions pouring from GP’s smokestacks and the benzene and other dangerous carcinogenic chemicals dumped by the company. Despite attempts to activate the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the federal EPA to clean up these toxins, the local community is left with few answers, told that GP falls within compliance of state and federal regulations. The film begs the question: What is the role of corporate responsibility and regulatory agencies in the fight to preserve human health in the workplace and in our communities? Scientific findings in environmental sociology frequently showcase the inefficiencies of regulatory agencies and the ability of powerful corporations to deny culpability for toxin-induced environmental illnesses and environmental injustice, making the film an important tool to discuss these dimensions of social structures in the classroom.
Complicit, directed by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, showcases an insider’s look at electronics manufacturing in China with special attention on Foxconn. China produces 90 percent of the world’s electronics, manufacturing 70 percent of all cellphones. Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, employs over 160,000 workers whose shifts typically extend beyond twelve hours. The film focuses on young Chinese workers, mostly between 17 and 20 years old, who left their rural farming families to seek factory work in the burgeoning cities. Many of these factory workers argue that exposure to benzene and N-hexane in the workplace has caused paralysis and leukemia. According to the film, these two toxic chemicals have been banned in other countries for decades; however, because they continue to serve as cheaper alternatives in the manufacturing process, companies still use them. The workers’ claims are similar to other cases of contested environmental illness around the world—characterized by denial of culpability by the companies, unreliable statistics and intervention from governing bodies, and the lack of compensation for illness. Despite these issues, Foxconn touts a culture of workplace safety and prevention shrouded by a veil of “trade secrets” encompassing chemical cocktails that cannot be shared.
A nonprofit organization, Labor Action China (LAC), served as the impetus for organizing and elevating the stories of those who had fallen victim to occupational disease. Social media platforms have been powerful for these workers as they bravely share their experiences and struggle for justice. In recent years, there have been over 30,000 strikes annually as Chinese workers fight for safer workplaces and the banning of toxic chemicals such as benzene; hundreds of arrests have followed. Again, questions about corporate malfeasance and environmental health surface, but this film adds another element regarding ethical consumerism. Would consumers make different choices if they knew the full impact of their purchases on others’ lives? Could consumer consciousness change industry policies and practices? This film would allow students to engage these questions and aid in classroom conversations about global manufacturing processes and hidden costs related to environmental and human health.
Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story, directed by and starring Soozie Eastman, follows Eastman’s personal detoxification journey as she learns about “body burden,” the term for the accumulation of dangerous chemicals in our bodies. After learning about chemical exposure and how it could potentially affect unborn fetuses, Eastman takes it upon herself to discover what toxins, such as PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and other petrochemicals, are housed in her body. She undergoes three separate blood tests and finds she has elevated levels of several chemical compounds. Eastman begins working with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to learn more about the multitude of chemicals in food, cosmetics, and other products and finds that 84,000 chemicals are used in the United States, but most are never tested. In fact, the United States releases 700 new chemicals each year. Additionally, the United States has banned only 11 chemicals found in cosmetics, compared to 1,300 that are banned in cosmetics in the United Kingdom. Despite the Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976, little work has been done to regulate the chemicals that command our everyday lives.
As the film progresses, Eastman detoxes by buying new cleaning products and consuming more organic foods and finds that she does in fact decrease many of the chemicals in her body, but not all. Her experiences teach us that our personal consumptive choices make up only a small fraction of what we are exposed to in our daily lives; therefore consumers need to demand corporate responsibility, as no regulatory or political entity will change business practices without such pressure. This film would be useful in the classroom to talk about personal consumer choices as well as engaging with political processes to improve transparency and the banning of certain chemicals that have become normative.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Brown, Phil. 2007. Toxic Exposures: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Health Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. New York: Routledge.
Gaventa, John. 1982. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Lukes, Steven. 2021. Power: A Radical View. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
O’Connor, James. 2002. The Fiscal Crisis of the State. New York: Routledge.