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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's January/February 2004 Let's Talk film selection:
Blue Vinyl
a film by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold

The Great Unraveling

What it’s about
When filmmaker Judith Helfand’s parents decide to replace the rotting wood siding on their suburban home with cheaper, more durable blue vinyl, Helfand embarks on a quest to find out whether it's possible "to make products that never hurt anyone at any point in their life cycle." Toting a slab of siding, Helfand travels to Lake Charles, Louisiana, the vinyl capital of the United States. What she uncovers there, and in another manufacturing center, Venice, Italy, is enough to convince even her stubborn parents to take the vinyl down.

Nominated for two Emmys, the film won the 2002 Messenger of the Year Award from the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Where to get it
The film is available from Toxic Comedy Pictures at (212) 875-0456 or If you identify yourself as a Let's Talk participant, you can purchase it at the reduced price of $29.95 (limited to the first 100 requests placed by January 31, 2004).

About the filmmakers
Judith Helfand had been working as a documentary filmmaker for several years when, at the age of 25, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Caused by exposure to the synthetic hormone DES her mother was given to prevent miscarriage, the disease forced Helfand to undergo a radical hysterectomy. As she was recovering, she picked up her camera to document her story and the story of how doctors all over the world came to prescribe a drug that the manufacturer knew was ineffective and carcinogenic. In 1997 A Healthy Baby Girl won a George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Journalism and Public Education. Using that success as a springboard, Helfand began work on Blue Vinyl. She helped launch Working Films in 1996, a nonprofit that links independent documentary filmmakers and grassroots organizers.

Daniel B. Gold is a camera operator and director of photography whose work has been seen on Saturday Night Live, Dateline NBC, and the Hallmark Channel. He and Helfand have dedicated their film company, Toxic Comedy Pictures, to creating entertaining films about significant topics.

Discussion questions

Printable version of questions

  • What did you think about the quality of the film? Did it make a solid case? Was it fair to all concerned? Was it engaging? What did you like most about the film? What were its weaknesses?

  • Was Helfand being too emotional about her situation? Was she a believable, likable character?

  • How would you characterize her parents' reaction to her suggestions? Was it true to life? If you were Helfand's parents, how would you have responded?

  • What did you think of the solution that Helfand and her parents came up with? What other options did they have? If you were the filmmakers, what alternative endings might you have considered?

  • What would the filmmakers think of your house--or the houses in your neighborhood? How well-informed about these issues is your community?

  • What materials would you use to build your dream home? How well does your current home measure up to the ideal? Is there anything you'd like to do to make your dwelling healthier for you and for the people who manufacture the materials?

  • What are some of the other ways that you use PVC (polyvinyl chloride)? Can you think of good alternatives?

  • What would you do if you were a policymaker--the president or a congressperson or the head of the EPA--to respond to the issues raised by this film?

  • Links
    Blue Vinyl’s official Web site,, offers facts about PVC, information about the film crew, and contact information.

    The Healthy Building Network ( has helpful information about PVC-free building materials.

    Health Care Without Harm ( is pursuing PVC substitutes. They have published a list of alternatives to PVC medical devices, such as IV bags, various types of tubing, and catheters.

    For information on Working Films, Blue Vinyl, and other projects, click

    Bill Moyers’s television special Trade Secrets ( includes documents showing how the chemical industry has attempted to hide the truth about its products from the public.

    The trade association Vinyl Institute explains its view of the environmental impacts of PVC at

    Take action
    Visit, Blue Vinyl's education and outreach campaign. This site can help you bring the film to your community, promote responsible building practices, and curb PVC-related threats to the environment and human health.

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