LEWISTON — You know you’re in for a rough ride when tissues are handed out at the start of a film, just in case.

Of course, this was no ordinary film.

Roughly three dozen people turned out at the Dempsey Center on Thursday night for a screening of “Toxic Hot Seat,” an HBO documentary featuring a few familiar faces: former Maine lawmaker Hannah Pingree and state Rep. Michel Lajoie, the former Lewiston fire chief.

Lajoie was in attendance for the screening, as were more than a dozen other firefighters from both sides of the Androscoggin River. They were there because “Toxic Hot Seat” exposes a hazard they face every day: flame retardants and other potentially carcinogenic chemicals that haunt furniture, clothing and myriad other items in homes across the world.

“Incredible,” said Lewiston firefighter Mike Albert, at the end of the roughly 90-minute film. “Very eye-opening.”

Albert remembers a time when firefighters went into burning homes without so much as a mask to protect them from chemicals released by burning materials. Today, they all know that those chemicals can be as dangerous as the flames themselves.

And so “Toxic Hot Seat” begins with a San Francisco firefighter who survived cancer only to watch one colleague after another fall from the disease. When women on the force began developing breast cancer at a rate six times that of the rest of the nation, chemical flame retardants were quickly identified as a main factor.

Speaking at the start of the screening Thursday night, president of Professional Firefighters of Maine, John Martell noted that nearly 56% of all line of duty deaths among firefighters from 2002 – 2012 have been due to cancer associated with chemicals in household products that are encountered in burning buildings.

“Most firefighters choose this profession because we enjoy helping people, even if it means risking our lives,” Martell said. What most people don’t know is that one of the most dangerous part of our work isn’t actually the flames we fight; it’s the risk of cancer linked to toxic chemicals that are used all over the home, including ineffective flame retardants in household furniture. It’s critical that Maine lawmakers continue to be leaders on this issue and not fall for the fear and delay tactics of the chemical industry.”

Not that the film is of importance to firefighters alone. “Toxic Hot Seat” also follows a group of mothers, scientists and lawmakers who have fought to expose what they call the “deceitful tactics” of a chemical company that markets toxic flame retardants for use in furniture and other household products.

The film itself pulls no punches. It shows close-up photos of young children jumping up and down on beds and couches, surrounding themselves in clouds of toxic dust. It shows mothers who choke up talking about how they breast-fed their babies before discovering their milk was contaminated. It shows newborn babies in cribs, their heads resting on mattresses that may be stuffed full of poison.

And it shows lawmakers, including Pingree, describing the frustrations of doing battle with big corporations with big money and big bags of tricks.

“’Toxic Hot Seat’ is environmental filmmaking at its pinnacle,” Cinesource Magazine wrote of the film, “revealing, horrifying, infuriating, compelling, and hopeful.”

Pingree’s experience was more fulfilling than those of her counterparts in other parts of the country. Maine lawmakers were successful where other states were not in limiting the use of several of the cancer-causing chemicals.

Not that the fight is over. The companies that produce flame retardants are still active, challenging their losses in court and attempting to persuade a naive public that their products are vital for the health and well-being of all.

“It’s going to be a battle,” said Martel. “Quite frankly, it’s all about money.”

Lots of money. The film also features a group of Chicago Tribune reporters who nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the chemical industry’s fight to preserve the very lucrative use of flame retardants, even as the scientific community identified them as cancer-causing.

Those in the know say there are ways to prevent fires without filling homes with poisonous chemicals. Manufacturing processes could include tighter fabric weaves. Barriers could be inserted between sofa cushions and the fabric that covers them.

The more people know, the better they can protect themselves from both fire and chemicals.

“We just need to do our research,” said Albert, the Lewiston firefighter.

Bettie Kettell, a retired pediatric nurse and cancer survivor from Durham, knows all about research, having twice been tested for dangerous chemicals in her body. Her results appeared in the 2007 Body of Evidence report and the 2014 Hormones Disrupted report.

“A subtle but profound health tragedy is unfolding due to the widespread use of hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates, BPA, and brominated flame retardants,” Kettell said. “Here in Maine we have some of the highest asthma and cancer mortality rates in the nation. And every day there are parents finding out that their child has learning disabilities, birth defects, or severe allergies. We have a duty to protect children and future generations from all toxic chemicals.”

As for Lajoie, his only scene in the film shows him smiling in the minutes after Maine’s first Kid-Safe Products Act passed. The other firefighters razzed him about it briefly, but mostly the former chief remained transfixed by the film.

“It’s one of the best on this subject that I’ve ever seen,” Lajoie said.

The Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine and the Professional Firefighters of Maine co-hosted the event. Before “Toxic Hot Seat” appeared on the screen, Tracy Gregoire, Learning Disabilities Association of Maine’s Healthy Children’s Project director, offered to pass around tissues in case anyone in the audience became overwhelmed.

“These are very emotional stories you’re about to hear,” she said.

She was right.

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