Actors educate the public about hazardous chemicals as The Toxies
By Carl Kozlowski 04/16/2014
There are many ways to stage a protest, some more imaginative and effective than others.
Any given group, for instance, can make signs and block traffic or walkways to government buildings to get their point across. Or an individual can simply throw a shoe at a speaker, as happened with former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Of course, millions can pick a day to flood congressional offices with phone calls and emailed petitions.
But it’s rare to find protests as original as those put on by The Toxies, a coalition of 25 environmental activists which since 2010 has staged an eclectic array of humorous actions against the use and disposal of dangerous chemicals in California. Bringing together members of Californians for a Green and Healthy Economy (CHANGE) and Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), The Toxies have hosted a faux red carpet awards ceremony “honoring” the most damaging chemical uses of the year and created a Webisode series to get their message out.
With elections looming around the country, The Toxies have stepped up their game. One type of action has the grandpa crashing public environmental policy meetings in full costume and taking over the proceedings. According to Denise Duffield, associate director of PSR-LA, the comedic moves are the only way to effect changes in news coverage of their causes — breaking through media indifference to their concerns through the sheer oddity of their tactics.
“So far the feedback has been tremendous, because The Toxies really are a fun way to learn,” laughed Duffield, who serves as the PSR-LA associate director when she’s not drawing stares in her role as Perchlorate.
“Community members who saw The Toxies shows asked us to appear in Baldwin Park to talk about the impacts of chemicals on health, because often the agencies do not do that,” she said.
The Baldwin Park event was on March 22, when Duffield, portraying Perchlorate, and two other actors dressed up as PCE and TCE disrupted a groundwater contamination hearing hosted by Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano (D- El Monte).
TCE (aka trichloroethylene), played by Holland MacFallister, dressed like a “Dr. Strangelove”-type character, clutching a small rocket as a warning about toxic rocket fuels used by NASA’s JPL in La Cañada Flintridge.
PCE (aka perchloroethylene) was portrayed by Oliver Rayon as a stylish mobster, while Perchlorate arrived in a shiny silver suit, one complete with rocket boosters. TCE took over the microphone and cracked some jokes before becoming serious, describing TCE’s links to impaired immune systems, liver and kidney damage, and cancer.
PCE then broke into dance moves before the cameras, while Perchlorate used a slyly suggestive approach in her speech that was in keeping with her status as a chemical that is so hot that it fires up rocket fuel, inflates air bags, and accelerates explosions and fireworks. All three chemicals are insidiously laced into the daily lives of San Gabriel Valley residents through the region’s water supply, causing millions of dollars in physical damage and costs associated with cleaning up the highly hazardous substances.
“The reason many of the issues are ignored is due to industry influence,” said Martha Arguello, executive director of PSR-LA. “The chemical industry is extremely powerful and deep-pocketed, with an army of lobbyists and PR hacks that try to install doubt about health impacts. The Chicago Tribune published a multipart story about flame retardants, and the very deceptive tactics — borrowed from the tobacco industry — that the industry uses.”
The main focus of The Toxies’ efforts on March 22, for instance, was in spotlighting that perchlorate is used in rocket fuel and fireworks, while TCE is an industrial solvent used to degrease rocket engines, and PCE is a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning. All three substances have been found to contaminate water supplies nationwide.
While it might be easy to assume that The Toxies will do anything to land public attention, Duffield is quick to note that there are lines that the troupe will never cross while in search of humor in the battle against poisons.
“There are definitely lines that we will not cross, because the reality is, while The Toxies are fun, these chemicals cause cancer and other illnesses that are serious and life-threatening,” said Duffield, who is married to award-winning investigative reporter Michael Collins, an occasional contributor the Pasadena Weekly who operates the environmental news Web site enviroreporter.com.
“Many communities in California have been exposed,” Duffield continued. “Many live near contaminated sites and are having serious health problems as a result. We would never, ever make light of their suffering. We do, however, want to let people know that these chemicals are inherently bad and need to be eliminated.”
Duffield and Arguello left the Baldwin Park crowd in hysterics and, at the same time, gave people plenty to think about. They knew that the way they made their point would get people talking more than a dry speech by a scientist or an expert ever could.
“At nearly every Toxies event, people have told us that they came away with a much better understanding of toxic chemicals — where they are found and the impacts they have on health,” said Duffield. “At our ‘Toxies Exposed’ viewing last year, the audience members were inspired to take the time right then and there to send postcards to Sen. Barbara Boxer asking for improvements to the Toxic Substances and Control Act. That was heartening.” n