Whether she’s putting them up or taking them down, Susan Lamontagne never lets her children handle the Christmas lights — and she gets grief for it, but not from them.
“The lights are packed with lead in those wires and, still, people will say to me, ‘Oh, it’s just one thing. Come on, it’s not a big deal. You’re not gonna get cancer from Christmas lights,’” she said. “That is true, but the issue is, it’s in everything. When it’s in places you don’t expect, then you have a problem.”
Globally, toxic chemicals are ubiquitous, health and environmental experts agree. They are in the food, water and soil, packaging, hygiene products and electronics — a fact many consumers refuse to accept, according to Lamontagne, and one she won’t let them ignore.
On behalf of the University of California, San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and Environment, the Sag Harbor resident and president of Public Interest Media Group produced the short film “60 MiNueTs, TOXIC,” a video series that explores environmental health challenges, including the games industry plays to keep dangerous products on the market.
And she called on Goat on a Boat’s puppeteer Liz Joyce for help.
Inspired by “60 Minutes,” they casted — and created — a colorful band of reporters, in the likeness of those beloved by American viewers, and in the form of puppets.
“One of my favorites was Ed Bradley, and we renamed him ‘End Badly,’” Lamontagne said. “As soon as we had the concept, literally, the names of the correspondents started rolling off my tongue.”
Mike Wallace became “Mike Wallets.” Dan Rather’s alter ego is “Dan Rathernot,” and in this iteration, Morley Safer is better known as “Morely Safety” — all acted by puppeteer Joshua Holden, formerly of “Avenue Q.”
But Joyce is the voice and vision behind the final reporter, “Lesley Stalled,” much like the real-life Lesley Stahl.
“I think Lesley is a strong female,” Joyce said. “It was fun thrift shopping for her signature red blazer. We learned a lot filming the puppets, getting the shots right and working with the green screen. Susan’s enthusiasm for the project was amazing.”
The team, which also included Sag Harbor-based videographer Jon Hokanson and graphic designer Diane Hewett, spent a full day shooting the puppet segments at LTV Studios in East Hampton before traveling to Boston and New York to interview a number of researchers, including Philip Landrigan, dean of global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
“Rates of a whole series of diseases in children are rising,” he explains in the film. “Rates of asthma have increased three-fold in the last 30 years. The two principal types of childhood cancer, which are leukemia and brain cancer, have both increased by about 40 percent. Rates of autism, attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities are up. Certain birth defects have more than doubled. So the question comes up, what’s causing this?”
An overwhelming number of experts agree that toxic chemicals found in everyday products are to blame, Lamontagne said.
“What’s happening is we’re seeing some very serious health trends occur over the last 50 years, and scientists are in agreement that that is largely due to this exposure to toxic chemicals,” she said. “And our system is just not set up to identify the issues and correct it.”
According to Tracey J. Woodruff, professor and director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health, the Environmental Protection Agency has banned five chemicals since 1976. Meanwhile, in Europe, more than 1,000 chemicals have been banned in just the last 10 years.
Today, there are more than 85,000 industrial chemicals registered for use, but environmental health scientists say that most have never been tested.
“This really shouldn’t be on us,” Lamontagne said. “When we go to the store, we should be able to expect that what we purchase is safe. We should expect that the flooring we put into our homes is not loaded with chemicals that is going to off gas and make us sick. I think what amazes me is how we never seem to learn. How is it possible we don’t learn from past mistakes? It makes me want to fight harder. When consumers take charge, we see change.”
The 18-minute short film premiered in November at the American Public Health Association’s 15thannual Global Health Film Festival and, since then, has received some criticism, Lamontagne said.
“People have said, ‘Why are you making light of such a serious issue?’” she said. “It’s not that we’re trying to make light of it — I think it’s a fair criticism. I think when you’re trying to make these creative decisions, and when something is so overwhelming and scary, sometimes I think you have to lighten it up, just to let people be willing to think about it. It can be so scary that people check out and they don’t want to deal with it. And the issue has become so bad. That is why this film is important.”
Bay Street Theater will kick off its “Friday Night Flicks” film series with “Straws” and “60 MiNueTs, TOXIC” on Friday, February 1, at 8 p.m. at the Sag Harbor theater, located at 1 Bay Street, followed by a talkback with Bob Deluca, Tracy Mitchell and Susan Lamontagne.
The series continues on Friday, February 8, with “Carnal Knowledge” and a talkback with screenwriter Jules Feiffer, and on Friday, April 12, with “City Hall” and a talkback with producer Ken Lipper.
Tickets are $12. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.