Toxic Trespass: Community activism on film: A film about children’s health and the environment

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Ada Dowler-Cohen wasn’t born when the government banned DDT in Canada in 1985, yet testing has revealed measurable levels of the carcinogen in her 10-year-old body—along with a long list of other toxic chemicals. Ada and her mother, filmmaker Barri Cohen, announce the results of their “body burden” testing at a media conference in the opening scene of the film Toxic Trespass. The discovery that she and her daughter are carrying DDT, benzene and other toxins in their blood, hair and skin leads Barri Cohen on an investigative journey through Canada’s toxic hot spots of Sarnia and Windsor, Ontario. The result is a documentary film that inspires community action.

Toxic Trespass was recently awarded the 2008 Canadian Screenwriting Award for documentary by the Writers’ Guild of Canada, and has appeared at festivals across the country and internationally, including the International Environmental Film Festival in Paris last year. Distributed by Toronto-based Women’s Healthy Environments Network (WHEN) and the National Film Board of Canada, Toxic Trespass is being used as an educational tool in communities across the country.

The film focuses on Canada’s “chemical valley” around Windsor and Sarnia, but it’s clear that none of us is immune.

“The reality is we all have these chemicals in our bodies. What they test for are individual chemicals. What they cannot test for is how they interact with each other and what they may precipitate in the future,” says Dorothy Goldin-Rosenberg, producer of the film. “This is why awareness about prevention of exposure is so important. And that’s why I make films.”

The original idea for Toxic Trespass came from Goldin-Rosenberg, a passionate woman’s health advocate who also produced Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer in 2001, another film about how our environment is affecting our health. She is also the volunteer Education Coordinator at Women’s Healthy Environments Network and developed the resource guide Taking Action on Children’s Health and Environment that accompanies Toxic Trespass. At screenings in schools and community halls across the country, and at WHEN’s train-the-trainer workshops, the guide is used to encourage and support action.

“Many people are now concerned about toxins,” says Goldin-Rosenberg. “This is the time to act and this is why the film is so well received. Young mums want to know this, and we want them to understand that policy change is an important part of the solution. We also want people to know that there are safe alternatives to just about every toxic product and process.”

In the film, scientific experts present research on environmental toxins that has been compiled for decades. Some of those included in the film are Dr. Devra Lee Davis, the outspoken epidemiologist who runs an environmental oncology centre in the United States and author of the best-selling book The Secret History of the War on Cancer; Drs. Jim Brophy and Michael Gilbertson who have done extensive research on environmental toxins around Sarnia and in the Great Lakes; and former Health Canada scientist Dr. Michèle Brill-Edwards who blew the whistle on Health Canada’s safety record in the mid-1990s. These scientists, familiar to many, remind us that research into the effects of toxic chemicals in our environment has been going on a long time—since at least the 1930s in North America. In Toxic Trespass, film clips from the ‘50s and ‘60s of children being doused with pesticides in their classrooms are shocking now, yet even at the time the dousings took place, there was sufficient scientific evidence to show the harmful effects of such a practice.

The impacts of environmental toxins are presented through the stories of young children with asthma struggling to breathe and those fighting cancers such as Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, leukemia and other debilitating conditions linked with early exposure to toxins. The film also tells the story of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia where hormone disrupting pollution is being blamed for the skewed birth rate: the ratio of girls to boys born in the community is now 2 to 1.

Yet despite this litany of health horrors, Toxic Trespass is a hopeful film. It introduces us to a handful of caring parents, inspired to protect their children, families and other community members from the harms of toxic chemicals. And we see their successes—the introduction of pesticide bans, studies beginning to look at disease clusters in certain geographical areas, and other indications that the tide is turning and that people and governments are becoming aware of the impacts of environmental toxins and beginning to take action.

“We have to stop all these chemical from going into our air, land and water,” says Goldin-Rosenberg. “It behooves us to pressure our government to stop it. We all have to get involved. And we all have to reduce our consumption. People have to understand that we can do something, that we can take action for prevention.”

Toxic Trespass is a co-production of If You Love Our Children Productions and the National Film Board of Canada, with the support of Women's Healthy Environments Network (WHEN).

Ellen Reynolds is the Director of Communications at Canadian Women’s Health Network.