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GOING GREEN - Get The Lead Out: Time For Hollywood Pyrotechnics To Light The Way

Posted By Tassilo Baur, Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lead-based FX work is a problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for many years. It’s old news in Europe, where lead is essentially banned from all pyrotechnics. However that isn’t the case in the United States. Traditional bullet hit/squib production FX, designed in the 1950s and made with lead-based explosive chemicals, are still used almost exclusively here in the United States. It’s an alarming fact considering that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has stated “no amount of lead is safe.” The issue recently gained some long-overdue attention in the Los Angeles Times and in a report by Monona Rossol of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety. But regrettably, the general response from Hollywood has been less than explosive.

Naturally the initial focus of lead exposure has been on cast and crew safety. However another risk mentioned but rarely emphasized is environmental lead pollution in both private locations and public spaces. Any location where lead-based FX are used could end up contaminated. As a pyrotechnician, I’ve seen these FX used in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, hotel rooms and kitchens, as well as the living areas and bedrooms of private residences.

Because these FX devices are designed to explode, significant amounts of invisible lead dust and contaminated debris are dispersed throughout the environment and remain there indefinitely after filming. Targeted cleanups with trained people, special equipment and testing can help make a difference. But unfortunately, effective cleanups are unlikely.

The EPA considers 40 micrograms of lead per-square-foot or more hazardous in residences. Yet a single, smaller-sized traditional squib can release 28,600 micrograms of lead dust and debris—more than 700 times the EPA’s limit. And that’s just a single one. It’s common to use multiple, larger devices.

It’s 2016—time for Pyro 2.0.

As Flint, Michigan has reminded us, lead contamination poses grave risks. “Green pyro” isn’t a contradiction in terms; it’s just an idea whose time has come. Lead has been effectively removed from paint, gasoline, July 4th fireworks, stage and theme-park pyrotechnics, and theatrical blank ammunition. Why is it still in production FX?

Other departments already get this. For example, grips replaced lead with stainless steel in shot bags a long time ago. Lead is out of makeup, pigments and art materials, too. With respect to pyro, I’m happy to report that New York City, Warner Bros. and a few of my colleagues seem to be on the right path. But apologies are in order: Hollywood’s pyrotechnicians should be leading the charge. Most of us aren’t even following it yet.
No one should have to risk lead exposure, especially when it’s easy to prevent. Unfortunately, like many legacy industries, physical FX is bound by tradition and a reflexive resistance to change. There are many FX, stunt, cast and crew people who want things to change but don’t dare speak up for fear of being branded as troublemakers.

But there are budget-based reasons for hope. While some lead-free devices are currently more expensive than traditional applications, others are actually less so. And all are cost-effective when you factor in potential problems from lead exposure risk, including legal liability. Every insurance policy is different, but lead contamination can be defined as “pollution” and excluded under conventional production insurance. Producers should check with their insurance vendors to make sure they are covered in case of a lead exposure issue.

Don’t get me wrong: FX done properly are a great way to bring visual thrills into your production. They just need to be done responsibly, which in this case means adopting safer, readily available lead-free alternatives that can protect the cast, crew, public and the environment. These solutions have been around for many years. We simply have to start using them.

Full disclosure: I work with some of the companies that offer lead-free FX alternatives to the production industry. I’m doing that because I want people to be safe and personally want to be on the right side of history. These devices aren’t perfect or zero impact. All pyro has risks. But at the very least, we can strive to be lead-free. If you can safely get the same effect in front of the camera without lead, why would you choose otherwise? 

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  • Take lead-pollution seriously, speak up and spread the word. 
  • If there’s pyro in your show, make sure it’s done with limiting the environmental impact in mind, and by using lead-free materials.

  • Even if there’s no pyro in your show, but you’re shooting at a rented stage (and especially if your shoot involves minors), ask if there were action sequences with bullet hits shot there previously. If so, bring up the lead contamination concern, ask how cleanup was done, and ask to see the post-cleanup testing report. If they don’t have the right answers, point out that your production is taking an unknown risk, and try to negotiate a discount to offset the trouble and expense of precautions you might need to take in response. This will leave an impression.

  • Please visit www.no-more-lead-in-movies.com for more information and resources.

Tassilo Baur is a state and federally licensed special effects supervisor for movies and television in Los Angeles, and an internationally-recognized author, trainer, expert and lecturer on special effects-related safety.

 

 

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