A Chemical Reaction

An interview with the producer and star of a new documenary about dangerous chemicals used in lawns.

Interview by Scott Reil (SR), a contributor to the Helpful Gardener, with Paul Tukey (PT), who produced and stars in the documentary, A Chemical Reaction, which exposes facts about chemicals used on lawns.

Greetings all. I have known Paul Tukey for decades but many of you may not be aware of him. Paul Tukey has taken a personal stand against lawn chemical based on both his own experience and emerging scientific evidence, first in an award winning book, Organic Lawn Care Manual, but lately as the star of a feature length documentary, A Chemical Reaction, directed by another old friend of ours, Brett Plymale. Paul has graciously agreed to do this interview exclusively for The Helpful Gardener, and we are most pleased to present that here.

(SR) Most folks know you from your best selling book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual. Talk about how you came to film.

(PT) Well, we had some experience from filming our TV show on HGTV, People, Places & Plants, that ran from 2004-2007, and I had developed a very comfortable working relationship with the videographer of that program, Brett Plymale ever since the pilot was filmed back in 2002.

When I wrote the book on organic lawn care, we sprinkled in some “Success Stories,” one of which was about the town of Hudson, Quebec, the first town in North America to ban lawn and garden pesticides. All I really had in the book was that Hudson had pulled that off. I knew, as a journalist, that there had to be an interesting back story.

Bans like that don’t just happen without a fight and that story had been gnawing at me for about three years. Finally, in June of 2008, I mentioned to Brett that I was going to drive up to Hudson to nose around for a few days, maybe for a book proposal about the Hudson bans that, by then, had spread across Canada. Brett asked if he could come along and film the interviews and the rest, as the cliche says, is history.

(SR) What was your motivation for doing this movie?

(PT) I was one of those guys who made a lot of money putting weed ‘n feed and insect killers on people’s properties. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, by 1992, my company that I started was in the top 10 of all lawn care applicators in Maine in terms of lawn care clients.

I did most of the pesticide applications myself and, to make a long story short, was getting very, very sick by 1993 and 1994. Blurred vision, incessant eye twitches, headaches. Nausea. You name it. I was finally diagnosed with acute chemical sensitivity due to all the lawn chemicals I was using to kill weeds and insects.

I tried to go what I call cold-turkey organic in 1995, but lost my proverbial shirt because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was essentially, at that time, trying to make a product-for-product swap from chemical to organic and hoping for the same results.

I really had no idea how to “go organic,” and I initially lost a lot of money trying. So I sold the lawn care business. I had no idea, in those early days, that lawn chemicals were dangerous poisons. Most people still don’t and I hope making this movie will open some eyes.

(SR) Please tell us a little about the leading lady of your film, Dr. June Irwin.

(PT) Ah, June. What a character! When I did my research prior to visiting Hudson, lots of folks said she was the key to the story, but I really wasn’t prepared for what we encountered that first morning in the field outside her farmhouse. Almost gothic black eye liner. Amber toned baubles draped everywhere. A nails on chalkboard voice.

I remember Brett shooting me a look when he first saw her as if to say, “She’s our lead character? You’ve got to be kidding!” Brett’s too polite to actually say that, but a couple members of our film crew that first week actually did ask that question. But I just told everyone the same thing: “This woman changed the landscape face of a nation, so don’t judge her by her face alone. Listen to her.”

It doesn’t take long listening to June before you realize that she’s absolutely brilliant with one of those photographic memories.

(SR) Do you think we get the same response in the U.S we have seen from the Canadian public?

(PT) Chemical lawn care is at least a $40 billion dollar industry in the U.S. and that industry will fight to the death to hold onto its market share. The way they do that is to hire expensive lobbyists who can be paid to literally say anything. In fact, many of the exact same lobbyists for the cigarette industry now work for the lawn chemical industry. These guys will deny, deny, deny that there’s a problem with lawn chemicals, until they just can deny anymore.

Having said that, we’re excited by the audience response to the movie. We did a screening recently in South Beach Miami to a group of young Latino professionals, ages 26 to 40 or so. None of these people came to the movie with a thought in the world about lawn chemicals, but they all left the film saying they’d never look at the lawn the same way again. It’s easy to show the film to the proverbial organic choir, the people who already don’t like chemicals.

The exciting breakthrough is when you reach people who either hadn’t yet formed an opinion, or even the people who previously thought chemicals were great. Overall, though, we have a long, long way to go in certain corners of this country.

(SR) What has been the general public response to the film? How about the critics?

(PT) I think the quote from the director of the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, where we had our official U.S. premiere and won the Independent Spirit Award, really said it best for us: “Fascinating. Enlightening. Frightening. A Chemical Reaction kept my audience rapt with attention! This film should be required viewing.” Audiences are moved.

The criticism has come mostly from people who haven’t seen it yet. They hear that it’s a film about lawn chemicals and immediately judge it to be a ho-hum bummer of a film, or this educational diatribe best viewed in a college class. It’s really a human interest story about the spirit of a community.

It’s about the difference just one person can make. We actually invoke that great Margaret Mead quote in the film, the one about how the only real change comes from just a few people.

(SR) Any corporate feedback yet, good or bad?

(PT) Some companies that we’ve approached about sponsoring the film are uncomfortable with the strong stance we take against chemicals. Absolutely. My public speeches across North America serve as the narration for the film and at one point I say to an audience: “I want people to be afraid of chemicals.”

Maybe that’s too radical an idea for the mainstream. What I’m really saying is that I want people to respect chemicals enough to at least read the damn label. I don’t personally think ALL chemicals are bad in All cases. But we all know that hardly anyone, especially men, read the labels on anything, much less their lawn care products. So, yes, be afraid.

Responses do run the gamut. Socially conscious companies like Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont loved the movie. And yet the film was essentially black-balled from the largest horticulture industry trade show in New England where the leadership still believes in better gardening through chemicals.

I’ve supported that show for 15 years with booth fees, free advertising and favorable press, yet this year was told the movie was unwelcomed.

It’s incredibly short sighted, though. The film is about a movement that swept across Canada. And it’s coming here. No mistake about it. Anyone in the green industry who thinks we can do business as usual for another 10 years really has their head in the sand, or maybe the bag of weed ‘n feed, which would explain a lot . . .

(SR) What has been your greatest surprise in releasing A Chemical Reaction?

(PT) It’s a very, very difficult economic climate to raise money and people who made substantial promises to help with fundraising were not able to follow through. That has made it incredibly tough and the personal sacrifices that Brett, especially, made to get this film done were extraordinary. We’re both optimists, though, and believe that the payback will come.

(SR) What are your hopes for the movie?

(PT) At the core, the film asks a simple question: If Home Depot in Canada has decided that lawn pesticides are too toxic to sell them in its Canadian stores, why does it still sell them in the U.S.? Shouldn’t everyone be asking that question?

I hold up Al Gore’s movie as a great example of what a documentary like ours can accomplish. Whatever your political affiliation, or whether you believe global warming is real, you cannot argue the fact that An Inconvenient Truth elevated public awareness of the issue of climate change.

Most people in the U.S. have no idea their lawns may be poisonous. People in the U.S, have never even heard of the Precautionary Principle, which is now a compulsory part of Canadian and European law — directly as a result of the court case depicted in our movie.

(SR) You and Brett have worked together for decades now; how do you two work together?

(PT) Brett and I have worked together for going on 8 years and, like any good relationship/friendship/marriage, there is a lot of non-verbal communication. I can tell if he’s happy with a shot or an interview without him saying a word. He’s also very, very patient with me or anyone else on camera. And ego never gets in the way.

Mine is definitely the heftier of the two and I border on control freak Type A, but I’ve come to completely respect him when he says, “Let’s try it this way instead.” Respect and trust are key. Brett rarely misses a shot and I have a fairly good knack for interviewing, so it works well most of the time.

Many times, it would have been nice to have an extra cameraman in the budget, but it wasn’t to be. Probably 98 percent of the film you see on the screen was created by just two people.

(SR) How has the movie star life on the film festival circuit treated you?

(PT) Ah, very, very humbling indeed. Because I’m a known lawn care activist, I can be the center of attention when I go to an environmental conference or horticulture symposium to show the film. When I go to the Montreal Film Festival for our world premiere, I’m an absolute nobody, a pale skinny white guy in a sea of two thousand beautiful people.

People think Brett is the movie star; he’s a dead ringer for Nate Berkus, Oprah’s designer, and women point and chatter in hushed tones around him. It’s all great fun, but lawn care activists do not make good movie stars I’m afraid.

(SR) Thank you again, Paul. Best wishes for your film.

For those interested in seeing the trailer or finding out where this might be playing around your neighborhood, go to pfzmedia.com.

Scott Reil

Paul J. Tukey, www.PaulTukey.com
HGTV Co-Host & Executive Producer Publisher, People, Places & Plants magazine.
Author, The Organic Lawn Care Manual, Storey Publishing ISBN 1-58017-649-6
National Spokesperson, www.safelawns.org