Documenting Environmental Danger: An Interview With Sabrina McCormick

George Washington University professor Sabrina McCormick recently worked with Matt Damon and Michael C. Hall on Showtime’s upcoming series about climate change, Years of Living Dangerously. We spoke to her about her life and her work as an environmentalist.

Your story began at a young age. You grew up in Georgia, and as a child your home was contaminated with the toxic chemical Chlordane. What happened?

In Georgia, powder post beetles are really common. They’re like termites. I guess we had them, and my mom had our house sprayed for them. The smell lingered and lingered, and she started feeling sick, started feeling dizzy and getting numbness in her hands and her feet and headaches, so she took a chunk of a beam from the house and had it tested, had the chemical tested, and found out that it was Chlordane, which had just been outlawed for that kind of use. We couldn’t live in the house anymore because we had become sensitized to it just by being exposed to it. [My mother] told us that we were going to lose everything, and she said, “Just pick a couple of things that you want to keep and I’ll have them very, very thoroughly cleaned.” And I still remember going through all my toys and stuff and trying to decide which ones I wanted to keep. We lived using boxes as furniture for a long time until we could settle that lawsuit and buy some stuff. We lost a lot of money.

Was that important in spurring on your interest in environmentalism?

I didn’t think about it for a very long time. I am clear that it really pisses me off that that happened to me, and it helps me identify with people who have lost everything: people who have been in floods, people who have been in fires, people who have been in major toxic exposure cases.

When you were working on your PhD, you also studied film at the Rhode Island School of Design, and you later went to produce a film based on a book you wrote called No Family History. What inspired you to make the film, and what did you learn when you were making it?

I would tell people what kind of research I was doing about environmental causes of breast cancer, and they would say. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about right now.” And I just got so tired of explaining myself that I thought, okay, well I need to do something a bit bigger. So, I’ll make a film.

So, what are the environmental causes of breast cancer?

There are different kinds of families of chemicals that are linked to breast cancer risk, in particular the family of endocrine disrupting chemicals. These include chemicals that are in personal care products and pesticides and fertilizers and plastics. They’re kind of ubiquitous in our environment at this point.

Your next film, After the Cap, was about the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. What motivated you to do that?

When the spill happened, I wondered what was going to happen in terms of exposures not just to the oil, but the dispersants being used. So, I applied for this National Science Foundation grant, which I got, and part of it was to actually create a collective visual sense of what was happening. We showed up in the Gulf the day after BP started firing its workers. BP had hired thousands of fishermen who had lost their jobs.

They lost their jobs fishing because of the contamination.

Yeah, so I showed up, and people were like, “Nobody’s going to talk to you.” And then people started getting fired, and then they started really talking. We started getting stories from guys who had been some of the first responders and out there without any protective gear, just breathing in this dispersant.

What happened?

There was one guy who was one of the first responders. He described how he was asked to ride his boat out on the water over the Corexit [the oil dispersant] in the oil to make it disperse. He started getting dizzy, feeling sick. When he told his bosses about feeling sick, they told him he was fine. He finally ended up with the BP doctor. Then, at the hospital, the specialist said he had experienced neurological effects, probably from the Corexit. You can see this guy’s story on the After the Cap website.

You worked at the EPA as well, and when you were there you wrote a paper about managing the risks of climate change. How much attention do we need to afford adaptation as opposed to prevention?

I think about that all the time. I do some mitigation stuff now, but the fact is that climate change is already happening. We can’t point to any one event, but it’s already happening. So, if we’re concerned, in particular about people who are most vulnerable, we have to dedicate some attention and money to them, especially internationally, but domestically as well.

Who does that include? Who is most vulnerable?

Poor people are the most vulnerable generally poor people in particularly vulnerable geographic regions, like coastal regions, urban environments. Food prices are going to fluctuate and have already fluctuated as a result of agricultural stresses because of drought and temperature change. And if you want to look biological vulnerability, then children and old people are the most vulnerable.

You’re working on a television series with James Cameron about climate change, Years of Living Dangerously. Each installment will feature a different celebrity and will focus on a different impact of climate change.

There are two [stories I’m working on]. One is heat waves in Los Angeles with Matt Damon, and the other is in Bangladesh with Michael C. Hall. The central thrust of [that] story is about forced migration. Seventeen percent of the country will be covered in water by 2075 or 2100, and that means about 19 million people will be forced to move.

What was it like working with Matt Damon?

He’s really good to work with in a documentary because he really listens. He understands because he’s smart, and then he does what he needs to do. And he’s super cooperative. He’s super nice. Very accommodating. Just a stand-up guy.

And Michael C. Hall?

I got to spend a lot more time with Michael C. Hall, and you know, on a boat in Bangladesh for days at a time, so we got to know each other pretty well. He’s lovely. I had watched some of his stuff and thought, "Oh, God. He’s kind of scary." But he’s not at all. He’s really cool.

How did the show turn out?

We screen-tested the first episode last week, and I watched it, and it was awesome. It’s really good.

Sabrina McCormick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University. Read more about her work at evidencebasedmedia.net.

Jeremy Deaton is an M.A. candidate in Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.

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