Potentially toxic chemicals are everywhere, but we all have the power to change that
If you haven’t already heard the statistics reeled off in The Human Experiment, a new documentary narrated by Sean Penn and directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, they will come as a shock.
Since 1975, breast cancer rates rose 30 percent—in men and women. In 1999, one in 500 children had autism; now it’s one in 88. In the last 45 years, the rate of early-onset puberty has increased by 55 percent. And 7.3 million Americans have trouble conceiving or carrying to term.
According to the film, at this moment, there are 80,000 chemicals on the market in the U.S., with 42 billion pounds entering American commerce every day. Untested and potentially harmful chemicals are everywhere—in our food, moisturizer, baby shampoo, bedding, house paint, plastic bottles; in our lakes, our water, our air. These chemicals have not been tested for safety, since industry is not required to prove safety before releasing them onto the marketplace.
“Consumers think that somebody somewhere is protecting them from dangerous chemicals,” says Representative Jan Schakowsky (IL), interviewed in the film. “That’s not the case.”
Several years ago, Nachman, then a producer for NBC, was assigned a story on how to make your home less toxic. ““It was shocking,” she says. “I didn’t even know homes were toxic.” A quick Google search made it obvious—from research she sourced from our Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others—that most products are not vetted for safety. A mother of two small children, she found the lack of oversight deeply troubling.
“I went through a lot of the emotions someone will go through watching the film,” she continues. “I felt pretty disempowered and disillusioned.” Hardy, who also comes from a television background, had a similar response. “I assumed, like a lot of people, that the government is looking out for our interests. I thought that was what the FDA was there for. This is a complete governmental failure.”
The two decided to tell the story through the experiences of ordinary people: an environmental health worker who is unable to conceive, a breast cancer survivor, a housekeeper who switches to green cleaning products after she gets sick, and a woman whose brother is severely autistic. Their experiences are interwoven with the voices of activists and experts like Stacy Malkin of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, who reminds us, ”We’re falling far behind other countries when it comes to toxic chemicals and chemical regulations;” the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, author of the original updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA) bill; Dr. Tracey Woodruff, director of UCSF’s program on reproductive health and the environment; Dr. Megan Schwarzman, a physician and research scientist at the University of California School of Public Health; Suzanne Rust, an investigative reporter for for The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Most shocking, perhaps, are the tactics—and resources—of the chemical lobby. But Nachman and Hardy believe that the power for change is ultimately in the hands of consumers, and that becomes a rallying point for the film.
“Once we all decide we’re not going to buy this junk, it will change,” says Nachman. “The lobbyists for the chemical industry will start promoting greener products, because that’s what consumers will demand.”