chemicalsLike me – like almost anyone – you probably assume that the household products you use every day have gone through one or more health and safety tests before landing on your grocery store shelves. There is even a federal law that supports that assumption, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. 

Unfortunately, there are literally tens of thousands of chemicals used in consumer products that require no testing whatsoever – at least not until a significant number of people get sick.

According to Phillip Landrigan, the Dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, the TSCA is “an obsolete, toothless, broken piece of legislation.” When it was enacted, the 62,000 chemicals that were already on the market were grandfathered in and, as Landrigan says, “simply presumed safe.”

Asbestos, for example, is a known cancer-causing agent. The EPA banned asbestos in the U.S. in 1989, but that ban was overturned in 1991 by a court of appeals. Today, the TSCA does nothing to prevent its use in such consumer products as roofing materials and auto parts.

Of the more than 20,000 new chemicals that have been introduced since 1976, only five of them have been removed from the consumer market. This is despite the fact that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has detected measurable levels of hundreds of these chemicals in the blood and urine of just about everybody in the U.S.A.

And if this worries you, if it seems too malevolent or absurd to be believed, you’re not alone. You are participating in a grand and toxic human experiment, whether you like it or not.

‘The Human Experiment’

nachmanDana Nachman is the co-founder of KTF Films. Born and raised in New York, Nachman began her career as a journalist and worked her way up to special projects producer at NBC. She has since moved on to full-time filmmaking, earning a slew of awards along the way: three Emmies, the Edward R. Murrow Award, Cinequest’s Audience Award for Best Documentary, and the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Washington, D.C. Independent Film Festival.

Her first film, Witch Hunt (2008), tells the story of a group of people wrongly convicted of child molestation in the 1980s. It began as a series of segments for NBC, but grew into a much longer work when the subjects of the documentary were released from prison.

It is an emotional, affecting film that probes the American justice system and drives to the heart of a dark and chilling part of California history.

Nachman followed up that documentary with 2011’s Love Hate Love and now The Human Experiment, which was produced by actor Sean Penn.

I spoke with Ms. Nachman about her new film that she co-directed with Tom Hardy. It follows the personal stories of the people most affected by the thousands of untested chemicals used in consumer products.

Planet Experts: What first drew you to the subject?

Dana Nachman: I still had my job at NBC and I was actually assigned a story about how to rid your home of toxic chemicals. I really didn’t even know that there were toxic chemicals in your home

PE: Yeah, no, I’d consider myself properly paranoid now.

DN: You know, I think you go through a lot of stages with this issue and I did go through a phase where I was very overwhelmed by it, especially because I had little babies at the time. But now I think I’ve come to it from a better place, so I’m not as overwhelmed anymore. But I’ve made a lot a lot of changes, that’s for sure.

One of the very first Google searches I did about it, I read that most items that are on the store shelves in the U.S. are not tested for safety before they get on the market, and I thought, ‘Oh that’s gotta be wrong.’ It didn’t take long to find out that that’s not wrong – that there’s not really a standard of safety for the tens of thousands of chemicals that make up the products that we use – from personal care products to electronics to furnishings, to even things that make up the construction of our homes.

One of the scientists that I interviewed for the NBC series likened your home to a toxic box, and said that with all the windows closed and with all of your items kind of off gassing and running off chemicals, the air quality in your home is much more dangerous that the outside air next to an oil refinery. It was that kind of shocking statistic that made me know I wanted to do a feature documentary on it.

PE: Could you summarize why is there no standard? Why have we come to the point where we’re living in this toxic box?

DN: There’s so many reasons and I think it’s really complicated. It’s something that most of us don’t know a lot about, so people have not come out in force yet to say that we want a level of safety. Frankly, I think people just think that they are tested already. There’s a lack of knowledge, a lack of education on that, and I think marketing plays a lot into it.

Going back to the years of tobacco, tobacco was known to be very bad for people for a century before it started to be regulated – if you even consider it regulated today – and I think the same thing’s happened. We’re trained as consumers to smell something, like if you go through the cleaning aisles of Target or wherever – you’re trained to think that that’s what you do to have a nice home and that’s the kind of smell that you associate with nice homes and clean homes, it’s not what you associate with carcinogens and cancer and reproductive harm and things that you end up at your doctor’s office for. It’s just a marketing thing. And I think that we’ve been duped in a lot of ways by companies who want us to think that things are safe and good when they’re not.

PE: Where can people see your film now?

DN: We’re still doing the film festival circuit, and we should be doing that through the end of this year. In winter we’re going to do a theatrical release in 10 cities and then follow that up with online distribution.

PE: Your first film, Witch Hunt, opened to a very positive reception at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. It won several awards and was picked up by MSNBC, iTunes and Netflix. Your second film, Love Hate Love, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011. It was shown on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2012. Thus far your work has been very well received but remains in that independent, critically-acclaimed-but-still-niche corner. Your latest film covers an incredibly important topic – and has Sean Penn not only narrating but also executive-producing – but what does it take to really get recognized and wider distribution?

DN: That’s a great question. I wish I knew the answer [laughs].

Films are really, really difficult. I’m really proud of the film and I think this topic is really – it took about four years to make the film and I was worried that we were being too slow on it and that maybe this kind of issue was going to pass us by. But it’s still on the front end of the crest – people are starting to learn much more about this and I think distribution really relies on that. It’s a scary topic, it talks about companies, it talks about consumer action, it talks about consumer patterns, so it’s a difficult subject matter. Hopefully it will become kind of a cult classic and the crowd and the people who are really invested in this move it along. It’s tough. It’s not an easy subject matter. I don’t know what would make it go over the edge in a mainstream way, but we’re working on it, for sure.

PE: Is there anything that surprised you about the topic during the course of filming?

DN: When I started the film, I was more focused on the legislative deficiencies in our system, and then I think it became clearer to me over time that consumer action was a much better vehicle for change – in this issue. I buy for a family of five and I saw how empowered I felt when I made decisions based on the education that I had. I was kind of surprised, because I thought the movie would be more a call to action on the legislative end and what we need to do to make our lawmakers change. But then I realized that we can all make so many quick decisions every day to change our behavior. And companies will change – because they have to, if we’re not buying their product.

We have a scene in the film about a company that makes cans that are not leaching bad chemicals into your food. And ever since I learned that cans do leach into your food, I haven’t bought any. And I thought, how many dozens of cans have I not bought over the last five years just from working on this? That makes me feel good. I’m only one person, but luckily I’m one person who can put something out there – as a mom and as a buyer, I’m not going to support these companies that don’t have my health and my children’s health as a priority. And that, to me, was a takeaway that I didn’t expect. I notice that when I talk about the film at film festivals and Q&As, that resonates with people.

PE: Are there advocacy or consumer groups that people can look to for information on safer products?

DN: There are several great organizations working on this: Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is the name of a coalition group that is made up of hundreds of groups that are health-affected associations. They have a lot of resources. Then the Environmental Working Group has a great database of personal care products. There’s Healthy Child, Healthy World out of LA that’s working on children’s issues and products.

Ms. Nachman is currently working on her next film, Batkid Begins, which tells the story of Miles Scott, a 5-year-old leukemia patient who became an internet sensation when San Francisco granted his wish to become Batman for a day.

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