Oct 26, 2012

We’re all guinea pigs: Film explores effects of living among untested chemicals

KTF Films

Dana Nachman was a producer at NBC when she wrote a story on how to make your home less toxic. “It was something I never gave an ounce of thought to before,” she says. In her research, she learned not only about the tens of thousands of chemicals lurking in everyday products, but that most of those chemicals have never been independently tested for their safety. Meanwhile, rates of tough-to-explain health problems like breast cancer, autism, and infertility — many of which have been linked to toxic exposure — are on the rise. A mother of young children, Nachman found this upsetting enough to turn it into the subject of her next documentary (her first two films tackled wrongful convictions and terrorism). The Human Experiment, narrated by Sean Penn and co-directed by Don Hardy, follows three families motivated by health problems to fight the powerful chemical industry lobby on behalf of everyone’s safety.

Nachman, Hardy, and producer Chelsea Matter plan to start submitting the film to festivals and looking for distribution next year. In the meantime, they’re working on developing an app to help consumers choose the safest products and minimize toxins in their homes.

Watch a trailer for The Human Experiment:

I caught up with Nachman during a break from editing the film to learn more about our toxic world and whether there’s anything we can do to change it.

Q. Was I naive to assume safety testing was part of the standard procedure to get a product on the market?

A. Most people assume that these things are vetted before they get put on the store shelves, and that’s absolutely not true. Why? The answer is pretty complicated, but there was a law established in 1976 called the Toxic Substances Control Act. It’s very outdated. We’re dealing today with tens of thousands of chemicals in everyday life, with the same laws we’ve had since before there were so many. [The TSCA generally excludes substances like food, drugs, cosmetics, and pesticides.]

Q. How did we come to live among so many chemicals?

A. A lot of these chemicals have been here for a long time. But they’re just ubiquitous now. There’s 80,000 chemicals used in society today. [The more] modern conveniences that we use … the more chemicals we’re using. Back in the ’70s people knew about certain [substances] like DDT and PCBs, and they took action to limit those, among other things. But a lot of work on environmental health has only started in earnest since the beginning of the 1990s.

A main thing in our movie is that we shouldn’t wait until we have absolute proof that these things are bad for us to make some changes. For example, in the 1920s, the [cigarette] companies knew that tobacco causes cancer. Now it’s been 100 years, almost, and tobacco is still killing people.

Somebody just the other day asked me what I thought about BPA. I said I don’t know definitively; I do believe there are problems with BPA, enough so that I try to limit my children’s exposure to BPA as much as I possibly can. And if it turns out there’s nothing wrong with BPA, great. But companies making a lot of money off of our purchasing these things without having to do obligatory testing — that’s not okay with me.

Q. It can be hard to process information about all the dangerous chemicals we live with if you and your loved ones don’t seem to be affected by them. It can sound alarmist, or it can seem pointless to even try to protect yourself.