When we engage in risk taking, we calculate the extent to which we may confront self-harm before we take the risk as we weigh the pros and cons. The documentary The Human Experiment, directed by Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman, begins with the premise that human beings have the right to calculate their own risks concerning the food they eat, the products they use, and the places where they live. But if that right is abrogated because of corporate obfuscation, lies of omission and commission, the ability to discern whether one is engaging in self-harm is greatly reduced. And if there is self-harm without out notice, intention or warning from the companies responsible for it, what then? The odds take over. Trial, error, and luck factor in. If the potential harm is minimal then it is of little concern. However, if the harm is great, then the inability to calculate the risk is like playing Russian Roulette. One just marches ahead into danger without forewarning or foreknowledge.
How long can this continue before harm results? One might be fortunate to dodge the bullet for a time, but eventually, one’s odds will run out. No one is that lucky. Over time the percentages will increase exponentially that damage or even premature death may occur. Is this a risk people would be willing to take if they knew that using products with unsafe chemicals will risk theirs or their children’s lives?
The documentary The Human Experiment presents these very clear questions. If we knew that there was the potential for getting cancer or disrupting our endocrine systems, would we use plastics and other products (plastic cups, laundry detergents, fragrances, etc.), containing BPA as much as we do? Wouldn’t we take more care? With chemicals that are not tested or policed by the FDA or EPA as they should be, the filmmakers point out that humans are immersed in toxicity daily, only they don’t know it. The result is that they have become the equivalent of guinea pigs in a vast experiment as their bodies succumb gradually to the poisonous chemicals they are subjected to over the long or short term. Directors Nachman and Hardy Jr. have done us a service by exposing the truths that Americans have been denied knowing or have been slow to awake to.
First, there are 80,000 chemicals found in products and in the environment we live and make our home in. Only 200 have been tested for safety. These are chemicals discoverable in couches, curtains, shaving creams, shampoos, make-up products, baby bottles, home-building materials, our soils, water, air, and indeed much of what we are familiar with and touch daily.
The filmmakers indicate that reading labels we don’t understand isn’t enough. We must discover/research the impact of the leaching of such chemical toxins into our bodies. This is a vital imperative. The only way we can be sure of such information is if it is derived autonomously and independently of the chemical industry, for scientists who are handmaidens beholden to the companies they serve are in their thrall and will not deliver the truth. The documentary reveals the hard, displacing fact that the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies which we believe are protecting us, invariably are not. Nachman and Hardy Jr. identify why and how this has been happening.
Since the toxicity of only a few of the 80,000 chemicals has been assessed, the rest have slipped into use because passage of the Safe Chemicals Act introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D. NJ) is in a state of limbo. There are many chemicals which are suspect and have been on caution lists for years, but they have not been banned outright as is occurring in Europe (BPA is the most produced chemical in the world). The American Chemistry Council is the lobbying arm of the 22 billion chemical industry. It spends millions of dollars ($52 million in 2011), to lobby politicians to stall legislation against regulating the chemical industry the way the EU is currently regulating it. Chemical companies have viewed criticism of their chemicals (parabens, BPA, formaldehyde, toxins in flame retardant), with a siege mentality. Profits are more important than human health and their profitability must be sustained. There is an inevitable “circling the wagons” if and when there is any full scale scientific questioning of chemical companies practices and product.
The filmmakers reveal how the companies have deflected criticism and thus regulation through a PR defense used to soften criticism of cigarettes in the 1950s: they raise doubt. The defense follows a pattern. The company hires its own scientific research team to review the impact of their own chemicals’ potency and impact on the human body.
Their response to the research is pro forma if the critics and researchers persist. First, they deny that the product is dangerous or harmful. Second, if additional independently conducted research is overwhelmingly weighted to reveal that there are many cases of illness as a result of its use, then they revert to a “minimum use standard.” The bottom line becomes, “Well, yes, this is a dangerous chemical or substance. However, in small doses, it is not harmful.” The extent of how much is never revealed and the question remains how much does it take to acknowledge that the poison line has been reached and one is poisoning oneself or one’s children? The fourth part of the defense is acknowledgement that the product/chemical is dangerous and causes illness, but the consumer decided to use it and it is his or her fault that they are ill. Of course, this defense process takes decades before a product or chemical is banned or removed from the market. Meanwhile, millions of people are being exposed to the chemicals and products in doubt that they are harmful. If they contract cancer, their children have autism, the husband and wife are infertile and need fertility treatments, the children have ADHD or congenital birth defects, the association between chemicals and the illnesses is never made.
As in the instance with Jeffrey Wygand and the Brown and Williamson, there are whistleblowers who know the full story. They are silenced or cowed into spinning a positive line about a chemical or product, a condition similar to the “fox watching the hen house” scenario. If they speak out, they are fired and cannot work again in the same field; they are blacklisted as not being “a team player.” Thus, if there is a protest to ban chemicals and advocacy groups rally around to raise the public’s awareness, the companies hire PR firms and marketers to insure that products (i.e. Roundup) are promoted heavily on the media, rather than to fix the product and make it safe for public consumption.
Furthermore, any research which intimates a corresponding relationship between toxicity and disease is struck down. Doubt is raised, real facts disputed, and using the chemical enters the realm of individual choice as to whether you believe it is safe or believe you will be harmed. Company scientists’ research has been skewed, deflected, or written up so that all the effects and impact are mitigated. The doubt about the chemical’s toxicity increases and the belief about it is strengthened. Of course, belief has little to do with the fact of danger. Thus, the American public has been eased into accepting that chemicals are benign and only those with an incredible, historical track record of deaths (i.e. arsenic), are used under controlled circumstances.
Up against the formidable forces of the American Chemistry Council, the filmmakers present the bold and courageous efforts of activists such as a breast cancer survivor, a disability policy advocate for the autism society, a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a worker at a green skincare line, and a Latina house cleaner. The documentarians highlight how each of these individuals has woken up to the harm created by the use of products containing dangerous substances. In the film we follow how they have changed their lifestyles to accommodate their newly awakened knowledge. Through their anecdotal eye witness accounts and through expert commentary by doctors and scientists and an enumeration of facts and figures, we come to understand how we have been duped unjustly by chemical companies. Filmmakers objectively show that the companies do not consider themselves responsible for the effects their products produce, especially if there is no law that can force them to be honest and ethical in the “safety” research they conduct.
The documentary’s subject is a vital one. Nachman’s and Hardy Jr.’s presentation can be faulted for not being exciting or edited with more pop and zing. However, their choice might be an important one because the tone is moderate and not overly dramatic. They allow the cancer survivor and others to speak for themselves. As they tell their stories matter-of-factly, the undercurrent of the danger is present and real. This is one of the points of the film. We are involved in our daily living and all appears to be safe, but what we are doing with the products we are using is far from benign. The ironic question is can we be matter of fact about contaminating ourselves?
The charts and facts identified are terrifying. Like never before, women at a young age are getting cancer; there has been a 49% increase since 1988 and the biggest percentage of these women are under 25 years. Cancer rates have mushroomed in the last 150 years, not surprisingly as the chemical revolution has blossomed. Today 1 in 88 children are stricken with autism; in 1999 it was 1 in 500. There is an 80% increase in children with asthma, an increase in early onset puberty by 55% and for those stricken with ADHD there is a 53% increase. Also, 7.3 million couples can’t conceive or carry to term. The question remains for all of us. To what extent is this caused by increased chemical use that is not regulated as it should be? Can we afford risking illness without knowing the impact of the products and the chemicals at our disposal?
Indeed, if the assumption is that our government polices all the products on the market assessing their safety before they are released into the culture for our consumption, then there is little cause for concern. Who would consciously and willfully endanger their lives or their children’s lives by drinking poison or giving their children a substance that will impair their intelligence and destroy their body function or even kill them in the womb? None of us would make such a conscious choice to harm ourselves or our children.
Yet, we are being denied the choice to understand the extent we are doing so by the chemical companies’ clever redaction of the truth. This is egregious and the film through understatement is successful in conveying this point. For that reason it should be seen. There is not one of the products and chemicals that Nachman and Hardy Jr. identify that are not used by any of us. The film is our wake-up call. Europe has banned the use of dangerous chemicals. Why can’t we?
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