When we consume every day, household products we assume that the ingredients have all been tested and are safe for humans to use. But what if this assumption was wrong? The Human Experiment is a documentary that looks at the pervasive, hidden chemicals that are found in all of the things we commonly use- from cosmetics to furniture, cleaning products to sunscreens and more. It also suggests that we are playing a game of Russian roulette with our health.
The film is the third documentary to be made by journalists, Dana Nachman and Don Hardy with actor, Sean Penn narrating the story (this is the second collaboration between Penn and the filmmakers after they worked together on Witch Hunt). The film is an explosive and emotional one that looks deeply into the lives of individuals whose conditions may have been exacerbated by exposure to chemicals. The crew also interview activists and lobbyists working together towards greener laws as well as offering input from doctors, academics and American politicians.
In the pharmaceutical industry, organisations are arguably more accountable. They must first show that a product is safe for use before it is placed onto the market. With consumer goods, however, the companies are allowed to assume that their products (and ingredients) are safe for consumption unless it is proven otherwise (along with sufficient evidence). One of The Human Experiment’s goals is to change this, making powerful and profitable businesses more responsible from the outset.
The story looks closely at a 37 year old woman who was diagnosed with a stage 2 breast cancer despite being a non-drinker, having a healthy diet and being active. They also look at a couple who are having difficult conceiving a child because the woman has Polycystic Ovary Syndrome but to medics she presents as a 25-year-old who should be able to fall pregnant naturally. They also interview a family with a non-verbal, autistic son who is 12 years old and isn’t toilet trained as well as a young teen activist and a businessman who has made significant changes at his company.
The film argues that over the past 45 years there has been an increase in the rates of asthma, childhood brain cancer, ADHD, children’s leukaemia, early on-set puberty, genital deformities in baby boys, life-threatening birth defects and more. This higher prevalence does not prove causation (although the film often attempts to paint it this way). For some chemicals the jury is not yet out, meaning some may be completely benign while others could be very harmful or even deadly.
It is interesting to see the film explain how large corporations employ discrediting and distracting tactics in order to push their own agenda and convince people that their products are safe. But one can’t help but question whether this film has gone too far down the opposite route and into the realm of preaching. And on balance it is only telling one side of the story (although in some cases they point out that the supporters of chemicals had declined to be interviewed).
The Human Experiment is an interesting documentary that should be considered the initial chapter in opening up a dialogue about toxic chemicals. It is good that films like this can draw these sorts of social issues to people’s attentions and explain it in an engaging format so that they can then be empowered to go off to research and make up their own minds. Ultimately, this documentary is an emotionally-charged film that enforces the idea that there are high stakes involved in our choice of household goods and if nothing else, this film will make you think.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Human Experiment screens on September 7 as part of the Environmental Film Festival in Melbourne and at other special screenings nationally. For more information and tickets please visit: http://www.effm.org.au/the-human-experiment/ and http://rescu.com.au/sean-penn-the-human-experiment/