Film Review: Stink!

Breezy, Michael Moore-ish environmental documentary by a non-tree-hugging venture capitalist advocates for disclosure of carcinogenic chemicals in everyday products.
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I once wrote the text for a photo-essay book on missing and exploited children, for which I interviewed numerous parents of kids not recovered alive. You might think the parents' grief would have manifested in two or three similar ways, yet every family was different. One began a foundation. One ran for Congress. One adopted two Romanian orphans. Another became part of a traveling group of such parents whom a national center deploys to help others in this tragic circumstance. And in very similar fashion, Jon Whelan—former co-CEO of the Internet domain-name brokerage and a founding member of the venture-capitalist entrepreneurial investment group New York Angels—turned to documentary filmmaking after his beloved wife Heather died of breast cancer, possibly from legally undisclosed carcinogens in perfumes, cleaning supplies, hygiene products and even clothing.

Did Heather definitely contract cancer from such sources? Whelan concedes it's impossible to know. But as Karuna Jagger, executive director of the group Breast Cancer Action, tells him, one in eight women now have a lifetime risk of breast cancer, up from one in 20 in the 1960s. "Chemical exposures affect our lifetime health outcome," she says simply. Dr. Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says the rise in autism, breast cancer, reproductive problems and other maladies since the 1970s matches our increased use of toxic chemicals.

What might help, they and others argue in this well-made advocacy documentary, is labeling transparency, so that consumers can have a choice to buy or avoid potential carcinogens. That might seem like a no-brainer, given that the chemical companies telling us their products are safe told previous generations that lead in paint, asbestos in insulation and DDT on crops were all perfectly OK. Yet as Stink! points out, the federal Food and Drug Administration regulates pharmaceuticals and comestibles but has no authority to require disclosure of even arsenic in things like perfume or shaving cream. Indeed, Whelan's impetus for this documentary came when he bought pajamas for his eight-year-old daughter. The clothing, from the billion-dollar tween brand Justice, smelled bad, and while Whelan did finally learn the stink came from a flame retardant, no one could or would tell him what chemicals were used, since that's a proprietary trade secret—the so-called "fragrance loophole." One executive tells him that whatever the chemicals, the clothing is safe—to which Whelan sensibly replies, "You don't know what it is. How can you tell me for certain?"

This then takes him on a journey in which he learns that the smell of such things as lemon or vanilla in household products isn't real but a chemical concoction—the specifics of which companies are loath to reveal since these are essentially recipes that cannot be patented. Denison and Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an NYU associate professor of environmental medicine, tell him that of the 80,000 chemicals in everyday use, the most troubling are phthalates, a type of endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC), which at certain levels can create havoc with hormones. This, they say, has downstream consequences, including infertility, birth defects, learning disabilities and cancer. Plus, they're mutagens, meaning they can mutate our DNA—and so, we "are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals."

The central issue is that chemical compounds are innocent until proven guilty and thus introduced into our environment without mandatory testing. Dr. Jennifer Sass, another Environmental Defense Fund scientist, argues for what is called the precautionary principle, used in many countries, which she likens to using a seat belt even if you don't know you're going to get in a car crash. "With toxic chemicals, we keep being exposed until we're certain that it might cause harm," she says. "That means waiting for data. And those data are body bags."

It came close in the case of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania high-school freshman Brandon Silk, whose allergy to the popular teenage body spray Axe gives him anaphylactic shock. His mother Rosa has tried for years to get manufacturer Unilever to disclose what nearly killed her son. "I don't know what kind of proprietary information could be more important than the well-being of a child," she says.

The answer, of course, comes down to money, with chemical companies saying disclosure would not only reveal trade secrets but open the firms to liability lawsuits and threaten jobs. Yet other countries, as U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) says in a hearing, use the precautionary principle and find it works fine. And as the documentary points out, the wood in the FEMA trailers used for post-Katrina housing released high amounts of the carcinogen formaldehyde because China, which made then, sells low-formaldehyde trailers to the European Union, which has higher safety standards than the U.S.

Countering the argument for transparency is the lobbying group the American Chemistry Council. Whelan is rebuffed in his attempts at a sit-down interview and treated cavalierly by Steve Rosario, the group's Northeast regional director, when Whelan buttons him at Rosario's unsuccessful run for public office. The filmmaker does speak to the Council president and CEO, Cal Dooley, in a hallway after a hearing, but gets only platitudes and stock phrases even to questions about whether carcinogens in children's clothing should be disclosed. Dooley says his industry complies with all federal regulations—yet the pertinent legislation is often drawn up by the American Chemistry Council itself. In his attempts at getting all sides of the issues, Whelan even buys a share of Tween Brands, the parent company of Justice, since CEO Michael Rayden won't talk to him. At a shareholders meeting, Rayden treats Whelan like dirt. His company doesn't do a chemical analysis of every product, he claims, saying, “I can't solve your issue at the moment." When Whelan says straightforwardly, "You're not disclosing all the chemicals," Rayden snorts, "And who is?"

Ultimately, says Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of the green household brand Seventh Generation, we assume that if a product is being sold, it must be safe. "And that's a fundamentally inaccurate assumption," he argues. "No one's made sure that's safe." And while his company obviously has a stake in products that don't kill you, all the scientists in this documentary agree: When it comes to labeling household products, as kids in a schoolyard might put it, say it, don't spray it.

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