Personal Health

Modern Life Is a Frightening Experiment in How Much Exposure We Can Take from Toxic Chemicals

A new documentary reveals how the $770 billion chemical industry is pumping dangerous substances into our lives.

Back in 1974, the agricultural multinational Monsanto developed a class of herbicides using glyphosate as the key ingredient. By the 1990s, the company had created corn, soy and cotton seeds genetically altered to resist glyphosate herbicides, meaning farmers could kill weeds without fearing for the health of their crops. Today, Monsanto’s Roundup is the most widely used weed-killer in the world.

One problem: we now know with certainty that glyphosate is carcinogenic to humans and animals. Though Roundup has been plagued by controversy for years, a report released this March by scientists affiliated with the World Health Organization definitively linked the herbicide to increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals.

Roundup is only one of tens of thousands of chemicals we encounter every day in our food, clothing, furniture, electronics and cosmetics. Over 84,000 chemicals are used in U.S. commerce, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, most of which have never been tested for potentially toxic effects on human and wildlife health and the environment. The Human Experiment, a new documentary narrated by Sean Penn and directed by journalists Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, takes a wide-angle view on the health risks perpetuated by the chemical industry, and demonstrates how in their eyes we’re all just guinea pigs available for testing. 

The documentary uses three case studies to provide a sampling of the potential health consequences of sustained chemical exposure. Marika Holmgren is an active, non-smoking Bay Area woman with no family history of cancer who receives a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer at age 37; Jenn Canvasser is a healthy young woman who discovers she has polycystic ovarian syndrome and endures several difficult, expensive rounds of IVF treatments as she and her husband try to conceive; and Hannah Cary, whose brother is severely autistic, is an advocate at the Autism Society of America. The subjects and filmmakers make the case that chemicals in the environment are responsible for these health conditions, and there is plenty of unnerving science to back up their fears.

Many of the professors and scientists interviewed in the film point to rising rates of cancer, learning disorders and infertility that cannot be fully explained by genetic drift or changes in diagnostic criteria. Breast cancer rates have gone up more than 30 percent in both men and women since 1975. Rates of asthma have increased by 80 percent in the last 45 years, and ADHD has increased by 53 percent. As Sean Penn narrates, these conditions “are all on the rise since the dawn of the chemical revolution.”

But correlation and causation are not the same thing, as any scientist (or journalist) knows. In the case of women like Jenn Canvasser, there could be many other environmental and genetic factors at play. Like 6.5 million other women in the U.S., Canvasser has trouble conceiving. When she finally gives birth to twins after multiple rounds of IVF treatments, both are plagued by health problems and one eventually dies after a few short, hospital-ridden months. Her story is heartbreaking, but at no point is her or her sons’ condition explicitly linked to chemical exposure. Instead, the filmmakers say “Numerous studies associate adverse pregnancy outcomes with toxic chemicals including pesticides, DDT, PCBs and BPA.” Again and again, they hammer home the connection between rising rates of disease and chemical usage, but the strongest language they use is “linked to” or “associated with.”

Still, consumers and health advocates undoubtedly have cause for concern, as the Roundup controversy shows us. Over the past several decades, the chemical industry has repeatedly demonstrated a blatant disregard for public health. Existing and new chemicals are supposed to be monitored by a 1976 law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act. But loopholes in its language mean that companies don’t have to test chemicals before including them in consumer products and make it very difficult for the EPA to pull hazardous chemicals from the market. Sixty-two thousand chemicals, including toxic substances like asbestos, were grandfathered in under the law, assumed safe because they were already in use. Essentially, the TSCA functions as little more than a long list of known chemicals, and consumers have no way of knowing which products contain flame retardants, formaldehyde, cadmium, or other chemicals that can be toxic to humans and animals.

As David Rosner, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, says in the film, there have been “real mistakes, major mistakes where we allowed these industries to get away with murder.”

The lack of available information about the linkages between chemicals and disease is partly the design of the $770 billion chemical industry. Dow, Exxon and other major firms spend millions each year lobbying Washington for favorable legislation and funding the campaigns of industry-friendly representatives. In the late 1990s, bisphenol A, an endocrine-disrupting chemical that mimics estrogen and can lead to health problems ranging from obesity to infertility, was discovered to be in many hard plastics. These everyday products included everything from baby bottles to Tupperware. During the ensuing public outcry, chemical industry trade groups released a rash of bunk studies, insisting that BPA is safe for humans at the levels to which we’re exposed. 

A great deal of work needs to be done to combat the industry’s influence, and The Human Experiment tracks the difficult, mundane efforts being made by health advocates, families and legislators to obtain stricter consumer protection laws. But this is only one angle pursued in the sprawling film, which tries to cover far more ground than its hour-and-a-half run time allows. By taking on the "chemical industry” as a whole, the filmmakers can only spend a few minutes discussing a particular chemical, or case study, before moving on to the next. This overly sweeping approach, paired with a lack of hard research connecting specific chemicals to specific health problems, can make the film somewhat juvenile at times, a documentary that basically boils down to the thesis “chemicals are dangerous.”

Yet despite this broad focus, there are notable absences in the film. With the exception of Maria Cruz, a housecleaner who immigrated from Mexico with her two children, almost all of the interview subjects are middle-class white people who have the financial resources to afford needed medical care and combat ineffective legislation. Little mention is made of the disproportionate effects of toxic chemicals on minorities and the working class, or of heavily polluted areas like Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where the wastes pumped out by surrounding petrochemical refineries have caused high rates of miscarriages, cancer and other diseases.

The real takeaway of the film is one that aligns quite closely with the values of middle-class white America: learning how to be a better consumer. Jenn Canvasser and Marika Holmgren now both work as consumer protection advocates, warning people of the dangers of toxic chemicals in their makeup and home furnishings. Consumer protection efforts are certainly admirable, but after gaining even a cursory understanding of the public health risks perpetuated by the chemical industry, learning how to make more educated decisions about which bar of soap to purchase isn’t exactly an inspiring rallying cry.

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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