Filmmaker Jon Whelan lost his wife, Heather, to breast cancer in 2009. A few years later, as he watched his daughters opening presents on Christmas morning, he became concerned about the strange chemical odor emanating from their pajamas. Knowing that breast cancer has been linked to exposure to some environmental chemicals, he called the clothing company, Justice, and asked what substances it used in the manufacture of its products. Justice refused to give him any information. So Whelan made a movie about it.
Stink! is a heart-wrenching film that explores a father’s frantic attempt to answer basic safety questions about everyday household items. What exactly is that Double Dutch Apple or Wacky Melon fragrance in the shampoo his daughters smear on their heads? To Whelan’s surprise, the government usually doesn’t know. And the manufacturers aren’t saying.
For Whelan to find out what was making his girls’ pajamas smell so terrible, he had to send them to an independent lab, where testing revealed the presence of endocrine-disrupting phthalates and other toxins commonly used in flame retardants. These additives, which have been linked to cancer and neurological disorders, are not the kind of thing parents would want their kids wearing to bed.
Laws protecting proprietary information allow companies to keep the ingredients of their products hidden from consumers. Chemical compounds rarely undergo rigorous health and safety tests, and the onus is on the government to prove they cause harm—not an easy task. Of the roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals in circulation, only 5 have been restricted or banned from the U.S. market. In Europe—where laws adhere more to the precautionary principle—the number of restricted chemicals exceeds 1,000.
Instead of protecting people from dangerous chemicals before they get sick, regulators in the United States wait for data in the form of “body bags,” NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass explains in the film (disclosure). “That’s not the science we want to be waiting for while we continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals,” she says.
Until Congress fixes the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act and forces companies to be more transparent in what they expose their customers to, Whelan says he will keep pushing for answers. He owes that to his girls—and to the memory of his wife. You can watch his fight as he ambushes chemical industry execs and government officials for interviews, starting February 16, when Stink! is released digitally.
This post first appeared in OnEarth.