Film Review: The Human Experiment

Earnest documentary accuses the chemical industry of threatening the nation's health with flame-retardants, cosmetics and other harmful products.
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Armed with frightening statistics and a handful of upsetting personal stories, The Human Experiment accuses the chemical industry and weak-willed lawmakers of placing profits over the nation's health interests. Slickly packaged but far too easygoing, the documentary won't make much headway with nonbelievers.

The main point of the film, co-directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, is that our environment is filled with tens of thousands of untested chemicals that may be harmful to our health. While legislators passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, the law grandfathered in some 62,000 chemicals that are presumed safe even though no one has tested them.

Furthermore, as Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, notes, it's very hard to prove that a chemical is dangerous. "The one time we tried it, we lost in court," he says. Well-funded lobbyists for the chemical industry have succeeded in defeating or de-clawing legislation designed to protect consumers from unknown and unwanted chemicals.

Scientists, professors and pro-consumer activists point to increased rates of cancer, infertility and disabilities since the growth of the chemical age. They also compare their fights against brominated flame-retardants and Bisphenol A (BPA) to earlier battles against lead, asbestos and tobacco products.

Some of the information in The Human Experiment repeats material found in other documentaries. Robert Kenner's Merchants of Doubt, for example, also ties flame-retardant lobbyists to tobacco apologists, citing a "playbook" designed by public-relations experts to sway lawmakers and public opinion. But Kenner selected telling news clips and interviews that pinned industry speakers to their lies, and used surgically precise editing to build an airtight case against them.

The Human Experiment, on the other hand, bunches together mostly soft-spoken, even-handed activists and academicians who essentially repeat the same points and statistics. The filmmakers also provide a few personal stories about cancer and infertility that, while moving, cannot be tied to one or another specific chemical.

Some of the claims in the documentary border on the provocative. Does the increase in chemicals used in consumer products contribute to the rise of autism? No one can say, although that hasn't stopped others from connecting autism to vaccines.

Completed in 2013, the movie is receiving a theatrical release to coincide with Earth Day on April 17. It will simultaneously be available on Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, Sony PlayStation, Vudu and Xbox Video.

The Human Experiment does make a strong case against the proliferation of untested chemicals in consumer products. And, as the documentary shows, it's a battle that will have to be waged and won by consumers themselves.

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