In this election week, I've been thinking about how we as individuals and moms can stay involved in the issues that matter to us. For me, one of those issues became intertwined with my professional life when I embarked on my current documentary, The Human Experiment, a film about the high-stakes battle to protect our health from the thousands of untested chemicals in our everyday products.
Since this is my first Blog for MomsRising, I thought it would be best to enlist the help of my dear friend, a fellow mom and journalist, Janine Zacharia. Janine is a Middle East correspondent who is currently teaching journalism at Stanford University. You might ask, what does a Middle East reporter know or care about toxic chemicals? Well, she knows a little bit about the topic because she’s heard me blather on about it for the last three years as I’ve been working on our film. She also cares deeply about it because of her intense love for her precious one-year-old daughter. So, Janine asked me the questions that she thought most moms out there would want to know when it comes to chemicals and how we can be involved with this issue to protect our children.
Janine: What prompted you to make a movie about chemicals and how they are not regulated by the government?
Dana: People often ask me how we come up with the topics for our films. The main criteria is shock. If I hear something that I can’t believe is true and then come to find out that it really is true, that might very well become the subject of our next film. I was working at NBC in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009 and I was assigned a story about keeping toxic chemicals out of your home. Through researching that story I found out that most products that are on the store shelves in America contain hundreds of chemicals that are not tested for their safety. They’re not tested by the companies that make them. They’re not tested by the government. No one really knows for sure the affects that these chemicals have on our health and the health of our children. I thought, no… certainly the Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring this. So, I made a few calls and that turned into dozens and dozens of calls. And the shocking fact was true. No one knows exactly what the impact is of the tens of thousands of chemicals that are in everything we use from diaper cream, to deodorant, to disinfectants. When I finally got in contact with Jim Jones, the man in charge of this issue for the EPA, I asked him: “Are chemicals required to have safety testing before they get on the market?” Jim said, “I expect that people think that chemicals that are sold are safe or have been judged to be safe by some credible body. I think that people think that some assessment is done for chemicals. But that’s not the case in the United States.” As a journalist I was shocked and as a mom I was scared. I knew as a filmmaker, but more importantly as a mom, I had to make this movie.
Janine: There are suggestions that the exposures to unregulated chemicals are contributing to an up tick in autism and other conditions like infertility. What do the experts say on this?
Dana: Of course it depends on which experts you ask. We interviewed, both on and of camera, dozens of experts for this film. We have talked to many scientists who are very concerned about the affect that chemicals have on all of us, particularly children. They are concerned about the affects chemicals have on our neurological development, our reproductive development and the development of our endocrine system. Much of the research linking disease to environmental exposures has only been done in earnest over the last 30 years. That seems like a long time to most of us, but in the scientific world, which relies on a massive body of evidence to ensure a causal relationship, this is just the beginning of this kind of research. That’s part of the problem with an issue like this: Do we want to wait until scientists are certain to act on strong suspicions? I know I don’t. I have three young children – seven and under – and I know that by the time we have nailed down which chemicals are harming them, it will be too late. That’s why caution now is imperative. Think about smoking. Scientists knew that there was a probable health impact of smoking in the 1920s but still millions of people have died during the decades that scientists worked to nail down the evidence. Meanwhile, over the years the tobacco companies put out their own research saying there was no harm. This confused people and many people believed the scientific propaganda and kept on smoking. This same kind of manipulation happens today with chemicals.
Janine: In August, after protracted battles with activists, Johnson & Johnson announced it would remove a host of potentially harmful chemicals from its consumer products including baby shampoo. Isn't this an acknowledgement that the company has been putting the population at risk for years and shouldn't they be held accountable in some way?
Dana: The companies rarely if ever acknowledge that they put people at risk by using certain chemicals. I would think that would open them up to too many legal troubles. They usually say that they stand by their product and the chemicals they use but are switching because they are aware that customers are concerned about it. They also typically say that the amount of the chemical that a child (in this instance) was exposed to is too small to be significant. This argument can be very flawed. We know that children are exposed to chemicals every day in dozens and dozens of ways, even from birth. Most of these ways are not avoidable. We can’t control completely what’s in our air or our water or our food. We can’t control what chemicals are in most of our products because we don’t know what’s in them. So, when we find out that there is a carcinogen or two in our baby shampoo, lets take it out because we don’t know if that small amount puts that child over the level that’s considered safe. If the child lived in a bubble and we knew for a fact that the baby shampoo was its only exposure then I think it could be possible that the formaldehyde in the baby shampoo would be too little to matter. But none of our children are living that way and they are exposed to formaldehyde in other ways so lets get rid of it in the shampoo.
Janine: Do you see any evidence that other companies are following suit?
Dana: I think many companies are starting to take what we want seriously. Moms are not going to buy things if they get information that the product may be harmful for their kids. I think we are in a great position to make companies do the right thing. We need to convince them to use the safest ingredients possible in their products and until they do we are not going to give them our hard earned dollars. When moms speak, companies listen… so lets keep speaking out!