A new documentary film exposes hidden toxins found in products you use every day.
There’s a consumer-culture mindset that if a product is on a shelf, available for purchase, then it is safe to the consumer. We imagine a benevolent group or government watching over us, testing every product, vetting them on our behalf and protecting us from anything toxic or harmful. We apply this notion to all sorts of consumer products from toys to electronics, the food and medicine we put in our mouth and home and body items we spray in the air or slather on our skin. Many of these chemicals are linked to asthmas, allergies, infertility, neurological disorders and even cancer.
There is much evidence of toxins in everyday products, but you really have to educate yourself and read labels. Even then, it’s a proverbial crapshoot, because, as one filmmaker, Jon Whelan of the new documentary Stink! found out, many ingredients aren’t even on the label. The fragrance loophole is an example of this. Even though the word “fragrance” appears to be one ingredient, it allows manufacturers to hide as many as 100 different chemicals due to their proprietary formula. I ran into this same problem when trying to find out what was in the noxious air fresheners in my gym’s daycare area. The word “fragrance” protects them from disclosing their “proprietary” mixture of chemicals. Whether it’s derived from the gland from a beaver’s anus (artificial vanilla fragrance) or chemicals also used in fracking, or known hormone disruptors, don’t we have the right to choose whether or not we purchase products containing these compounds?
A single father of two, he orders his daughters some pajamas for Christmas from the popular ‘tween retailer, Justice. Surprised and overwhelmed by their chemical smell, he called the company to find out what the toxic odor was, which takes him down a rabbit hole of big corporate collusion, lobbying and chemical ingredient cover ups. I was shocked at what he discovered. We learn from his journey that it’s impossible to be a truly informed consumer and avoid potential cancer-causing chemicals if we don’t have the freedom to be informed. With 14 million people a year being diagnosed with cancer, Stink! is a film that every doctor and patient should see as it embraces the naturopathic philosophy “Prevention is the Best Cure.”
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Razi: This is Razi Berry the publisher of Naturopathic Doctor News and Review and Natural Path and I’m here today with John Walen the producer and director of the new documentary “Stink” that explores the pervasiveness of toxic chemicals, namely fragrances that we and our children use every day. So thanks for being with us today John!
John: Thanks for having me.
Razi: I’d like to say that the movie was excellent and definitely didn’t stink, though the subject matter does for sure. First of all, I want our readers to know, you said you used to naively believe that if a product contained dangerous ingredients, that could even cause cancer, then it would be a banned product. I would like our readers to know, what was the catalyst for your change in thinking, what was the catalyst for the making of the film “Stink”?
John: Well, basically I was buying some pajamas for my daughter for Christmas and they had a strange chemical smell. And I called the manufacturer and they wouldn’t tell me what the smell was. That started me on this journey to try to find out why the ingredients in products we use every day are such a secret.
Razi: Right. And I think a lot of consumers wrongly assume as you did and we all do that if something is on the shelf it is safe. As you exposed in your film, these chemicals are often not disclosed to the consumer, so how can they protect themselves from something that is not disclosed to them?
John: Well, honestly, they can’t, that’s the problem. You hit the nail on the head. You can’t avoid something if it isn’t on the product label. Unfortunately, the industry instead of innovating, is spending its money and its resources so that consumers don’t know what’s in the products. And for purely selfish reasons, because they don’t want awareness about a certain chemical in a product to dissuade a customer from buying their product.
Razi: Yes, like you say in your film, if we knew what some of the chemicals in these products were, we probably wouldn’t have purchased those pajamas.
John: That’s right, that’s right.
Razi: We learn a lot about our environment from our sense of smell, it’s a primal instinct. I know as a parent, and you probably do to, that children sometimes smell a toy or food before putting it in their mouth or playing with it, how have companies exploited our olfactory sense in their marketing?
John: As you said, scent is really powerful, and these artificial scents often manipulate us. Take shampoo for example. When someone is at the store looking for shampoo the first thing they do is smell it. They like to see how it lathers. The fact that shampoo is supposed to clean your hair is irrelevant. Manufacturers have picked up on the fact that because scent is so powerful, artificial scents have become a combinant for every product category. Companies really compete on the scent, but we don’t really know anything about it.
Razi: The lack of disclosure is really frightening. We’ve been publishing in our medical journals articles and case studies on endocrine disruptors for the past decade. We learn in your film that the word fragrance, which can be used in lieu of disclosing as many of 100 different chemicals. Can you explain a little bit more about this loophole, the fragrance loophole?
John: Sure, if you look on a product label and you see the word fragrance, it appears to be a singular ingredient, but it’s not. That word fragrance is used instead of disclosing the actual ingredients, which could be 100 different ingredients. And so most people when they see a product on the shelf, let’s say it is shampoo and it says vanilla bean on there, and they smell it and it smells like vanilla. Well, a reasonable person would think there is actually vanilla in there. But a concoction of chemicals are actually used to mimic something we would actually recognize in nature. And that may be fine, except for the fact that it’s completely legal to create these artificial scents to mimic natural things and use chemicals that can cause cancer, lead to birth defects or hormone disruption, and other things that are just disgusting, just to give you an example. There is something called casterium, which is a fluid that comes from a sack next to a beaver’s anus. And that smells like vanilla. And so your vanilla toothpaste may not have real vanilla, it could have casterium in it, which may be safe, it is natural, and don’t ask me how the people found out that that the sack next to the beaver’s anus smells like vanilla… that’s a separate story. If you had that information, you might feel differently about a product.
Razi: Yes, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss, I agree with you. I find it so frustrating when you go to a market or even someone’s home, I try to be as fragrance free as possible. Someone will have a candle burning that says Spring Rain and you wonder, do they really believe that that is what spring rain is supposed to smell like? Which brings me to my next question. As consumers and parents, we see and smell questionable qualities to products and their packaging all the time. Sometimes even if there is a warning label, but why do consumers often disregard these hazardous chemicals? Even just their instinct that it doesn’t smell natural, whether it is or is not, why do you think that we have this false sense of security?
John: I mean, cognitive dissonance for one thing. The idea that we just assume it is on the shelf that it is safe. We hear that everything is bad for you that people kind of tune out. That’s one explanation. I think that most people’s perception is that somewhere, someone is testing all these products. And that’s not the case. It’s unfortunate that as I mentioned, the industry is spending a lot of money and resources so that they don’t have to disclose these ingredients. And the problem with that because there is not greater disclosure, because companies don’t have to disclose, sellers of products are making bad choices about what they put in products, which means that buyers are making bad choices about what they are buying for their families, because they don’t know what they don’t know.
Razi: It is interesting, because at our local natural grocery store that ignorance is spread really far. I have two small daughters as well and so when you are a parent, whenever you go to the grocery store, we always have to stop at the bathroom. We are constantly having to stop at the bathroom with our children and I’ve come to really have a time when there are really powerful air fresheners and chemical fragrances in every public restroom we use and you’re in an environment where there is no windows, no ventilation. Going to the bathroom is a biological function that you can’t really suppress. Sometimes I find that in stores or restaurants that wouldn’t sell toxic products they are still using it in their facilities. That’s just an example of how pervasive this problem is.
John: Yeah, awareness is really low. They use artificial stints in hospitals, in homes. If people understood about the loopholes that allows companies to use virtually any chemical they want to create these artificial odors, it would be different. It’s hard to explain. It’s almost hard to believe that the vanilla scent in products could be bad for you.
Razi: I know, it is. Could you tell our readers a little bit of the extent of regulation on chemical fragrances. Is there any?
John: No, so basically the industry regulates itself. They are allowed to use any chemical to create a fragrance. They will tell you that they are regulated by the FDA, but the FDA doesn’t even know what chemicals are in their specific products. I did a Freedom of Information Act request for a certain product, and I got a form letter back from the FDA, which said, for your information, we aren’t allowed to ask the company we regulate for a list of ingredients, which you kind of have to read twice. It’s absurd. It really is. I don’t think it can last much longer, because once people know, and just see them not being transparent, there is no consumer benefit. The benefit to the industry is that in general, cheaper toxic chemicals, companies are going to cut corners if they can. If you’re going to create a vanilla-scented product, you’re going to use the cheapest chemicals possible to create the vanilla-scented product. But if you have to disclose them, then you’ll make better choices. The other thing is that in America, we think that because a company has been around for a 100 years, or we recognize the brand or they have commercials on television or they have a celebrity who endorses the product that means that the product is good. We are looking at these products at a superficial level. We are talking about really highly-engineered products. By disclosing what is in it, I think you level the playing field for companies that are using more healthful ingredients, because that’s really what the large conventional companies are trying to avoid. They don’t want to reformulate, because reformulating costs money, and that’s what they are trying to avoid.
Razi: I was also frightened to learn that on top of maybe the 80,000 chemicals that are being used in commerce right now that there are several secret chemicals so even if we knew what chemicals are out there, there are still secret chemicals. What can be done about that? Is that something that can change? Is that part of the loophole?
John: The problem is systemic, I think. If you don’t get any product categories, for the most part, companies can use any chemical they want. There are 85,000 chemicals in commerce, not to say that they are all bad, most of the chemicals are fine, it’s just that in the industry, the high-volume chemicals are the ones that are in a lot of our products. It’s almost hard to believe. If you take flame-retardant chemicals and how consumers are manipulated, if you buy pajamas, and they have a fire-retardant material, that’s good, no one wants their kid to catch fire. Now, what the industry doesn’t want you to know, is this material in the pajamas inherently flame-resistant or are you using a flame-retardant chemical, which we now know cause cancer? Now they don’t want you to have the answer to that question. Of course they don’t want you to have the answer to that question, because they don’t want to lose the sale. And again, it’s positive camouflage. The ironic thing is that the flame retardant and the fragrance are both positive camouflage, because the perception and the reality are very different and through disclosure, it would make it very clear what is going on.
Razi: Children and teens are especially at risk. They’re nervous system and their endocrine systems are still developing. What do you think parents need to know to strive to protect and even educate their children?
John: In Europe, the conversation about endocrine disrupting chemicals is advanced, whereas here it is very obscure. There is hundreds, thousands of chemicals they feel have these properties. In our everyday product again, there are really no laws for most product categories about using them. It’s hard to avoid if it’s not on the label, but even if it was on the label, I don’t know if most consumers would associate that chemical or know it was an endocrine disruptor. The issue is still in its infancy. Sort of a prerequisite for advancing the system in the United States is transparency. Our regulatory system is broken, but the broken system is working for the conventional industry.
Razi: In Naturopathic Medicine, we have this tenant called, First Do No Harm. And I wanted to ask you about the precautionary principle with regards to the chemical industry. I learned in your film that it’s kind of the way they do things in Europe. Can you explain the precautionary principle to our readers and how it affects the end consumer?
John: Sure! The big philosophical difference between, how products and chemicals are regulated in Europe versus the United States. In Europe, chemicals are guilty until proven innocent. The precautionary principle says that if we suspect something may be harmful, well then let’s not use it. It’s another way to say common sense. In the United States, it’s the exact opposite. Chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, yet it’s virtually impossible to prove guilt. Asbestos has a signature disease, the only way you can get Mesothelioma is from asbestos exposure. We weren’t even able to ban that. So if you can’t ban asbestos, you basically can’t ban anything.
Razi: What would you say is the biggest takeaway for you as the filmmaker? What’s the biggest lesson you can share with us about this journey.
John: The good news and the bad news. The bad news is issue is systemic. Our system is broken. To take that up a notch, our political environment itself is so toxic, this issue with the broken chemical system is kind of a microcosm of the larger issue. Meaning that, as long as we have unchecked money in politics, the right amount of money can keep the wrong system in place. And so basically, that is what has happened. But I think that the good news is that consumers are demanding transparency. The internet is driving transparency. People just expect transparency. And there are tons of companies that are starting to see that as an opportunity to create the next version of any product by disclosing ingredients and using better chemistry. So, I’m very optimistic about this sort of renaissance in American manufacturing, rethinking the way these decades old formulas and coming up with better, greener, more sustainable chemistry. And I think that will be great for America, for creating jobs, and that’s sort of the positive thing. The companies that are sort of resistant to change and not being transparent and not creating better products, they are in trouble. I think people have had it.
Razi: Well, this is just invaluable information. I think every doctor, every parent, every consumer, really needs to see this film. Another tenant we have in Naturopathic Medicine is prevention is the best cure. And so I thank you again for being with us today. How can people view this film? When will it be available?
John: Theatrically it will be in New York on Black Friday on November 27th, then it will be in Los Angeles on December 4th. And then after that we will plan about 30 cities that we will have some sort of “Stink” event. So if you go to our website, Stinkmovie.com, it will have all that information.
Razi: Do you have another project in the works?
John: I want to make sure this to be finished properly so I think this is an ongoing thing. I just think the timing is really good, because people are starting to wake up and started connecting the dots of what’s going on with different chronic health conditions in America and chemical exposure, so I think it’s a good time to sort of get the word out.
Razi Berry, Founder and Publisher of Naturopathic Doctor News & Review (ndnr.com) and NaturalPath (thenatpath.com), has spent the last decade as a natural medicine advocate and marketing whiz. She has galvanized and supported the naturopathic community, bringing a higher quality of healthcare to millions of North Americans through her publications. A self proclaimed health-food junkie and mother of two; she loves all things nature, is obsessed with organic gardening, growing fruit trees (not easy in Phoenix), laughing until she snorts, and homeschooling. She is a little bit crunchy and yes, that is her real name.