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The Ultimate Human Experiment: Toxic Chemical Exposure

A new film asks if you know just how many toxic chemicals you’re putting in your body every day.

Every action we take–drinking coffee in the morning, putting detergent in the washing machine, putting on make-up, drinking out of a water bottle, even just sitting on the couch–may be pulling us deeper into the grand human experiment of being bombarded with questionably safe chemicals on a daily basis.

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At Co.Exist, we often write about individual studies revealing the hazards of commonplace chemicals. But looking at the toxic chemical issue piecemeal only goes so far. Sometimes, a big picture approach is the only way to hammer home the seriousness of how many toxic chemicals we come into contact with–and how many companies and politicians are willing to just go along with the problem.

In a new film called The Human Experiment, filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy go deeper into the health and safety consequences of our constant chemical exposure, the activists who are fighting back, and the ways that consumers can make a difference with their purchasing decisions.


Nachman first became interested in human chemical exposure in 2009, while working as a producer at NBC Bay Area. “I was assigned a story on how to make your home less toxic. At the time, I didn’t even know that your home was toxic,” she says. Nachman ended up producing a five-part series on detoxifying the home. By the end, she knew that this was an even bigger story.

The more research that Nachman did on the subject, the more she realized that certain groups–like breast cancer survivors, the fertility community, and families dealing with autism and learning disabilities–were grappling with the toxicity issue more than others. She decided to focus on these communities in the film.

“We weren’t out to prove the causes of any of these diseases,” she says. “We were looking for conditions and diseases where studies were showing there could be an environmental health component to them.”

The point, says Nachman, is to not wait until chemicals have been proven definitively to be toxic. People used tobacco for nearly a century before we understood its impact on the body. “Let’s take the precautionary principle. Let’s be cautious about chemicals until we prove they’re not causing issues,” she says.

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Ttatty via Shutterstock

One of the most surprising things to come up during research for the film: information about the companies that swap out known toxic chemicals in certain countries with strict laws, but keep the questionable chemicals in products sold in the U.S. In the film, viewers get the story of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, which has different ingredients in the U.S. than elsewhere (in some other countries, chemicals were switched because of local bans on the ones used in the U.S product).

The filmmakers tried to get comments from Johnson & Johnson, the American Chemistry Council, and others with a vested interest in the products and chemicals discussed in the movie–to no avail.

“I think that the film is shocking, the mess of the legislation and where we are politically with this is shocking,” says Nachman. “I hope audiences come away from this with the understanding that there’s a problem, and that they can take steps to buy better products.”

The Human Experiment will be available on-demand and in theaters April 17.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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