Opening at the Cinema Village in New York today, “Stink” is a documentary that examines the health hazards of chemical additives to a wide range of consumer goods and particularly those that are intended to make something smell good. Unlike food products that are now required to disclose their ingredients such as the percentage of saturated fats or cigarettes that carry a warning about the possible risks of cancer, you can sell kids’ pajamas laced with chemicals to such an extent that they positively reek when taken out of their package.
That was the discovery made by Jon Whelan after buying pairs for his two young daughters from Justice, a clothing store geared to the kid’s market. When they complained to him that they had a chemical odor, he decided to track down the cause. He was particularly worried about chemicals since his wife died from breast cancer at a very young age. His first step was to contact people at Justice to find out exactly what was causing the odor and was shocked to learn that they were not obligated to disclose the source.
Eventually he sent the pajamas to a laboratory and the results confirmed his worst suspicions. Made in China (no big surprise there), they were laced with a flame-retardant that was supposedly intended to protect children but without any understanding of the collateral damage a carcinogen can do. The story of how clothing, furniture, rugs, drapes, bedclothes, etc. became drenched with flame-retardants is an interesting one. Some years ago researchers discovered that people falling asleep with a lit cigarette caused most house or apartment fires. When a new cigarette was developed with chemicals that could prevent such an accident, it was rejected because of their somewhat unpleasant taste. So instead the tobacco and chemical companies came up with a new game plan. They persuaded manufacturers to add flame-retardants to a wide range of products, including the pajamas that Jon Whelan’s children would not wear.
As he began his investigation into unregulated chemical additives, the first thing he learned is that a pleasant fragrance trumps health under capitalism. If you opened the cabinet beneath your sink, you’ll learn that just about everything there is laced with crap that is bad for your health. For example, I use Dawn dishwashing detergent made by Proctor and Gamble. On the label it says “original scent” but I’ll be damned if P&G will tell me where that scent comes from. In one confrontation with a chemical industry lobbyist, Whelan asks if arsenic were responsible for a product’s scent, would he favor disclosing the ingredient. The lobbyist evades his question by saying that is up to the FDA or EPA to check on such matters. Since P&G is not obligated to tell these agencies—weak as they are—what they put in Dawn, you are shit out of luck.
Dawn, by the way, hypes their “environmental” credentials on their website as is customary nowadays. They have tips on recycling but not a word on the health risks involved with using it every day.
“Stink” is done in the Michael Moore style with Jon Whelan and his camera crew stalking one industry scumbag or another. While he lacks Moore’s patented shambling, neo-Will Rogers style, he more than makes up for that with his single-minded passion. When you lose a mate at such an early age (Heather Whelan appeared to be in her late 30s when she died), you obviously come to a project like this with a sense of somber dedication.
As might be expected, the film benefits from a wide range of experts like Arlene Blum who could be the subject of a documentary in her own right. Born in 1945, she led an all-woman’s ascent of Annapurna that was the first successful American attempt. In 1960, she requested to join her first mountain climbing expedition but was told that she was welcome to not come past the base camp where she would “help with the cooking.” (Wikipedia)
After earning a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at UC Berkeley in 1971, she began the research that would result in the regulation of two cancer-causing chemicals used as flame-retardants on children’s sleepwear. In 2007 she co-founded the Green Science Policy Institute in order to deploy scientific research on behalf of human health and the environment.
As you might expect, all the people who are on the other side of the divide from the CEO of the Justice clothing stores to a Democrat in California named Cal Dooley who served in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005. Three years later he became the CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) that is primarily responsible for lobbying against legislation that would curb toxic chemical additives even though they claimed that they never did. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune did a series of investigative reports on how big chemical got its way:
Citizens for Fire Safety is the latest in a string of industry groups that have sprung up on different continents in the last 15 years — casting doubt on health concerns, shooting down restrictions and working to expand the market for flame retardants in furniture and electronics.
For example, the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, based in Brussels, may sound like a neutral scientific body. But it was founded and funded by four chemical manufacturers, including Albemarle, to influence the debate about flame retardants made with bromine.
Albemarle’s global director of product advocacy, Raymond Dawson, said in blunt testimony before Washington state lawmakers in 2007 that the forum is “a group dedicated to generating science in support of brominated flame retardants.”
An official from Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations firm that helps run the organization, said the bromine group is not misleading anyone because regulators, scientists and other stakeholders are well-aware it represents industry.
Does the name Burson-Marsteller ring a bell? It should. They have been behind some of the biggest cover-ups for the past 50 years. I am no fan of Rachel Maddow but she nailed them pretty good in August of 2012 (Wikipedia):
- Who’s Burson-Marsteller? Well, let me put it this way — when Blackwater killed those 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller. When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, Bobcock & Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller.
- [After the] Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands of people in India, Union Carbide called Burson-Marsteller. Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu — Burson-Marsteller. The government of Saudi Arabia, three days after 9/11 — Burson-Marsteller.
- The military junta that overthrew the government of Argentina in 1976, the generals dialed Burson-Marsteller. The government of Indonesia, accused of genocide in East Timor, Burson-Marsteller.