We’re all just lab rats, subject to endless clinical trials with every move, drink, bite and breath. That’s the paralyzing message of “The Human Experiment,” a documentary about the effects of an unregulated chemical industry that makes its case with more passion than science.
Recently, the regulation of chemicals has become one of those rare issues that has bipartisan support. The current law — the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA — is full of loopholes. And, as the movie indicates, chemicals are generally considered innocent until proved guilty. In other words, just because that mascara or can of soup or carpet cleaner is being sold in stores doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you. (Just think what we’ve learned about formaldehyde, DDT and, just last month, Roundup.)
Since the movie was made, in 2013, a bipartisan bill has been drafted to overhaul the toothless TSCA. That’s heartening, even if not all environmental groups are pleased with the bill’s scope. In the meantime, “The Human Experiment” is here to scare the bejesus out of us with the reminder that everything we touch might end up giving us cancer.
Liberal activist Sean Penn produced the movie and narrates with fervor. Of course this issue is scary and people deserve to know the risks, but the movie undermines its own argument.
Case in point: One of the most affecting stories in the film follows a young man and woman who have tried for three years to get pregnant. The camera follows them along to the doctor as the woman gets an embryo implanted, and we see the heartbreaking experience as the pair learns, yet again, that it didn’t take. “What’s wrong with me?” she cries, burying her face. It’s an authentic and agonizing scene.
But did the chemical industry cause her fertility problems? Who knows? Some chemicals, such as the ubiquitous bisphenol A — a compound found in plastic bottles and can linings, among other things — might cause infertility, not to mention myriad other problems. But even the woman’s doctors admit they don’t know why she had trouble getting pregnant.
By presenting her story, directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman are making a case for something they can’t prove. They are on more solid footing proving the ill effects of flame-retardant materials. (And for a really tremendous documentary about how those landed on the market, “Toxic Hot Seat” is a must-see with a more subtle approach.) Meanwhile, a detour into a green house-cleaning business does little more than serve as free advertising for the company.
The movie was nicely shot with flashy graphics to explain the data that does exist. But in the end, this film will persuade only those who already believe.
Unrated. At AMC Hoffman Center 22. Contains brief strong language. 90 minutes.