Better Off Well


The Stink In Labeling: An Interview with Jon Whelan

 Jon J. Whelan 2015

Jon Whelan took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his film and what he learned behind the deceit in product labeling. See below for his answers.

Imagine you're perusing the aisle in Target, looking for a new shampoo.

You pull a well-known brand down from the shelf and turn it over to read the label of ingredients.

Your finger traces down the list, until you come to the words, "secret chemicals".

What do you do? Do you trust that the secret chemicals in that product are safe?

Jon Whelan is director of the newly released documentary, Stink! His venture into film making began after an attempt to learn the origins of a powerful smell emanating from his daughters' brand new Christmas pajamas. Multiple phone calls and direct contact with the CEO of Justice, a retailer that markets to young girls, proved futile, so Jon sent the pajamas off to a lab.

What he learned was only the beginning.

Stink! takes us on a journey through a system that we come to learn is very broken. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 may have had the best of intentions, but the reality is it weakened the authority of both the FDA and the EPA, and grandfathered in most of the 80,000 chemicals that are used in products today, not requiring they ever be tested for safety.

The word, "fragrance", is particularly problematic because this could include any combination of the thousands of ingredients- listed here- no combination of which has ever been tested for synergy. In other words, what kind of new chemical is created when you combine some of these?

But we are not allowed to know which particular ingredients are in a fragrance. That is considered "proprietary information". It's a "trade secret". And so it is that replacing the word, "Fragrance" with "Secret Chemicals" on any product label seems apropos.

But that's not all.

While drug companies are required to submit testing results and require pre-market approval from the FDA before a product can hit the shelves, cosmetic companies do not have the same obligation. They are asked- asked- to submit an application, but most manufacturers do not.

So while government websites may warn against certain toxic exposures, their ability to regulate, or ban particular chemicals if they are suspected and/or known carcinogens is very limited. The assumption of safety that most of us live under is a false one.

In his film, Jon offers us multiple glimpses of his wife, Heather. Mother to his young daughters, Heather strove to make the world a beautiful place, especially for her family. She began reading product labels when she was eight months pregnant with their second, and tossed many of the bottles into the trash.

A few short years later, Heather would die from breast cancer.

The 1950's- age of bobby socks and poodle skirts- was also the time when America became convinced that we could have better lives through chemicals. Lawns got greener, food got faster, and stores got bigger in order to hold the multiple items now available for consumption.

But what has that done do to our health?

In the 1960's, breast cancer rates were 1 in 20 women. Today, they stand at 1 in 8. There has been a three-fold increase in autism since 2000. Food allergies in children increased by 50% from 1997-2011. The World Health Organization released a report in 2014 predicting a 57% rise in cancer cases world-wide over the next 20 years, from 14 million in 2012 to 22 million.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Stink! may show us how broken our system is in regulating chemicals used in our products, but we don't have to take this news lying down. Seeing this film is a good start. We can't change what we don't know to change.

Start reading labels on your own products. See how your products rate with the Environmental Working Group.

Then get involved. Talk with your friends. Join the Savvy Women's Alliance, a national movement of women working hard to make nontoxic living easier for you. (Full disclosure- I sit on the board for SWA...and I can attest that we are working hard.)

Talk with your children.

Call manufacturers of your favorite products and let them know you want safer alternatives.

Start switching out your products for those made by companies that reveal what ingredients they use.

Call your state and federal representatives.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

Many thanks to Jon Whelan for taking time from his busy schedule to answer these questions for me.

Jon, I think most of us, if we opened a new package of pajamas for our children, would dismiss the chemical smell and toss them into the wash. You didn't and you learned about the two very concerning chemicals mentioned in your movie. What compelled you to pursue that smell?

I became really curious about the smell after representatives from Justice told me the smell was "proprietary". That really drove me. There is no way that any company's chemical secrecy is more important than parents' right to know what is in a product they are buying for their children.

It's interesting that the retailer, Justice, maker of those pajamas and with a line of clothing called "every girl is awesome", would be unaware that at least some of their clothing contained a phthalate that is potentially harmful to young girls, even in miniscule amounts. In your opinion, do they truly not know, or are they turning a blind eye?

I am not sure if they know, but when I sent them the lab results, they seemed surprised. The problem is, there is not some list of chemicals they are not allowed to use. The most important thing I learned in making this film is that companies selling products with toxic chemicals are not breaking the law. The law is broken.

It's a moral hazard issue; companies use cheap, risky chemicals but consumers bear the cost when they are exposed to these chemicals. It's all completely legal. Companies protect the interests of shareholders more than they protect the public.

What do we need to do to ensure our children are not being exposed to toxins every day?

First, we need to get the chemicals of greatest concern off the market. This is no small task, because powerful industry lobbyists oppose regulating chemicals, even substances that cause cancer, birth defects, or disrupt hormones. Updating the Toxic Substances Control Act so federal agencies have power to regulate toxic chemicals is key.

Next, we need full chemical disclosure on labels. If companies had to disclose all chemicals in their products, they'd make better choices about the chemicals they sold and consumers would be empowered to make informed choices about what they bought. Transparency works.

Why is the industry so against safety regulation?

There are over 80,000 chemicals in use today. While most of them are probably safe, it takes time and money to test them. And industry doesn't want to know which are harmful because it would mean reformulating many of their products, which would require additional money. By disclosing chemicals on the label, particularly if one is a potential carcinogen, companies could be liable, which they also do not want.

Industry wants it both ways. They don't want chemicals proved safe, and they don't want consumers to have full disclosure. Time to put people before profit.

At the end of this film, we see your daughter on the phone with a manufacturer, asking about the chemicals that are in their clothing. Are they more aware since you've taken this journey?

I tell my kids consumer products are like witches- there are good ones and bad ones. We have to do a little homework to figure out which is which. My 12-year old knows how to look up products using the EWG's Skin Deep database before asking if she can buy it. If we all start asking questions and doing our homework, companies will change. They will use safer alternatives.

This story will have a happy ending – I can smell it.