You’re not alone. When Jon Whelan opened the packaging of his daughter’s new pajamas from tween store Justice, a chemical-infused whiff of air blew across his face. He was left with more questions than answers, inspiring his recent documentary, Stink!
Whelan transformed from concerned father to toxic-chemical advocate and documentarian, with a lofty goal of breaking through the bureaucracy of the U.S. chemical industry.
“The smell was just really weird,” Whelan says. “When I asked the company, they totally stonewalled me. They said the information was proprietary. So that’s basically when the journey started.”
But Stink!, which is Whelan’s first film, stretches beyond his daughter’s brightly colored sleepwear set. His investigation morphs into an in-depth look at a range of companies — from clothing lines to perfume and soap suppliers — which weasel countless hazardous chemicals into their products.
Although it’s illegal, there’s a loophole in the industry: It’s an ingredient labeled “fragrance.” This allows companies to infuse thousands of potential disease-causing chemicals into everyday products such as T-shirts and lip gloss.
“I started to look at all the products that might be exposed to these chemicals,” he says. “Everyone loves something that smells good, but you never think it might actually be bad.”
Whelan’s hope is to encourage companies to disclose exactly what’s put into their products and ultimately have them reformulate if the products contain hazardous ingredients. “Instead of waiting a few decades to find out, just do it now,” he says. “It’s not just cancer here. It’s all chronic diseases, and it’s hard to say just what chemical causes that.”
According to the filmmaker, in the past 30 years, the average American’s exposure to synthetic chemicals has increased nearly 8,000 percent because industries refuse to disclose things such as where the vanilla in your vanilla-flavored toothpaste comes from. One thing is certain: It’s not from a bean.
“Synthetic vanilla is actually used a lot,” he says. “It comes from something called castoreum, which is derived from a sack found on a Canadian beaver’s ass. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but if you’re brushing your teeth with it, you’d probably want to know.”
With every product Whelan sent to a lab, he says, he wouldn’t have purchased it if he had known what ingredients were used. “The systematic issue really shocked me. The system itself is broken. There’s this assumption that if a product is on the shelf, it’s safe. The pretty packaging is too often deceiving.”
Stink! was released a month and a half ago, and Whelan says he’s already seen success. “I think change is going to happen fairly fast,” he says. “I think we’ll see positive change soon, and if it’s not through the federal system, it will be through states.”
All Whelan really wants is for people to have access to information. And once you do, "You’ll start to look at products in a different way," he says. "Tons of new, smaller companies are popping up who are disclosing ingredients and using better ones altogether. As they start making more [products], prices will go down, and at some point conventional companies will jump on the bandwagon.”
Premieres in Miami May 25 with the help of Beautycounter, a beauty brand devoted to making social impact with change in the safety of personal care products. The documentary has already screened across the United Staes, but 100 tickets must be sold to secure a city’s screening. To make Miami’s showing possible, purchase tickets at area23a.com.