Documentary producer Chelsea Matter on The Human Experiment and the fight for cleaner products

Taking a sober look at the thousands of untested household chemicals triggering disease is enough to make a person panic and run for the hills. But the activists and filmmakers behind The Human Experiment, which screens on Saturday, February 22 as part of the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, do just the opposite: they wage a fight against the chemical industry and demand change. Westword spoke with independent producer Chelsea Matter about her work on The Human Experiment.

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Westword: Talk about the production of The Human Experiment.

Chelsea Matter: We started preproduction in late 2010. It's a long process. We had the idea and started researching it. I have two directors on this film: Dana Nachman and Don Hardy. Dana was a former news journalist. She had worked on a series at NBC about the health effects of chemicals in the home, and it really shocked her. She was learning about that; there are thousands of chemicals in every consumer product, like flame-retardants in our furniture, things that are in our cosmetics, our shampoos and our plastics, and most of them have bad effects on health. We know a lot of these chemicals are carcinogens or neurotoxins and are linked to infertility, autism, cancer and neurological disabilities.

I think the basis of our film is that there are all these chemicals that are out there that we use all the time, and they are not tested for their effects on health. We really trust the safety of things that are on our shelves, and realizing that we couldn't was shocking. Dana thought this should be a documentary. It's important enough. Let's do it. So we started doing the research and shooting the film internationally over the next 3 years. It premiered in the fall and will be screening on the festival circuit this spring. We'll have wider distribution later this year.

What were some of the shocking things you learned?

I think it's shocking that studies are testing newborn babies umbilical cord blood and finding more than 300 industrial chemicals in it. Newborns are pre-polluted before birth. I think that's pretty shocking. They haven't had water or breathed air, but those chemicals are already there and can be transferred in the womb.

I think the other shocker in the film is something that everyone already knows experientially: There is a rise in all these health effects, from cancer to autism to infertility. We look at that in the film and talk to experts, to doctors and scientists who are experts in reproductive issues or autism. They believe there is a link with chemicals. I think that's not necessarily shocking. A lot of people know someone with cancer, right? I mean women's risk of getting breast cancer in their lifetime is one-in-eight now. Autism has increased drastically. I think people know that, but seeing that in the film and learning more about the link between health effects and chemicals is important.

As you were working on this, were you finding yourself getting freaked out in your own daily life?

It's funny. The more you learn about this issue, you go through this cycle: At first, you say, "This is terrifying. I need to move off the grid and not consume anything." Then you realize that's not realistic. We have to live our lives in the world with all these things. And then slowly you go from a place of being really freaked out to a place where you're really angry, and then you feel empowered. We hope that's part of the journey that the film brings people on. Once you have this knowledge and you're aware of the fact that there are these chemicals that are in so many of the things we use, you also learn that there are companies out there that are using safer alternatives. There are safer products on the market, and there is power in knowing that you can vote with your dollars and chose not to buy cans that have BPA in their lining. That's really powerful.

Are you looking forward to the screening in Golden?

I think it's going to be great that it's screening in Golden. It played last week at the Boulder International Film Festival. The audience response was awesome. People were cheering when they should be cheering, and they booed when we wanted them to boo. They were laughing, and the response was great. It was really neat to share it with that audience. Hopefully we get something similar in Golden.

People leave this film with very strong feelings of outrage and empowerment and wanting to do something about the issue. We've been working on partnerships with a bunch of nonprofit organizations that work on the issue, groups like the Breast Cancer Fund, the Ecology Center in Michigan, The Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition. We let these organizations connect the film to the on-the-ground work they are already doing on this issue. Part of that is working toward safer chemicals policy. That is important, but policy can be slow, so we're also working on creating safer product guides.

Talk about the experience people will have when they watch it?

It's a big issue we're looking at, but we wanted to make it emotionally compelling. Our way of doing that was following individuals who are active on this issue but also people whose health is affected. One is a breast cancer survivor; another is a couple dealing with infertility; another is a woman whose brother is severely autistic. It is emotional following their journeys, and it does really draw you into the story. We go beyond the numbers and the statistics. As these people go head to head with the chemical industry, I think you feel anger. Any industry that has a lot of money at stake wants to keep the status quo. The tactics employed by the chemical industry are really taking a page out of the tobacco industry's playbook, which is incredibly maddening. At the end we look at solutions and the way we can move forward on this issue, so hopefully, by the end of the film, you feel empowered. You feel that this is bad but that you can do something about it, even small things we can all do starting now How can audiences find out how to see your film?

Check out our Facebook page. It's a great way to follow what we are doing now and where we are going to be in terms of our official launch. It's an issue where we want people to be aware of it and want as many people to see it as possible.

The Human Experiment shows as part of the Colorado Environmental Film Festival at the American Mountaineering Center, 710 10th Street, in Golden. Tickets cost $7 for the screening or $20 for an all-festival pass. For more information go to The Colorado Environmental Film Festival website or call: 303.279.9070

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris