Q & A with the director of Toxic Beauty
After seeing two powerful documentaries at the Raindance film festival, I thought to myself that we all have to be activists in this day and age. Recently when I met up with different friends, we would talk about how the world seems to be heading towards a ‘wrong direction’. We are now battling against numerous man-made issues like climate change, pollution, deforestation, inequality, sexual harassment, human rights, religious extremism, refugee crisis, terrorism… the list goes on. The problem is that most politicians in power are not interested in tackling these issues because they care more about staying in power and/or profit-making. When we look at all the leaders around the world today, it is rather depressing and it makes me wonder if our planet has a future.
I think all women need to watch Toxic beauty, a documentary by Canadian director, Phyllis Ellis. The film interviewed a group of women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer as a result of their lifelong use of Johnson & Johnson‘s talcum/baby powder. In recent years, the company has been clobbered by thousands lawsuits alleging that it was aware of the baby powder being contaminated with asbestos, a carcinogen. Although the company has has strongly denied those accusations, it has been paying out billions to settle different lawsuits, including $4.69bn to 22 women ordered by a Missouri jury last year. Coincidently, this week, the company recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder in the US, after health regulators found trace amounts of asbestos in a bottle purchased online. The scary thing is that ever since I was a child, this product has been a staple at my home. This was a family-friendly and reliable brand that consumers trusted, but sadly, it is no longer the case.
Parallel to the baby powder cases, the film also asked a medical student and cosmetics lover Mymy Nguyen to embark on an experiment to first measure the chemical levels in her body when she used her regular cosmetic products, then without any, and finally replaced them with ‘cleaner’ alternatives. As you can guess, the toxic chemicals in her body dropped significantly when she stopped using her regular cosmetic products.
The slight consolation for people who do not live in the States is that the EU has stricter regulations than the FDA in the US. The EU law bans 1,328 chemicals from cosmetics that are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects. Meanwhile, the FDA bans or restricts only 11 chemicals from cosmetics. But what is more shocking is that the FDA hasn’t updated its cosmetic regulations since 1938, and relies solely on the beauty companies to regulate themselves (?!).
There is a misconception that all natural ingredients are good and all chemical ingredients are bad, which is not true at all. There are many natural ingredients that can be harmful too, so we can’t just blindly trust all the so-called ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ brands. With so many new beauty brands claiming that they are ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or ‘vegan’, it gets very confusing for consumers who want to change and go clean. Usually clean products are notable to be free of the following ingredients: parabens, phthalates, and sulfates etc, but since preservatives play a very important role in products containing water, the clean beauty companies would have to replace them with natural alternatives. Recently I have downloaded an US-based app called ‘Think dirty‘, which is quite useful as I can check the ingredients of many cosmetics and skincare products on this app. Just like the food we eat, what we use on our faces and bodies are equally important, so we must be more cautious and protect ourselves from the toxic chemicals that hidden inside our expensive lipstick or face cream.
There were not many people at the screening of this fantastic documentary, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, yet it was one of the best I saw at the film festival. The film is about environmental racism, and one man’s fight against the industrial cooperations that have destroyed his hometown. Mossville in Louisiana is a town with predominantly African American inhabitants for generations. It was founded by Jack Moss, an ex-slave, in 1790. Yet chemical pollution emitted by the 14 petrochemical plants in the area has destroyed the town and killed many of its residents including the parents of the film’s protagonist. The South African energy and chemical company Sasol is behind the $21.2 billion industrial project, and in order to expand its massive petrochemical plant, it has issued buyout offers to everyone in town. While everyone has moved away from the site, Stacey Ryan took a stand against this company and stood his ground. He fought hard to save his house despite all the harrassements he had to endure initiated by the company.
It was quite heartbreaking to watch how Ryan health deteriorated as the film progressed, yet he was defiant until the end. Although he did sign the deal at the end, I don’t think anyone would accuse him of giving in too soon! Not only he lost his house, family time, but most importantly, his health, and all the money he got from the buyout deal ended up going towards his medical bills. Tragic.
I am not sure why this film received little attention despite the fact that it had won many awards at different film festivals around the world. I wonder if the protagonist was white, would it be more talked-about? I am not a pessimist by nature, but I have become one when I look at the state of our world today. How many Greta Thunberg is needed to rescue our sick planet? If we continue to allow greedy and powerful coorperations/ governments to run the world, the future of the planet will be bleaker than ever. All of us now have no choice but to become an activist in our own right. It doesn’t have to be attending protests every week, just find a way that suits you, no matter how small the action is.