Director sniffs out chem industry in "Stink!"

by Benjamin Frohman / Beacon Correspondent • October 15, 2015

Smell is often an overlooked sense, but to Jon Whelan, director of the documentary, “Stink!”, it’s the most powerful one.

The movie, which screened at the Bright Family Screening Room for the Bright Lights series last Thursday to a crowd of almost 50 people, begins with a pair of smelly pajamas. After noticing an overwhelming odor on his daughter’s new Justice-branded bed attire, Whelan calls the company and discovers that they aren’t able to reveal which substances are put in the merchandise to make a certain scent. He then sends the clothing to a laboratory and finds out that they have a banned carcinogen on them. The incident ignited the creation of the documentary to show the darker side of the manufacturing industry.

“One of the things I learned through making the film was that I was a little aware of some of the issues with products, but less aware of the systemic issues,” Whelan said in a Q&A session after the screening.

When his wife, Heather Whelan, was pregnant, she threw out household commodities that could have had a harmful effect on the baby and herself. The film shows pictures and home movies of family moments, bringing an emotional and personal narrative to the story. After Mrs. Whelan passes away from breast cancer, Whelan becomes a single parent to his two girls and more conscientious of what chemicals are put in goods.

“‘Stink!’ became to me a double entendre,” Whelan said. “The product literally had a stink, but what I really found out was that the system stinks.”

The film, which will be theatrically released next month, recently gained much attention through screenings and won Best Documentary at the 2015 Memphis International Film & Music Festival.

"The mainstream audience sees this and they are shocked, because they assume some girl or guy is testing each of these products,” Whelan said. “That’s what’s surprising. Once you know, you can’t unknow.”

Throughout the movie, Whelan tries to find out why the contents of goods are not fully revealed. He discovers that companies do not have to reveal what chemicals make up the scent. He goes to countless hearings and confronts congressmen about their opinions on the disclosure of chemicals.

In one interview, Whelan asks the president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, Cal Dooley, if Americans have a right to know which commodities contain carcinogens. He asks four times—the former congressman doesn’t even acknowledge his question.

Cecile Camerlynck, an attendee of the Bright Lights screening who has no Emerson affiliation, said that while she enjoyed the movie, she wished Whelan offered a solution for the “unfixable” problem.

“I thought it was very interesting,” Camerlynck said. “It made me more aware of the products that have fragrance on them, and I will always read the label from now on.”

The movie discusses the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which legalized the use of harmful substances in everyday products and doesn’t require companies to publish the carcinogens on labels.

Whelan said that he seriously questions the credibility of the manufacturing industry’s labels.

“Although it’s hard to establish specific causation, because there are so many chemicals and products, there has to be some correlation,” Whelan said. “The fact that the industry’s reaction is to not disclose, makes you want to know even more of what’s going on.”