When "The Human Experiment" makes its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 6, it will fall five days short of the 38th anniversary of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act - a bill that allowed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to scrutinize commercial chemicals prior to their use by manufacturers.

This is an appropriate coincidence, considering that the film, written, co-produced and co-directed by Los Altos filmmaker Dana Nachman and narrated and executive produced by actor Sean Penn, explores the risks consumers face through exposure to everyday chemicals.

The Toxic Substances Control Act inventory lists more than 84,000 chemicals, but only several hundred are tested for consumer safety. Given the disconcerting statistic, Nachman responded with a film that unravels assumptions.

“We think that this issue is one of the biggest environmental disasters of our time, one that most people haven’t even thought of,” Nachman said.

What began as a reporting assignment for Nachman during her years in television journalism grew into an interest she couldn’t resist exploring. A mother of two, she imagined that other parents would be as outraged as she was by how lax chemical regulations were in the U.S. compared to Europe and China.

“When I learned that most of the products we use in our homes and our lives are not vetted for the market, I was shocked,” she said. “Usually when I find something shocking, it turns into my next documentary.”

With a number of documentary films under her belt, Nachman joined colleague Don Hardy to develop “The Human Experiment” three years ago. Crisscrossing the country from residences in the Bay Area to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., the film investigates the dangers of chemicals found in common household products and questions why the EPA has not modified chemical testing in 38 years.

Moving moments

Skirting the line between education and social activism, Nachman noted that “The Human Experiment” is intended as a wake-up call to audiences. She thinks her film could be the next “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary on global warming.

“I think people intuitively want to know why we see kids with cancer, with learning disabilities, more than we did when we were kids,” Nachman said. “We think this movie puts it out there on a more level playing field of what is actually happening so that mothers and fathers and all of us can have the knowledge and then take the risk.”

The documentary follows a group of people from different walks of life, from an infertile couple to a mother with an autistic son, who are dedicated to changing policy in Congress. A politically conservative lobbyist trying to eliminate polyvinyl chloride from construction products joined them. “The Human Experiment” weaves a diverse set of perspectives to tell the story of the hidden risks behind chemicals and issues a call to action for Americans to take control of the situation.

With support from Penn, scheduled to appear at a question-and-answer session at the Mill Valley premiere, Nachman said she is confident that the film will take off. The first showing is sold out, and she recently received a call accepting the documentary into a “major European film festival.”

Nachman plans to bring the film back to Los Altos for viewing in local schools. An advocacy toolkit will accompany the documentary to inform people how they can join consumer activists to effect change.

“Even if we make several hundred people more aware, we’ve done our job,” she said.

Although shedding light on critical issues and documenting the stories of inspiring people motivate Nachman, more importantly, she said, she does the work for her children.

“I just want everything I do to really help my kids down the road,” she added.

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