Americans have access to modern healthcare, a glut of food and clean water. Yet most of us are sicker, more depressed and more overweight than ever before. Something is poisoning us, but we can’t see it, feel it or taste it. Could it be the thousands of chemicals that flow, often undeclared, through our food and retail systems? “Unacceptable Levels” is a film that seeks to answer that question.
“Unacceptable Levels” examines the results of the chemical revolution of the 1940s through the eyes of Ed Brown, a father seeking to understand the world in which he and his wife are raising their children. The title is a play on the fact that the FDA, USDA, EPA and pretty much every other regulatory body likes to tell us that chemicals used in the air, soil and water are within “acceptable levels” for human health. What about their cumulative effect?
The film follows Brown as he interviews some of the world’s top experts in the fields of science, advocacy and law, questioning them about the 80,000 chemicals present in our system of commerce, many of which we eat or apply directly to our bodies.
The shocking and groundbreaking film, which has been featured at festivals around the world, won the Health and Environment Prize at the 30th International Environmental Film Festival in Paris earlier this year. “Unacceptable Levels” is now making the rounds in the U.S., with screenings scheduled all over the country.
Care2 recently had a chance to ask director Ed Brown about the making of the film, as well as what each and every one of us can do to protect ourselves. Here’s what he had to say:
Care2: What inspired you to make this movie?
EB: Having a family, hands down. We now have three children (my newest was just born days ago). All I have to do is look at them… and my wife. How could I even think about exposing them to a product that contains even one toxic chemical? What if they’re harmed because of it? It’s unfathomable. Like all parents, just the thought of any of my children living with a chronic disease breaks my heart.
Care2. Who was the most interesting person you interviewed, and why?
I would have to say Ralph Nader—he’s always been a hero to me. Here’s a man who has spent a good portion of his life attempting to protect all of us from harm. He’s a leader for real change.
To meet him—and have the opportunity to actually have a conversation with him—was one of the best moments in my life. But meeting John Stauber, who wrote the book “Toxic Sludge is Good For You,” was a close second. What he told me about how we’re fertilizing many crops across the country with toxins blew me away.
Care2: …The most challenging?
EB: Without a doubt, Sheldon Krimsky from Tufts University. I arrived at his office outside of Boston (in the middle of winter) wearing torn jeans. And I could tell the second I met him that he didn’t take me seriously. In fact, he commented on my apparel. He’s an incredibly intelligent man and, despite my wardrobe choice, the interview went well. Thankfully, preparation is something I take very seriously. I had studied his background thoroughly and knew a lot about the subject matter.
Care2: What connection between chemicals and disease did you find particularly shocking?
EB: BPA is highly toxic and a very potent hormone disrupting chemical. I learned from Dr. John Warner that most thermal printing tape is coated with that stuff, and you can’t wash it off and it’s easily absorbed into the body. (A survey found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older.) I had been waiting tables for ten years at the same restaurant, handling receipts! To find out BPA could negatively effect the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures… I couldn’t believe that barely anyone is talking about this.
I was most shocked to learn how many of the things we eat, drink, breathe and put on our bodies contain waste byproducts. It was shocking to learn that 3.5 million tons of biosolids—sewage sludge—are used as fertilizer on farmland across the United States. Biosolids contain pesticides, PCBs, DDT, mercury, lead and over 267 other contaminants, which make it hard to imagine what our farmland will look like years from now.
>>Keep Reading for more with Director Ed Brown
Care2: After watching this kind of movie, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, defeated, by the bigness of the problem. What’s the first thing you hope people will do after watching it?
EB: There are actually three simple things that everyone can do them—Learn. Think. Act.
Learn about toxic chemicals by watching “Unacceptable Levels.” Think about the food that you eat, the water you drink, the air you breathe and what you put on your body. Look around your house and consider what you might want to change today. Act by changing those things one at a time, whether it’s personal care products, cleaning and laundry products, or processed and non-organic foods. Act by changing one thing. Make a commitment to buy only organic dairy. Go vegetarian one or two days a week.
We’re all in this together. Around the world—in every single culture, every religion, every race, every age, every gender, rich or poor—we’re being affected by toxic chemicals. But this is not a helpless situation. Americans have an amazing track record of facing and overcoming problems. If we educate ourselves and take action, we can make the planet safer for ourselves and our children.
There are many resources out there with the purpose of educating and helping us make healthier choices. Organizations like:
There are also many companies already making organic or nontoxic products. By switching to these products—one step at a time—you’re casting a vote for the greater good.
Care2: What steps are you taking to provide a chemical-free life for your family?
EB: The first step we took was to switch to an all organic diet. The perception is that organic is too expensive. But eating organic is possible even on a shoestring budget—we can eat out less, reduce meat and processed foods consumption, buy in bulk and eat leftovers (Americans, on average, throw away about 23 pounds of perfectly edible food, per person, every month). Personally, I’d rather put chemical-free foods on the table in exchange for peace of mind and fewer visits to the doctor’s office.
At one point my wife read the ingredients on one of her skin care products and noticed that it contained five—not one, but five—carcinogens. It made me wonder how a product like this could even be allowed on the marketplace. I started researching other products we use daily and discovered the rabbit hole goes pretty deep.
So we started making changes in our personal care products too, one product at a time.
Triclosan—a pesticide found in many products—is an ingredient we avoid. Depending on the company that sells the chemical, Triclosan can also appear in products branded Microban, Irgasan (DP 300 or PG 60), or on products labeled “built-in antimicrobial protection.” Triclocarban is a “cousin” of Triclosan used in some antibacterial soaps. These can be found in certain brands of dental care, cosmetics… even first aid.
Start by simply reading the labels in order to switch to products that don’t contain chemicals. It can feel overwhelming, but if we pick just one thing to avoid—one ingredient or even a brand—that’s a good start.
We just need to take one step at a time. And we don’t have to do it alone. Ask a friend to join you in the journey or start a neighborhood group. Make it a fun family challenge. For more support, check out our Facebook page and the organizations I mentioned earlier. It’s worth the effort to finally find ourselves leading a less toxic lifestyle.
The more of us who choose organic and non-toxic products mean less toxic chemicals in our food, our air and drinking water. Using our purchasing power will also help make organic and safer products more widely accessible. Together, we can make a difference.
Image via Thinkstock