Then, when his wife experienced two miscarriages, Brown, who was trained as a journalist, decided to take a closer look at the chemicals surrounding us every day. "I thought, 'I'm completely surrounded, and so is she,'" he recalls. "We're surrounded by chemicals, and nobody's thinking about it.
"There's this phrase, acceptable levels…but what happens when all of these levels combine in my body? Are they acceptable then?" he asks.
Those questions led to a documentary that looks for the answers. Here are five of the many unsettling facts about chemicals Brown uncovered in filming Unacceptable Levels, winner of the Health and Environmental Prize at the 30th International Environmental Film Festival in Paris:
Babies are born "pre-polluted."
The chemical revolution may have made our lives more convenient, but at what cost? Today, infants are born with hundreds of pollutants already coursing through their veins. Many of these chemicals are derived from fossil fuels, excess hydrocarbons that are cheap chemical building blocks and easy to work with. The unfortunate problem is all of the chemicals that make our carpets stain resistant and pots and pans nonstick stick around for a long time. They wind up inside of developing bodies and end up mixing with hundreds of other chemicals. The sea of chemicals, often absorbed in tiny doses from minute exposures, builds up and accumulates over time, posing potential health risks that scientists don't even fully understand yet. There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, but most have not been tested for their long-term impact on human health, even though many are on store shelves and are sold to us daily.
We spray nerve agents on food.
The nation spends about $35 billion a year trying to figure out the autism mystery. A condition that once affected 1 in 10,000 children now affects 1 in 88 children. We know autism rates are much higher near Superfund sites with various chemical contaminants, but the class of chemicals most closely linked to autism is the organophosphate pesticide family. In World War II, we used this type of chemical as a nerve gas agent, but today, we spray it on food. An expert in the documentary says children with the highest levels of organophosphate pesticides in their blood face the highest risk of autism.
Your favorite products may act as powerful hormones.
There's an old saying, "The dose makes the poison." Emerging science is proving that theory all wrong, however. Sure, higher doses of chemicals sometimes cause immediate and noticeable side effects. But the latest research shows that even minute exposures can make permanent changes in our delicate hormonal systems that could set us up for diseases that may only show up decades down the line. Many common chemicals, including ones in shampoo and perfumes, can even act like fake hormones inside of our bodies. Rapid changes in human health are happening too quickly to be deemed entirely a problem with genetics. There has to be something environmental, as well, the documentary points out.
Your food's probably grown in toxic human sewage sludge.
In an effort to stop raw sewage from flowing directly into lakes and rivers, municipal corporations started investing in sewage-treatment plants in the 1970s. As pathogens, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals from things like cleaning products and personal care products are stripped from the water, they're left behind in the human sewage waste sludge. Too toxic to incinerate, landfill, or dump at sea, the regulatory framework changed to allow this human sewage sludge to be used as a fertilizer on food crops. About 75 percent of all of the toxic sewage sludge produced in the United States winds up on farmland, potentially polluting the land with flame retardants, medical waste, and hard-to-kill bacteria and viruses.
The fluoridation of drinking water is linked to a nuclear weapons program.
In 1992, Robert Carton, PhD, a former EPA scientist famously said, "Fluoridation is the greatest case of scientific fraud of this century, if not of all time." In the film, William Hirzy, PhD, chemist-in-residence at the American University in Washington, DC, said the government gave fluoridation of water the green light in 1945 following the release of a large amount of hydrogen fluoride, a key component in the production of uranium for nuclear projects, from a Dupont Chemical plant in New Jersey. To help clean up the image of the nuclear weapons program and fluoride, the government allowed a few cities to start adding fluoride to drinking water and largely cut off the practice to scientific review and harassed critics.
Originally, a by-product of the aluminum industry was used to adjust fluoride levels in drinking water, but by the 1940s, it was clear that another, cheaper source of fluoride, fluorosilicic acid, a by-product from phosphate fertilizer manufacturing, was being used. It's considered a pollutant if discharged into the air or in water, but it's profitable when fertilizer companies sell it as a "product" to water-treatment plants, according to the film.
Brown says the four-year journey of making the film helped him uncover some great news, too. Many brands out there, he said, are going above and beyond to produce safer products. Here are some brands the Unacceptable Levels filmmaker trusts:
• Organic Valley
• Bob's Red Mill
• Dr. Bronner's
• Earth Mama Angel Baby
• Ava Anderson Non-Toxic
• NYR Organic
• Applegate Farms
• Dr. Hauschka
• Intelligent Nutrients
• Jason (toothpaste)
• Eden Organics
• Nature's Path
• Rudy's Bakery
• GT's Kombucha
• Newman's Own
• Garden of Life Raw Vitamins
• The Honest Company
• Environmental Water Systems