Once in a great while, a video gets online and goes “viral” that contains so much truth it cannot be ignored: 10 Americans is one such video. It is a live presentation given by Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, detailing the hundreds of toxins found by analyzing the blood of ten average Americans.
The real impact of this video comes from the fact that these ten Americans, at the time of the analysis, had yet to be born. And the number of chemicals found in their umbilical cord blood was astounding—287 of them, to be precise. There were 28 different waste byproducts of the sort that are emitted from incinerators and smokestacks, 47 consumer product ingredients such as flame retardants, and 212 industrial chemicals and pesticides banned a full 30 years before the samples were taken.
What kind of damage are these particular chemicals capable of causing? According to the video, 134 of them have been found to cause cancer in laboratory studies or in people; 151 are associated with birth defects; 154 can cause hormone disruption; 186 are associated with infertility; 130 are immune system disruptors; and 158 are neurotoxins such as lead, PCBs and mercury, which can have profound effects on a developing child. (You might have noticed that these figures add up to more than the number of chemicals found; this is because many of them have multiple toxic effects.)
Of course, one prime defense from chemical companies is that many of these chemicals show up as parts per billion in the samples taken; such tiny amounts could hardly be considered harmful. As Cook points out in 10 Americans, these tiny amounts are in fact commonplace in medications we see around us—or, at the least, advertised on television—every day. One dose of Albuterol, at 2.1 parts per billion, will stop an asthma attack. One dose of hormones from NuvaRing, a common contraceptive, is nearly 100 percent effective at 0.035 parts per billion. The normal dose of the antidepressant Paxil is 30 parts per billion, as it is for Cialis, a treatment for erectile dysfunction in men.
Cook and the Environmental Working Group deliberately set out to make the video a dramatic statement. “We felt there needed to be storytelling that helped people understand why the issue of toxic chemicals was so important and personal,” Cook told Natural Vitality Kids. “We had done the research to demonstrate toxic chemical pollution in people, including the dramatic findings we developed from the first broad-based testing of these chemicals in umbilical cord blood. As my colleagues and I were looking at different presentation methods, we thought of [Apple Computer CEO] Steve Jobs, who performs wonderful presentations at the annual events when he launches new Apple products. There are not a lot of words on the screen; there are beautiful images, video—all that sort of thing. Al Gore, of course, perfected it in An Inconvenient Truth, which we had seen him do on stage years before the movie. Those became some of our models. We wanted to tell a story about toxic chemicals, so we came up with that presentation.”
The presentation itself has become quite popular, spurring increasing requests for Cook to appear live. He has now made that same presentation before Congress, at Duke University, and to the Centers for Disease Control, among many others.
Every such presentation has an ultimate purpose. In the case of 10 Americans, that purpose is to raise money in support of EWG’s efforts with what was formerly titled the Kid-Safe Chemical Act, now known as the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act.
“This is the law that governs toxic industrial chemicals,” Cook explained. “These are the types of chemicals that end up in things like our makeup and our cars and our appliances—pretty much everything in our economy. For over 30 years this law has been on the books and has been recognized as toothless. The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act, now in the House of Representatives, is the first attempt in 30-plus years to rewrite this environmental law that has done so little to protect us from toxic chemicals that are produced in this country or imported from abroad and end up in our everyday lives. In fact they end up in our bodies, as our studies have shown.”
The act would effectively reverse the safety requirements currently mandated of chemical companies. At present, any chemical can be marketed that has never been found unsafe. It is then up to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, with limited resources, to demonstrate that a chemical is dangerous before it can be taken off the market. The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act would make it so that chemical companies would have to prove a chemical meets safety standards before putting it into widespread use.
“It reverses that burden of proof,” Cook said. “It also makes a lot more information available to the public about the health and safety and identity of chemicals. Right now it’s very difficult to find out much about some of these chemicals that are used in all kinds of consumer products and have already shown up in our blood in various studies. The exposures are taking place but we don’t know much about the toxicity of the chemicals. They haven’t really been tested for safety in many cases, so as a consequence we’re in the dark. That’s going to change under this law.”
Along with several other expert witnesses, Cook recently appeared before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection to argue for the bill.
“All in all it’s a really important advancement,” Cook remarked. “It would be one of the strongest public health statutes in the world, if it became law, and we’re right at the beginning of the debate on it.”
The EWG Edge
Considerable weight behind EWG’s argument for the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act comes from the tests they’ve made in human blood and the results shown. Prior to such testing—dubbed “biomonitoring” by Cook and his colleagues—EWG had been testing for pollution in air, water, food and consumer products for several years. But the chemical industry would always cast doubt on any findings by posing the question, “Are people really being affected in any significant way?”
Cook wrestled with the problem, and in 1998 the answer came to him in an epiphany. “I was riding my bike one day and I thought, `Well, we’ve been testing food at the EWG and we’ve even tested air; we’ve tested water; we’ve tested all kinds of environmental media. Why don’t we test people?’ I remembered a passage from the book Our Stolen Future saying that anyone with a couple of thousand dollars who sent their blood to be tested would find hundreds of toxic chemicals in their body fat. I thought, `Hell, why haven’t we been testing people?’ So we started to do so. I think the most dramatic studies we’ve done have been about toxic chemicals that we’ve found in umbilical cord blood.”
Founded in 1993, the Environmental Working Group was initially focused on changes in government policy. However, they soon encountered a demand from consumers to provide their findings directly to the public.
“Over time we’ve really shifted some of our attention,” Cook said. “We still mix it up in the policy world, of course, but we’ve shifted a fair amount of our attention—because we’ve been asked to do so, really, by our audience—to consumer concerns. From that standpoint we started offering more and more online tools and practical advice for consumers. It’s kind of the flip side of our policy work, which comes down to ‘What am I supposed to do while the government is making up its mind about how to protect us from pesticides or toxic chemicals in makeup or___ (fill in the blank)?’ We’ve managed with our terrific research staff to play an important role in policy debates both here in Washington and in many states like California, but we also recognize that a lot of people either aren’t engaged with government or don’t want to wait around. They need to know what they can do to protect their families now. If the government is not going to figure out which pesticides are safe or which ones should be taken off the market, and if it involves years of lobbying and infighting and bureaucratic processes, consumers don’t want to wake up some morning to discover that products they’ve been using have toxic chemicals in them and the government was debating it for ten years and finally decided to take something off the market. What can they do meanwhile? We have our consumer guides to help people with that.”
These guides, found on EWG’s website, will assist any person to make informed choices.
Where to Start?
After seeing 10 Americans, previously uninformed consumers will likely be anxious to detoxify their children’s environments. Cook advises taking it one step at a time.
“I’m a parent, and we’ve got a lot of parents here at EWG,” said Cook. “I always tell parents not to try and cleanse their entire lives right off the bat because they might burn out pretty quickly on this effort. First they should focus on diet for a month or so and really look at what they’re eating, what they’re feeding their kids. Look around under the sink at cleaning supplies, what they’re using there. They should be thoughtful obviously around the home—for example, on improvement projects that involve painting, use low-VOC paint. With drinking water, they should be careful about what’s coming out of their tap. Consumers can go on our website and look up the tap water contaminates. Simple countertop filters are not very expensive and can often deal with things like lead and other contaminates that people don’t want to have in their bodies. So they can kind of go through a step-by-step process. We have a number of guides on our website that can help people to a greener, healthier lifestyle.”
Cook offers further advice on maintaining a reduced-toxin environment for children. “In the home, you want to make sure it’s safe and as clean as possible where your children spend so much of their time. If you’re living in an older home, in particular, that might have old lead-based paint, you want to ensure that there is no problem there. I think you should be concerned about pesticides in food. In my house, we try to be very careful about what we feed our little two-year-old. We are mindful of BPA and we do our best to steer clear of that by using glass bottles for his formula; we also keep him away from canned foods. I think having the house clean of dust is very important because dust can accumulate all kinds of toxic agents; so effective vacuuming and maintaining a clean home environment is essential.
“The problem with so many toxic chemicals is they’re very difficult to avoid. I mean, even if you buy organic milk, you’re going to find some dioxin in there because it’s in the environment. Also with some organic produce items, if they’ve been produced on land that used to grow cotton, and DDT was applied to the land before it was banned in 1970, traces of that DDT are still in the soil and it’s taken up by the plants.
“So there are a number of things you can’t avoid,” Cook concluded, “and that’s why we need the government to take action to deal with legacy problems like DDT and, more importantly, the tens of thousands of chemicals that we haven’t controlled yet, and in some cases haven’t even studied.”
The Environmental Working Group website is an invaluable resource both for reducing environmental toxins and for purchasing safe products. It can be found at www.ewg.org.
View the 10 Americans video here: