Last night, CBC aired a short version of the longer 90 min film, Homo Toxicus. I’ll be talking about just some of the highlights of the episode and adding my own thoughts.
In an animated segment at the beginning, we are shown the evolution of stages our species has gone through and we’re asked the question, “Are we leaving the era of homo consumerus and entering a new one, that of homo toxicus?” Never before in our earth’s history has the pollution produced by human activities appeared so commonly in our bodies, even found now in the umbilical cords of infants. It’s just a product of our lifestyle and the way we do things.
Filmmaker, Carole Poliquin, has her own blood tested and sits for over an hour while the toxicologist reads the list of contaminants, explains their quantities and potential health effects. It’s personal and she wants to know just how worried she should be. While some of the levels are above average, no-body’s panicking. Carole’s not trying to scare people, instead, she’s curious as she takes us on her journey of exploration of current thought about just what levels cause harm and which chemicals do what.
She visits an aboriginal reserve situated among numerous factories in Sarnia, Ontario and talks to some of the residents. From asthma and other respiratory ailments to headache and the usual suspects, both young and old, men and women have health problems. No big shocker, since they live in “Chemical Valley.” What is surprising, however, is the range of fertility, reproductive and birth rate anomalies. What’s happening to the males of the community? Why are so few being born? Well, nobody can say for sure, a reoccurring conclusion throughout the film.
Gender-altering reproductive problems are being noted in frogs in the St. Lawrence River. In one scene, a Health Canada spokesperson points out the differences between frogs (who breathe through their skin and live in water) and humans who don’t. He can’t make the same leap as Carole who states that frogs have the same hormones as humans.
The source of estrogen-mimicking chemicals? BPA (bisphenol A), a component in hard plastics and in the lining of food and beverage cans. Canada banned its use in the making of baby bottles since it affects the young, as do most toxins, more forcefully. For the frogs, the suspected cause is agricultural pesticides such as azatrine, a very commonly used weed killer found to be safe by the EPA following 19 studies. She also looks at flame retardants, phthalates and others chemicals found in everyday products in most homes.
Armed with this evidence, Carole muses, “Health Canada MUST be concerned about the situation” and she heads off to talk with them. During a visit with another official, she’s told how Canada has protective laws in place and that the amounts of toxins found in people are within acceptable limits. “So,” Carole probes, “it’s about risk management, rather than the precautionary principle.”
And this idea is key in understanding that we, the public, are not being fully protected. Our health is being balanced with other interests. Laws, heavily lobbied by corporations, allow for acceptable amounts, some risk and try to manage the health effects, balancing them equally with financial concerns such as market competitiveness. Carole shines the light on this point well.
In contrast, Carole helps us understand how Europe’s standards allow for fewer parts per billion and how they apply the precautionary principle rather than risk management when deciding on policy. She also raises the facts that humans are not the subjects of testing and the thousands of chemicals introduced every year are not tested in combination with each other. We just don’t know enough and that’s bound to make the more scientifically-minded squirm due to lack of proof and some will brush off all concerns entirely. I suppose that some people will take no action because of the lack of proof.
My own opinions are that labs are not true representations of real ecosystems and using other species as subjects is unethical. But even if I thought it were ok, another way to study the effects of synthetic chemicals is by testing our own bodies, with permission, as well as observing changes in other species in the wild. The results are now taking root from decades of exposures to our pollution as well as natural factor such as climate change. In a way, we are unwittingly becoming guinea pigs in a big test tube. While we wait for science to monitor, study and determine how much of a single chemical is allowed in our bodies based on tests on other species and other data, I think I’ll continue to do what I can to reduce exposures and encourage companies to remove carcinogens, hormone disruptors and other toxins from their products, choosing safer ingredients. I’ve seen enough evidence and had enough personal experience to know that we can become more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than regulations allow for and I have a ton of questions. I am not afraid, I want to have open eyes, that’s all. If I were afraid, I’d curl up in a ball and cry, or stop looking at the evidence because it upsets me. If I only wanted to focus on the “good stuff”, I’d not see the whole picture. It’s ok. I can take it. This film helped me understand and I hope others see it as an exploration rather than an absolute. It’s one way of looking at things and worth thinking about.
Pure rationals might say I’m denying the evidence that shows these chemicals are safe, that I’m concerned over nothing and spreading fear. To this criticism I say that science alone isn’t perfect. There are always conflicting results, sometimes based on who does the testing. Labs do not reproduce complex, inter-dependent eco-systems which are better subjects when it comes to studying current realities. There is evidence that even in small amounts, our chemical systems and those of other species are being altered enough to change genetically, cause hormonal imbalances, enough for us to look for ways that don’t produce these changes. Chemicals aren’t tested on people, nor can we assume that acceptable levels are across the board for every body. What if someone has AIDS or cancer? Do these same levels apply to them? Or to the very young? What if a study focuses on whether or not a chemical causes cancer? Will they also report on illness or other symptoms caused by that chemical? What about the thousands of chemicals in fragrance alone? Who’s going to test for them and will they be banned until testing shows they’re safe?
Trusting the government regulations, marketing or science alone is not the way I want to go. I want to see the evidence myself, read, weigh it using my own common sense about the sources of information and come to my own decisions. It’s called being a conscious individual and that’s about all I can comfortably do as a consumer and person who still gets to make some decisions about exposures. The other ones I’m unwittingly being exposed to, well, I’m not worried about those as what’s done is done and I work on detoxification. Emotinally, I am basically optimistic that when people know enough, we can change things for the better… as a society. I have a dream of a governing agency that decides to give the health of all people and other species a bit more consideration than it gives the profits of the few. Hey, a girl can dream, right?!
I highly recommend seeing Homo Toxicus and believe it would be great for public screening for an event with a discussion following. It’ll get you asking questions and maybe help you piece things together in your mind in a new way. It clearly did that for me.
Copyright Lynn Argent, 2009