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‘Unacceptable Levels’

Documentary probes why industrial chemicals end up in our bodies

by Cheryl Hogue
June 27, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 26

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated on July 10, 2013, to indicate that “Unacceptable Levels” will be released on video-on-demand platforms, including iTunes, later this year, not on July 15 as originally stated.

Documentary director Ed Brown’s two children in a scene from “Unacceptable Levels.” Credit: Courtesy of Ed Brown

In “Unacceptable Levels,” debut filmmaker Ed Brown explores the issue of synthetic chemicals that end up in people’s bodies unbidden. The documentary has the potential to raise public consciousness—and incite outcry—about unintentional chemical exposures, just as 2010’s “Gasland” did against hydraulic fracturing techniques to extract natural gas.

Unacceptable Levels Trailer
Credit: Ed Brown/YouTube

U.S. regulation of chemicals is based on the concept that substances pose a level of risk that is acceptable to society. Brown challenges this notion at every turn from his perspective as a husband and father of two preschoolers. In 76 minutes, he weaves together an array of topics including the rise of the chemical industry, autism, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and sewage sludge. Brown, a likeable everyman who worked as a waiter before taking up the camera, narrates the film in an unvarnished central Pennsylvania accent.

Brown is a compelling storyteller. Earlier this year, “Unacceptable Levels” won the Health & Environment Film Prize at the 30th International Environmental Film Festival, in Paris. It received a special jury prize at the 2012 Yosemite International Film Festival and the PlayItFwd Award at the 2012 FILManthropy Festival, a philanthropic motion picture festival.

The film is getting attention for good reason. Even though it is heavy on experts talking, Brown understand the power of images and contrasts: his towheaded tots versus bald children battling cancer. He often employs multiple pictures or videos on the screen at a time. Judicious editing allows him to draw the audience through heavy policy discussions—including one on the federal law governing commercial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act. The film is decidedly one-sided, which is unsettling.

“Unacceptable Levels” begins with a glass of water. Brown notices it has an odor and asks, what chemicals are in this water? Then, why do so many people I love have cancer? His wife ponders why she had a miscarriage then a healthy son, then a second miscarriage followed by a healthy daughter. They have no answers—and still don’t by the end of the film. But they increasingly question whether health problems are connected to the myriad industrial chemicals to which they are exposed via food, water, and consumer products.

Brown intersperses scenes of his family—on vacation, playing, and preparing organic food—with interviews of policy and scientific experts drawn mainly from advocacy groups seeking tighter controls on chemicals. He rounds out his talking heads with a handful of academics, U.S. Geological Survey scientists, and book authors. The closest he gets to the chemical industry is John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and one of the codevelopers of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

Brown tells C&EN that he contacted business groups including the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical makers, and the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the global cosmetic and personal care products industry, as well as companies Monsanto and DuPont. They all turned down his requests for interviews, Brown says. So did the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Either I’m not important enough—and they’re justified in feeling that way,” the filmmaker tells C&EN, “or they may not be interested in talking about this issue on camera.”

Instead, Brown relies on images from eras past to stand in for the chemical industry. Vintage black-and-white film clips purporting to show industrial laboratories are cringeworthy when seen through 21st-century eyes: Most chemists are without safety glasses or lab coats and all are white men. Meanwhile, television advertisements for personal care products and breakfast cereals are icons for the manufacturers of these items. Agricultural chemical producers are referred to through old films of DDT being sprayed on crops and on people chowing down at a picnic as well as a dated TV ad for Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.

Brown ends his film at Gettysburg National Military Park, site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. As his children scamper about, Brown challenges his audience to take action, either on a personal level or for tougher federal policies, to curb exposure to industrial chemicals.

Explaining why he chose to end at Gettysburg, Brown harks back to the heated three-day battle in July 1863. “Both sides thought they were right—and all of them were Americans,” he tells C&EN. “I thought that would be a powerful metaphor for this film,” with sides squaring off over the need for tighter regulation of chemicals.

“Unacceptable Levels” is on tour in larger U.S. cities this summer and will be released on video-on-demand platforms, including iTunes, later this year.

Cheryl Hogue is a senior correspondent at C&EN.


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