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Kenneth P. Green

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Has Your Child Seen This Propaganda Film in School?

Posted: 08/16/2013 5:21 pm

Recently, a concerned parent pointed me to a film being shown to his child's sixth grade class, called The Story of Stuff. The movie, created in 2007, depicts a world in which big corporations, in cahoots with big government, pretty much destroy the entire planet and maliciously poison the environment for their own filthy ends. According to the film's website, the film has been viewed 15 million times, and is one of the "most-watched environmental-themed online movies of all time."

My correspondent was seeking some information to balance the film, but as I told him, it would take days (if not weeks) to fully counter the twisted logic, out-of-context factoids and plain silliness packed into The Story of Stuff. You would first have to teach people about statistics and probabilities. Then you would need to instruct on a bunch of other things: chemical testing and toxicity at the least, not to mention economics, trade and international relations. I don't have weeks to spend debunking The Story of Stuff, but let's just look at one short segment that deals with "toxic chemicals."

The film claims "There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today. Only a handful of these have even been tested for human health impacts and NONE of them have been tested for synergistic health impacts -- that means when they interact with all the other chemicals we're exposed to every day." The insinuation here is that, somehow, we should have tested all these chemicals for safety before we used them.

In a sense, or course, we have -- we've had well over 100 years of natural experimentation during which billions of human beings have been exposed to synthetic chemicals. The first synthetic chemical dye, for example, was invented in 1856. All the while human life-expectancy has climbed, health has generally improved, and infant mortality has dropped. Life expectancy in Canada for men was 59 in 1920, but grew to 79 by 2007. Women's life expectancy rose from 61 to 83 over the same period. And according to Statistics Canada, "In 1901, the infant mortality rate in Canada was 134 per 1,000, meaning that about 1 in 7 newborns died before their first birthday. By 1997, the infant mortality rate in Canada had fallen to 5.5 per 1,000, meaning that only 1 in 182 newborns failed to survive their first year."

But let's stipulate that the majority of Stuff's 100,000 chemicals haven't gone through rigorous animal testing and equally rigorous testing on human beings. What would be involved in testing 100,000 chemicals for human safety?

In clinical testing to certify new pharmaceuticals, trials are done on up to 3,000 people per drug. So, testing our 100,000 "toxic chemicals" on humans requires intentionally administering possibly-toxic chemicals to some 300 million people, or 60% of the people in the European Union.

But of course, that's only the tip of the iceberg, because as the film reminds us, the chemicals have not been tested synergistically. That is, they haven't been tested in combinations.

Combinations! Now we're talking. Let's start by asking how many ways there are to combine 100,000 drugs if we tested them just two at a time. There are lots of calculators online that'll let you do this. I used this one to grind a few numbers.

Plug in 100,000 for the set size, and "2" for the sample size, and you find that testing 100,000 chemicals requires about five billion experiments. Five billion experiments, involving only say, 2,000 people each (a mid-range number from the FDA's estimate cited above), means you only need about 10 trillion people. Hmmm, that's awkward. We don't have 10 trillion people. I suppose we could double things up some, and instead, have multiple people undergo multiple tests. So, taking the earth's seven billion people and dividing them into the 10 trillion test subjects we need, each person would only have to undergo more than 1,400 tests.

Needless to say, testing all 100,000 chemicals against each other in every possible combination requires an infinite number of people having an infinite number of tests. That's a fairly good definition of hell.

And then, there's that cost thing. Estimates vary, but a common figure for the price to bring a drug to market is around a billion dollars. Let's assume half of our 100,000 chemicals proved out to the same level of safety as a new pharmaceutical. The cost of testing: $50 trillion. The world's global GDP for 2012 was about $85 trillion, so I suppose we could afford it if we tighten our belts a bit. Of course, the pairwise testing becomes a bit costly under this scenario, where it's $1 billion for five billion experiments (or $5X1018 which is $5 quintillion). That's about 60 thousand times the world's economic output last year.

This is merely one example of how The Story of Stuff misleads. One implication of the film is that somehow, we could have, or should have tested every chemical we're exposed to, in every possible combination. There is no real world in which that could ever happen. Suggesting that a failure to do the impossible is an indictment of industrial civilization is profoundly dishonest. Such environmental propaganda has no place in our schools.

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  • Using Disposable Chopsticks

    Those chopsticks that come with your takeout have a negative environmental impact, whether they're made from plastic or wood. Plastic is oil-based and won't biodegrade in landfills, and the plastic used for flatwear like chopsticks is generally not recycled. Wooden chopsticks may be just as bad when you consider the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/chopstick-china-forests_n_2853033.html" target="_hplink">millions of trees being cut down in China to supply the mind-boggling demand</a>. Buy a nice <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/bring-your-own-chopsticks-movement-gains-traction-in-asia.html" target="_hplink">pair of reusable chopsticks</a> and use those instead!

  • Leaving Your Computer Monitor On

    You may have heard that leaving your computer monitor on and letting it go into standby mode uses less energy than turning it off and on each day. But if you're going to be away from the computer for more than 20 minutes, <a href="http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/energy-efficient-computer-use" target="_hplink">it makes more sense to just turn the monitor off, according to Energy.gov</a>. And remember, a screen saver uses energy too!

  • Using Bleached Coffee Filters

    Coffee filters can go in the compost bin, grounds and all, so what's the harm in using them? It's considerable if you go with the bleached variety, as <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/jillian-michaels-photos/10-ways-to-detox-your-home.aspx#/slide-3" target="_hplink">most are bleached with chlorine and contain dioxins, a known toxin</a>. They're also more likely to be made with unrecycled paper. Go with brown paper filters made from recycled fibres, or get a reusable cloth, stainless steel, or gold filter.

  • Throwing Away Your Printer Cartridges

    Refilling your printer cartridges saves money, but it's also easier on the environment. It's estimated that <a href="http://inkcanada.ca/inkjet-recycling.html" target="_hplink">only five per cent of the 60 million inkjet cartridges sold in Canada every year are recycled</a>, and it takes 2.5 ounces of non-renewable oil to make just one cartridge. You can help cut your share of that by refilling your cartridge, and many places that will load you up with new ink will also recycle your empty cartridges for you when you're done with them.

  • Flushing "Flushable" Applicators And Wipes

    Just because you can flush something, doesn't mean you should. Applicators, tampons, and some wet wipes don't dissolve and disperse in water the way toilet paper does. Instead, they settle or clump up (thanks to tampon strings) and <a href="http://www.pwmag.com/wastewater/strangled-by-disposables.aspx" target="_hplink">create blockages that could lead to harmful sewer leaks</a>. Put them in the trash bin instead!

  • Eating Farmed Fish

    Farmed fish may seem like the better environmental choice — isn't it smarter to avoid depleting ocean stocks by going with fish grown specifically for eating? Not necessarily. <a href="http://www.beluga.is/default.asp?Page=291" target="_hplink">The pellets or other food the fish are given can contain antibiotics and other medications</a>. What the fish don't eat just drops to the bottom and dissolves into the water. Also, algae can grow on fish farms and develop into red tide, which harms other species. If you eat seafood, look for fresh stocks that are not endangered. <a href="http://www.oceanwise.ca/seafood" target="_hplink">Ocean Wise has great info</a> on the best fish choices to make when you go shopping.

  • Not Buying Shade-Grown Coffee

    How was your coffee grown? If you don't know, you should probably find out, because the answer has a real green impact. <a href="http://www.conservation.org/FMG/Articles/Pages/starbucks_shadegrown_coffee.aspx" target="_hplink">Look for coffee that's shade grown</a>, which means grown under a canopy of other plants, providing a home for birds that coffee grown on clear-cut plantations destroys. Shade-grown plants can also get away with fewer pesticides.

  • Indulging An Affection For Denim

    Levi's itself admits that it takes about 3,000 litres of water to make just one pair of its jeans, and the average North American owns seven pairs. The beauty of denim is that it goes with everything, so stick to a couple of favourite styles and cut the excess. We'd bet you wear the same pair or two most of the time anyway! (As for Levi's, <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2041116,00.html" target="_hplink">in 2011 they introduced jeans produced with less water.)</a> "All sorts of things like clothing, electronics and meat are so much cheaper than they were 50 years ago," Vasil says, "so we buy more and more of it when we don't really need it and all of it has an impact on the environment."

  • Being A Beauty Product Junkie

    You might think you already know how to reduce your carbon footprint: walk or bike instead of driving, limit flights, recycle. And some of the little things, like turning off the light when you leave the room and bringing reusable bags when you go grocery shopping, are second nature by now. But there are many everyday choices you wouldn't think twice about that can really add up. “The truth is everything we do over the course of our day has a hidden environmental impact, from the banana we snag at breakfast to the soap we wash our faces with at the end of the day," says journalist and author Adria Vasil (http://www.ecoholic.ca/) says. Vasil, the author of three eco-lifestyle books and a columnist for NOW Magazine (http://www.nowtoronto.com/columns/ecoholic.cfm), says that focusing on small changes can be encouraging. Even if you can't cut out business travel or trade in your gas guzzler for a hybrid, you can still make an impact with your everyday choices. <strong>LOOK: 14 surprising everday choices that are killing the earth. Story continues below slideshow:</strong> <HH--236SLIDEEXPAND--292989--HH> If you're considering that potential impact for the first time, you're not alone. "I think the vast majority of people underestimate the impact of their daily choices on the environment," Vasil says. "It's just not something most of us have been raised to consider." Her own awakening came when her older brother developed chemical and environmental sensitivities when Vasil was in her teens, and she began to learn more about how our daily choices affect the world around us. The good news about the big impact of those small choices? It means that you can make waves in a positive direction by changing them. And if we use what we learn to encourage our politicians to support large-scale changes, the effect is multiplied. "There are so many ways that small acts can help stave off major environmental crises," Vasil says, "even just with the stuff we put on, in, and around our bodies every day." <strong>Using Disposable Chopsticks</strong> Those chopsticks that come with your takeout have a negative environmental impact, whether they're made from plastic or wood. Plastic is oil-based and won't biodegrade in landfills, and the plastic used for flatwear like chopsticks is generally not recycled. Wooden chopsticks may be just as bad when you consider the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/chopstick-china-forests_n_2853033.html" target="_hplink">millions of trees being cut down in China to supply the mind-boggling demand</a>. Buy a nice <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/bring-your-own-chopsticks-movement-gains-traction-in-asia.html" target="_hplink">pair of reusable chopsticks</a> and use those instead! <strong>Leaving Your Computer Monitor On</strong> You may have heard that leaving your computer monitor on and letting it go into standby mode uses less energy than turning it off and on each day. But if you're going to be away from the computer for more than 20 minutes, <a href="http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/energy-efficient-computer-use" target="_hplink">it makes more sense to just turn the monitor off, according to Energy.gov</a>. And remember, a screen saver uses energy too! <strong>Using Bleached Coffee Filters</strong> Coffee filters can go in the compost bin, grounds and all, so what's the harm in using them? It's considerable if you go with the bleached variety, as <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/jillian-michaels-photos/10-ways-to-detox-your-home.aspx#/slide-3" target="_hplink">most are bleached with chlorine and contain dioxins, a known toxin</a>. They're also more likely to be made with unrecycled paper. Go with brown paper filters made from recycled fibres, or get a reusable cloth, stainless steel, or gold filter. <strong>Throwing Away Your Printer Cartridges</strong> Refilling your printer cartridges saves money, but it's also easier on the environment. It's estimated that <a href="http://inkcanada.ca/inkjet-recycling.html" target="_hplink">only five per cent of the 60 million inkjet cartridges sold in Canada every year are recycled</a>, and it takes 2.5 ounces of non-renewable oil to make just one cartridge. You can help cut your share of that by refilling your cartridge, and many places that will load you up with new ink will also recycle your empty cartridges for you when you're done with them. <strong>Flushing "Flushable" Applicators And Wipes</strong> Just because you can flush something, doesn't mean you should. Applicators, tampons, and some wet wipes don't dissolve and disperse in water the way toilet paper does. Instead, they settle or clump up (thanks to tampon strings) and <a href="http://www.pwmag.com/wastewater/strangled-by-disposables.aspx" target="_hplink">create blockages that could lead to harmful sewer leaks</a>. Put them in the trash bin instead! <strong>Eating Farmed Fish</strong> Farmed fish may seem like the better environmental choice — isn't it smarter to avoid depleting ocean stocks by going with fish grown specifically for eating? Not necessarily. <a href="http://www.beluga.is/default.asp?Page=291" target="_hplink">The pellets or other food the fish are given can contain antibiotics and other medications</a>. What the fish don't eat just drops to the bottom and dissolves into the water. Also, algae can grow on fish farms and develop into red tide, which harms other species. If you eat seafood, look for fresh stocks that are not endangered. <a href="http://www.oceanwise.ca/seafood" target="_hplink">Ocean Wise has great info</a> on the best fish choices to make when you go shopping. <strong>Not Buying Shade-Grown Coffee</strong> How was your coffee grown? If you don't know, you should probably find out, because the answer has a real green impact. <a href="http://www.conservation.org/FMG/Articles/Pages/starbucks_shadegrown_coffee.aspx" target="_hplink">Look for coffee that's shade grown</a>, which means grown under a canopy of other plants, providing a home for birds that coffee grown on clear-cut plantations destroys. Shade-grown plants can also get away with fewer pesticides. <strong>Indulging An Affection For Denim</strong> Levi's itself admits that it takes about 3,000 litres of water to make just one pair of its jeans, and the average North American owns seven pairs. The beauty of denim is that it goes with everything, so stick to a couple of favourite styles and cut the excess. We'd bet you wear the same pair or two most of the time anyway! (As for Levi's, <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2041116,00.html" target="_hplink">in 2011 they introduced jeans produced with less water.)</a> "All sorts of things like clothing, electronics and meat are so much cheaper than they were 50 years ago," Vasil says, "so we buy more and more of it when we don't really need it and all of it has an impact on the environment." <strong>Being A Beauty Product Junkie</strong> According to the United States <a href="http://www.epa.gov/" target="_hplink">Environmental Protection Agency and Census Bureau</a>, more than three million tons of personal care products are dumped into waterways every year. Those that contain endocrine disruptors like parabens can affect reproduction in wildlife. Choosing products that avoid the Toxic Ten (http://environmentaldefence.ca/reports/just-beautiful-personal-care-products-pocket-shopping-guide) ingredients is better for you and for nature. "We can slow the wave of hormone disrupting chemicals that the UN warns are out there making humans and wildlife increasingly sick by using all natural, nontoxic, sustainable bodycare and cleaning products," Vasil says. <strong>Going For The Soy Veggie Burger</strong> Eating meat has an environmental impact, so shouldn't choosing soy alternatives be friendlier to Mother Earth? Turns out it depends on the kind of soy you're eating. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2010/feb/15/ask-leo-tofu-bad-for-environment" target="_hplink">Growing soy has a worse environmental impact</a> than other plant-based protein crops like chickpeas, and a lot of the soy we eat is genetically modified and grown in China, where pesticide use may not be as well regulated as it is in North America and Europe. Look for non-GMO soy, and get your plant proteins from lentils and beans when you can. <strong>Buying Bamboo Sheets</strong> Bamboo has been touted as an eco-friendly alternative to woods and fabrics like cotton, hailed for its antibacterial properties and quick rate of growth. But it's not all as rosy as it seems. <a href="http://www.salon.com/2007/11/05/bamboo/" target="_hplink">Pesticides can be used in its growth, and chemicals in processing it into fabric</a>. And the increasing demand for the material could lead farmers to clear cut native vegetation in order to plant it. Bamboo still has a lot going for it—just make sure you check on its sourcing when purchasing it. <strong>Thickening Sauces With Corn Starch</strong> Corn starch works well as a thickener for sauces and gravies, but it is usually <a href="http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-On-the-Market/Corn" target="_hplink">made with genetically modified corn</a>. Many people are concerned about GMOs in our food supply, and there are also intellectual property concerns around ownership of genetically modified seeds. You can avoid the issue by using arrowroot powder instead. As a bonus, it has a more neutral flavour and can be used at low temperatures. <strong>Buying Canned Vegetables</strong> Using vegetables canned at their peak freshness can be a way to enjoy your favourite produce out of season, but most of them will be in cans lined with BPA. There are growing concerns about Bisphenol A's estrogenic properties, and it was recently found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/04/17/canadians-bpa-urine-lead-blood_n_3102563.html" target="_hplink">most Canadians have BPA in their blood</a>. Avoid it by using frozen veggies instead. <strong>Eating Meat</strong> A <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/michellemaisto/2012/04/28/eating-less-meat-is-worlds-best-chance-for-timely-climate-change-say-experts/" target="_hplink">2012 report from World Bank Group</a> said that our best chance to avoid the effects of climate change down the road is to start eating less meat now. A former advisor to the group and another World Bank Group environmental specialist said that the 51 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry. "We can all help the climate change crisis by slashing the amount of meat and animal products that we eat since meat animals are shockingly huge emitters of greenhouse gases," Vasil says.

  • Going For The Soy Veggie Burger

    Eating meat has an environmental impact, so shouldn't choosing soy alternatives be friendlier to Mother Earth? Turns out it depends on the kind of soy you're eating. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2010/feb/15/ask-leo-tofu-bad-for-environment" target="_hplink">Growing soy has a worse environmental impact</a> than other plant-based protein crops like chickpeas, and a lot of the soy we eat is genetically modified and grown in China, where pesticide use may not be as well regulated as it is in North America and Europe. Look for non-GMO soy, and get your plant proteins from lentils and beans when you can.

  • Buying Bamboo Products

    Bamboo has been touted as an eco-friendly alternative to woods and fabrics like cotton, hailed for its antibacterial properties and quick rate of growth. But it's not all as rosy as it seems. <a href="http://www.salon.com/2007/11/05/bamboo/" target="_hplink">Pesticides can be used in its growth, and chemicals in processing it into fabric</a>. And the increasing demand for the material could lead farmers to clear cut native vegetation in order to plant it. Bamboo still has a lot going for it—just make sure you check on its sourcing when purchasing it.

  • Thickening Sauces With Corn Starch

    Corn starch works well as a thickener for sauces and gravies, but it is usually <a href="http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-On-the-Market/Corn" target="_hplink">made with genetically modified corn</a>. Many people are concerned about GMOs in our food supply, and there are also intellectual property concerns around ownership of genetically modified seeds. You can avoid the issue by using arrowroot powder instead. As a bonus, it has a more neutral flavour and can be used at low temperatures.

  • Buying Canned Vegetables

    Using vegetables canned at their peak freshness can be a way to enjoy your favourite produce out of season, but most of them will be in cans lined with BPA. There are growing concerns about Bisphenol A's estrogenic properties, and it was recently found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/04/17/canadians-bpa-urine-lead-blood_n_3102563.html" target="_hplink">most Canadians have BPA in their blood</a>. Avoid it by using frozen veggies instead.

  • Eating Meat

    A <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/michellemaisto/2012/04/28/eating-less-meat-is-worlds-best-chance-for-timely-climate-change-say-experts/" target="_hplink">2012 report from World Bank Group</a> said that our best chance to avoid the effects of climate change down the road is to start eating less meat now. A former advisor to the group and another World Bank Group environmental specialist said that the 51 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry. "We can all help the climate change crisis by slashing the amount of meat and animal products that we eat since meat animals are shockingly huge emitters of greenhouse gases," Vasil says.

 

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