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.