Our Undeniable Human Experiment

written by Elise Miller, EdM

Last week was “National Public Health Week,” an initiative of the American Public Health Association (APHA). The organizers posted an infographic highlighting some disturbing statistics about the health of Americans, including how poorly the US does overall relative to other developed countries (and even some developing ones). While this is not new news, the graphics are well-designed and the facts are well worth restating:

  • the US ranks 34th in life expectancy
  • inequities, such as less access to nutritious food, healthy communities, good education, etc., are far higher in the US than other high-income countries and have the greatest impact on people of color
  • though nearly 50% of Americans suffer from preventable, chronic disease, only 3% of health care spending is on prevention
  • and so forth….

One way to help effect positive action on these critical issues is through visual media. Notably, several video and film documentaries have been released or are about to be released this year on the impact of toxic chemicals on human health. All of them feature a number of prominent and highly respected scientists and advocates in the environmental health field–from Linda Birnbaum, PhD, DABT, ATS, Director at NIEHS and NTP; to Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, Director at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF; to Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. Though CHE’s membership is quite diverse and some may not agree with aspects of how the science is characterized in these films, the message is undeniable: We are continuing to conduct a vast chemical experiment on ourselves, and the health picture–nationally and globally–is not pretty.

HumanExperimentThis month, “The Human Experiment“, narrated and produced by Sean Penn, was released and is currently being shown all over the country. It’s been touted as Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” but focused on chemicals.

Toxic Hot SeatAnother is “Toxic Hot Seat” (released earlier this year), a documentary on the investigative report by the Chicago Tribune which exposed the corporate coverups regarding the uselessness and toxicity of flame retardants (Not coincidentally, Ashley Furniture, the largest retailer of furniture in the country, announced last month that it is no longer going to use flame retardants).

StinkAlso recently publicized is “Stink” by Jon Whelan, which provides a gripping narrative from the perspective of one father’s attempt to find out why so many everyday products expose us to toxic chemicals associated with chronic health conditions.

Our Chemical LivesSimilarly, Catalyst: Our Chemical Lives asks the question: “Is there adequate regulation and testing, or are we in the midst of an uncontrolled, human experiment?”

Though CHE itself is not in the business of making films, we are well aware that bringing attention to the emerging science on environmental contributors to chronic disease and disability is not enough. The research also needs to be translated for decision-makers and the public. In this light, we applaud all of our CHE’s colleagues who are finding creative ways to make sure that significant new research is accessible to those outside our field. Art not only saves lives, it makes them healthier.

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