GHIC 2020: Global Health & Innovation Conference
April 4-5, 2020
Yale University, New Haven, CT

Unite For Sight's 2011 Global Health & Innovation Conference

Blog Report by Catherine Thomas, Unite For Sight Global Health Leadership Intern

"Igniting Social Advocacy Through Social Media," Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group

Ken Cook opens this presentation with his purpose—to advise the audience how to present their story to the public.  And did he lead by example.  President and Co-Founder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Cook discusses one of the EWG’s research projects which has mapped recipients of federal farm subsidies and has found that 23 members of Congress are included among them.  Moreover, the individuals who receive the most subsidies are Republicans associated with the Tea Party.  Those facts are astounding but predictable. 

What Cook discusses next constitutes the Environmental Working Group’s most disturbing findings.  In 2004, the Environmental Working Group collected blood samples from 10 random Americans, none of whom, it is important to note, worked in dangerous conditions on farms, in chemical plants, in factories, etc.  The EWG tested the blood samples for 413 toxic chemicals and detected an astonishing 287.  Among the chemicals found were waste byproducts, consumer product ingredients (such as Teflon chemicals), and industrial chemicals and pesticides which were banned 30 years ago.   Ken Cook allays our fears that the individuals were not exposed to these chemicals through air pollution (all 915 million pounds of it), contaminated water supplies, additives in food packaging, or the personal care products that we applied directly to our skin daily.  No, the truth is even more distressing. 

These chemicals enter the bloodstream in utero when the blood-brain barrier of the fetus is not yet intact.  Cook remarks that most of these chemicals have been proven to result in noxious biological effects.  For example, 134 of the chemicals have caused cancer in animal studies, 151 can cause birth defects, 186 can cause infertility, and 158 are neurotoxic.  Cook reiterates a startling statement written by Phil Landrigan and colleague in the Lancet, “The combined evidence suggests that the neurodevelopmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals have created a silent pandemic in modern society.”  Cook backs this claim with statistics on the rise of neurodevelopmental diseases in America.  We have seen 57% increase in childhood brain cancer and 1 out of 111 children has some degree of autism.  While these neurodevelopmental diseases can be partly attributed to genetics, Cook acknowledges, they can certainly also be linked to toxic chemicals.  It seems that further investigation and conclusive linking toxic chemicals to neurological problems is long overdue. 

Cook then presents the view of his main opponent, the chemical industry.  Those in the industry try to undermine the EWG’s claims by stating that the harmful chemicals that were found in the blood of those tested amount to parts per billion, which they state is equivalent to 1 pancake in a stack of pancakes 4,000 miles high.  But Cook aptly explains that many common drugs are effective at extremely low-levels.  For example, NuvaRing®, an oral contraceptive, is active at only 0.035 parts per billion!  Discounting the effects of small amounts of chemicals, the chemical industry is clearly hoping that the public is uneducated enough to take their hyperbolic statements at face value.

Cook states that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, decades outdated, does not require health and safety studies to be conducted on chemicals entering the US market.  To give you some context, I looked up how other industrialized countries control toxic substances.  In 2007, the European Union passed the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) law, which requires companies to disclose all chemicals that are sold in the EU in excess of one metric ton per year.  At least 85 of the chemicals that have been classified as “substances of very-high concern” (SHVCs) are produced and imported in amounts of one million pounds or greater each year in the U.S.  Only two of the SVHCs, asbestos and hexavalent chromium (think Erin Brockovich), have been regulated by the U.S.  Award-winning investigative journalist Mark Schapiro has written a book on this issue entitled Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American PowerIn an interview by Democracy Now!, Schapiro discusses the European Union's progress on this front and, as an example, notes that the E.U. began banning the plastic additives called phthalates from toy products about 12 years ago since children are likely to chew and suck on plastic toys and are therefore vulnerable to the endocrine-altering effects of these chemicals.  The U.S. just began banning phthalates two years ago, and Chinese factories are still allowed to sell their existing supplies of toys made with phthalates to the U.S. even though they now only sell toys made without these chemicals to the E.U.

You may wonder why the U.S. is lagging so far behind Europe.  Well, this probably ties back into the beginning of Cook’s speech.  Congressmen are unlikely to change agricultural policy when they personally benefit.  Moreover, Congressmen are pressured by powerful, rich lobbyists to support farm subsidies, and many Congressmen depend on these big companies to financially back their political campaigns.  The relationship between the chemical industry and the U.S. government may be similar.  This symbiotic relationship between companies and government officials seems to be promoting a corrupt system in which the desires of companies are promoted at the expense of the needs and health of the public.  Jeffrey Sachs would most likely dub the situation described above an example of America’s “corporatocracy” and its “democracy deficit.”  Cook urges us to educate ourselves and to stand up for our health and our needs before Congress.  One way to urge Congress to take an active stance on chemical regulation may be to present the benefits and cost-effectiveness of the E.U. system.  Interestingly, the European Commission expects to save 40-50 billion euros over the next 30 years by decreasing health problems resulting from toxic chemicals and therefore medical costs, as noted by Schapiro.  This estimate could serve as an economic incentive for the U.S. government to follow the E.U.’s lead in regulating chemicals.  We the public must stand up for our own safety since it is, unfortunately, not being protected by our elected officials.
In the meantime, Cook delineates some measures that we can take to protect ourselves from toxic exposures.

  1. Buy organic fruits and vegetables
  2. Eat fish that is low in mercury
  3. Filter drinking water
  4. Use stainless steel instead of non-stick pans
  5. Buy personal care products with low levels of harmful chemicals

To educate the public about the safety of their personal care products, the EWG has created Skin Deep, a cosmetic database which ranks cosmetics on a scale from 0-10 in terms of toxicity, with a score of 10 indicating ingredients and products of greatest concern.  The public is vastly undereducated on the pervasiveness of toxic chemicals; however, Ken Cook declares that people want to be informed consumers.  He cites as evidence the drastic jump in traffic to the Environmental Working Group and the Skin Deep websites and the similar increase in numbers of newsletter subscribers.  More important than choosing wisely, Cook states, is the public’s demand on companies and the government to be more accountable to their needs and their health.  In order to do so, Cook notes that we must be effective in telling our story.  We must utilize all forms of media to compel others and government officials to act.  With his entertaining, illuminating, and provocative presentation, Cook certainly has mastered the art of the advocate’s story and has, at the very least, garnered the support of one more American.