Death by Toxic Chemicals

The Human Experiment

Directed by Don Hardy (2013)

Film Review

Narrated by Sean Penn, this documentary concerns the growing toxics movement and the fight to bring the US in line with the rest of the world in protecting Americans against toxic chemicals. The ultimate goal of this movement is to put the burden of proof on chemical manufacturers to prove their products are safe before introducing them to the environment. At present new chemicals are considered safe until large numbers of consumers get sick and die.

I was aware the EU had much stronger consumer protections than the US. I was appalled to learn that China’s toxic standards exceed those of the US – that China uses the US as dumping ground for formaldehyde containing products banned in their own country.

The film starts with some frightening health problems related to toxic chemical exposure:

  • Breast cancer (virtually unknown prior to 1900) has increased 30% since 1975.
  • Infertility has increased 49% since 1988.
  • Brain cancer in children has increased 38% since 1990.
  • Autism has increase over 1000% since 1999.
  • Asthma has increased 80% since 1990.
  • Leukemia has increased 74% since 1990.

The filmmakers also provide an intriguing snapshot of the cynical techniques employed by the chemical lobby, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year fighting federal and state regulation. Unsurprisingly they rely on the same public relations firms and tactics the asbestos and tobacco industry used to stall regulation of their products.

The most inspiring segment of the documentary concerns Teens for Safe Cosmetics, a movement organized by teenage girls to educate other teens about the dangerous chemicals in their cosmetics. So far, the group’s most inspiring tactic involved entering supermarkets and labeling all the Secret deodorant products with homemade warning stickers.

1493 and the Hidden History of Industrial Capitalism

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C Mann

Vintage Books (2012)

Book Review

1493 is a fascinating book tracing a totally neglected aspect of the rise of capitalism and industrial civilization – namely the transfer of new crops, livestock, trees, diseases, guano (nitrogen-rich bird poop, silver and diverse ethnic groups to every continent except Antarctica. Based on his detailed investigations, Mann cites numerous examples of major historical events and movements that can be directly traced to this “Columbian Exchange.”

Mann begins by tracing the history of tobacco, which was first transferred from the lower Amazon to Jamestown Virginia, and from there to China. An immensely popular drug of addiction, it provided the cash England needed to support colonization of the South-eastern US.

He next focuses on the potato, which was transferred from the Andes in South America to Northern Europe, where it replaced wheat as the staple crop in Ireland, northern Germany, Belgium and Russia (potatoes flourish in colder climates and on more marginal land than wheat and are four times more productive). Thanks to the introduction of the potato, Europe was finally able to end the famines that occurred every ten years. At a time, when China, India and various African and South American civilizations were far more advanced than Europe, the main factor holding back European development was its inability to feed its population.

Next Mann covers the important of sugar (originally domesticated in New Guinea) to the West Indies and the importation of coffee and bananas (to South America) from Africa.

African Slaves Resistant to Malaria

He devotes a whole section to the transfer of diseases, which played a significant role in wiping out America’s indigenous population, to the New World. I was previously aware that new settlers also brought malaria with them. This often fatal illness was endemic to England in the 1500s – thanks to misguided schemes to reclaim wetlands for agriculture. The high prevalence of malaria meant that 8 out of 10 settlers in Jamestown and other southern colonies could be expected to die in the first 18 months. Mann makes a case that the natural resistance present in slaves from West and Central Africa** was a main factor in England (a historically antislavery nation) turning to slaves in their desperation to establish a labor force to work the tobacco fields.

Silver, Sweet Potatoes and the Downfall of China

The chapter on the role of the Columbian Exchange in the downfall of China as the most prosperous, politically developed and culturally sophisticated country in the world is also extremely enlightening. I was totally unaware that between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the silver mined in 16th century Peru was transported to China via the Philippines for use in their monetary system. Nor the importance of sweet potatoes and maize (which, like potatoes, thrive on marginal land) in feeding poor farmers displaced by China’s dynastic wars. China is still the number one world producer of sweet potatoes.

Why the US was the Last to Free Their Slaves

For me, the most interesting section was the one on slavery, particularly the chapter on the “maroon”*** revolts and guerilla warfare that forced Central and South America to abolish slavery long before the US did. Except for Florida, escaped slaves in the US tended not to form rebellious maroon enclaves. The reason, according to Mann, was their difficulty surviving on their own in a colder climate and the opportunity for legal freedom if they fled to the North.

In Florida, escaped slaves formed alliances with the Seminole Indians. Their guerilla bands conducted continual attacks (with covert British support) on Georgia – until 1839 when Florida maroons were granted their freedom if they agreed to resettle of the Mississippi.


*The Columbian Exchange was the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the Americas and the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries, related to European colonization and trade after Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage.

**Approximately 97% of people indigenous to West and Central Africa are resistant to malaria owing to the presence of the Duffy Negative Antigen.

***Maroon is a term applied to fugitive black slaves.