Unacceptable Levels: A Filmmaker’s Empowering Toxic Journey

Ed Brown was a typical “starving artist”—an aspiring filmmaker from Pennsylvania, working a day job as a waiter. A particularly bad-tasting glass of water and—much more seriously—two miscarriages by his wife, led him to wonder about chemicals in our day-to-day environment. The end result, three struggling years later, was a very comprehensive documentary film called Unacceptable Levels, which scrutinizes and reveals the many potentially hazardous chemicals surrounding us in our everyday lives.


“I was drinking a glass of water one night at a restaurant where I was working,” Brown told Calmful Living. “There was one thing about it I noticed right away. We’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day, but this thing smelled and tasted like a swimming pool. I thought, ‘How could this possibly be okay?’

“Then I read that there are ‘acceptable levels’ of chlorine and other contaminants in water. I forgot about it until my wife had her second miscarriage, and that’s when my mind went back to that glass of water. I started thinking, what could conceivably be in that? Could there be something that causes adverse health effects, or at least adds to them?”

Toxic Journey

The film follows Brown’s investigation; he was learning as he went, and the viewer is learning with him. “This really was a journey,” he said. “It was a step-by-step process for all of us.” Along the way, Brown interviews a long list of experts on the subject, including Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group, and legendary consumer activist Ralph Nader, among many others.

Unacceptable Levelsbrings us several notable lessons from history—lessons not taught in school. For example, at the end of World War II there were plenty of people who had been trained in organic chemistry, along with numerous innovations in the field. Coincidentally, there was a huge demand in society for conveniences. The two met like a perfect storm. This has led us to today’s world, in which there are some 80,000 chemicals in our commerce, from our food to face cream to pajamas and far beyond. Ninety percent of our everyday products—including such unrelated items as personal-care products, carpet cleaners and nonstick pans—are petroleum based.

Another story told is about a substance the majority of us have grown up taking for granted: fluoride. It is in our tap water and in most dental-care products. The film shows that it originally entered our environment in 1945, as a result of being leaked by a plant engaged in uranium production as part of nuclear research. Rather than address the issue as a problem, several government agencies proposed to “clean up the reputation” of fluoride and were given the green light to pilot it in the water of several cities. The rest is almost rewritten history, as through advertising, fluoride became the preventative cure-all for dental care.

A further shocking revelation concerns “sewer sludge.” Tens of thousands of elements removed in sewage treatment were deemed, in the 1970s, to be too toxic to dump in the ocean, put into landfills or incinerate. This wondrous mix was renamed “biosolids,” approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, and today is given away free and spread generously on farmland all across America.

The documentary touches on many other relevant topics, including bottled water, pesticides, plastics, and levels of chemicals found in the average child.

Rise in Illnesses

Coincident with the sharp rise in chemical use in virtually every aspect of life—including in the growing of our food—has been an astounding escalation in disease. In the past 35 years the incidence of cancer has jumped 27 percent. Autism rates have also climbed dramatically; a small example is seen with one teacher interviewed during the film who observed an increase from an average of 3 autistic students in her class to 29.

A large part of the reason for chemicals not being directly linked to maladies is the delay in effect. In the documentary, Ken Cook points out that it is only through the legacy of chemicals that have been in our environment over many years that we are now able to start monitoring their results. A large dose of a chemical at one point can lead to cancer a considerable time later. Hence causation is very hard to prove.

Poison Cocktail

Another reason for the difficulty of proof, as demonstrated in the film, is the low levels of individual chemicals from disparate sources. In safety tests, chemicals are only tested one at a time. But as Brown indicates, they have a cumulative effect on our bodies. As an analogy, he points out that no doctor would prescribe a drug for a patient without finding out what other drugs that patient is taking.

Interestingly, Brown discovered while making the movie that this kind of isolation between sources extends even to the experts in various fields. “The one thing that I found to be most amazing is that when I would interview somebody—let’s just say I was interviewing somebody at the Rodale Institute and talking to them about food—they didn’t know anything about the personal-care products industry,” Brown said. “Or when I would talk to someone in the personal-care products industry, they didn’t know anything about flame retardants. And I’d talk to people about flame retardants and they didn’t know anything about fluoride. So as I was doing these interviews, I was educating all of them while they were educating me.”


As the information given in the film can seem a bit overwhelming, at the end Brown is quick to point out that an individual should start to take action one area at a time. “One reaction most people have in learning about these things is that they’re overwhelmed,” he said. “That’s okay; they should be. It’s a lot to take in. But this information also empowers people so that they can say, ‘You know what? I need to make a change and I need to start today.’”

For Brown, his discoveries while making Unacceptable Levels had a profoundly personal effect. “I look at my kids today and I feel very good,” he concluded. “Maybe, because of the choices that my wife and I are making, we have set them on a tremendous course where their lives can be fuller and their time here can be a lot longer. I don’t want to see my kids at any point with a terminal illness—and I know all parents feel like that. We all want to avoid that, and that means making better choices. That’s what I want to try to get across to parents. We’re all in this one together.”

For more information, including how to see the movie, please visit www.unacceptablelevels.com