Interview: Director Ed Brown Deals with ‘Unacceptable Levels’

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CHICAGO – As modern life becomes more toxic and technology uses more chemicals within everyday foodstuffs and products, the consequence for disease and sickness as a result is an increasing threat. Ed Brown, a filmmaker and concerned family man, explores this phenomenon in a new documentary, “Unacceptable Levels.”

Brown was in Chicago recently with actress Mariel Hemingway, who advocates healthy living and environmental cleansing. The two promoted a screening of the film at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “Unacceptable Levels” makes its release premiere on Saturday, August 3rd, in Austin, Texas.

Ed Brown
Director Ed Brown of ‘Unacceptable Levels,’ in Chicago on July 24, 2013
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Ed Brown talked with about the roots of his motivation to make this documentary, and how the subject matter affects everyone on earth. You were motivated to make this documentary because of personal issues having to do with exposure to chemicals. In the journey of your research, which particular fact spurred you forward and was the greatest motivating factor in completing the film?

Ed Brown: There are always going to be many motivating factors as to why I chose to do this film. It initially had to do with personal care products. My wife was showing me the ingredients to this particular brand, and asked me if I had ever looked at what went into the product. After I said no, she told me she’d Googled the ingredients and five of them were carcinogens. I thought, how on earth was she able to find this out and how on earth were we able to buy this?

Right after that I began to think that something was wrong with this system. That’s when everything snowballed in regard to the film. What began with personal care products, also began an exploration of water treatment, sunscreen and other products. So even if you eat organic or take care of food toxins, there are other products to take into consideration. But personal care items were definitely the touchstone. Which of your interview subjects surprised you the most, as in for the type of information they gave you versus the unlikely nature of that information coming from that particular source?

Brown: I interviewed over 70 people for the film, so it was an arduous journey at best. So many of the interviewees – if I had hair – did blow my hair back, as I talked to them. [laughs] But I always go back to a guy named John Stauber, who wrote a book called ‘Toxic Sludge is Good for You,’ a tongue-in-cheek title that is pretty much the PR stance that companies take regarding ‘bio-solids.’

I basically learned what bio-solids are, a made up name for toxic sludge, the waste products coming from human sewage. When I learned what was in this stuff – about 300 different contaminants including pharmaceuticals, PCPs, asbestos, radioactive waste, lead and mercury – is that all of this is in toxic sludge. When I was doing that interview, I had never heard anything like this. Add the fact that 60% of our crops are grown in this stuff, I thought ‘how far down does the rabbit hole go?’ And I found out there is no bottom to it. What is fascinating about our evolution, that we change in both Homo sapien physical adaptation and our interaction with technology. Given the subject matter of your film, where have we gone wrong as a species in messing with our evolutionary forces?

Brown: Wow, I’m going to wing that one. How much smoke can I blow? [laughs] When we decided to bring the industrial complex into how our species survives, those decisions are essential based in chemicals. When we escalated the production in the mid 20th Century, we really thought this would be our salvation, and we would live longer.

In a way, we have lived longer. But for all the choices we made back then, we’re beginning to see the ramifications now. We know that chemicals can cross into three generations of people. So whatever chemicals your grandparents were exposed to, are now transmuting throughout the whole population. We’re starting to see the effects, and in hindsight we shouldn’t have done it. It has become part of the whole interaction in our lives, even if I walk to the beach I wear sandals that are in part made with chemicals. We are now facing choices – should we keep testing the bounds of our own species, and see what breaks first? Or will we acknowledge the problem, and like an addict break the cycle of our dependency? We have to innovate and change the way we design chemicals, for less toxicity and better well-being. You are taking your activism in association with this film straight to the Senate, regarding their Safe Chemicals Act. What can we expect from that law, and how much further do we have to go to feel “safe”?

Ed Brown
L-R: Lauren, Maia, Brayden, and Ed Brown at the Premiere of ‘Unacceptable Levels’ in Chicago, July 24, 2013
Photo credit: Robert Kusel

Brown: We can expect a lot of bureaucratic red tape, we can expect the legislation to be held up, we can expect things to not happen and we can expect to be disappointed. But on the other end of the spectrum, we can expect some success and some building blocks we can latch onto, and make a difference in the next twenty or thirty years.

In our democracy, we have a tendency to muddy the waters and make things difficult, when they don’t have to be. For something like this, to make ourselves healthier and better for generations to come, it’s got to be an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need the government to understand it’s a real issue. It’s not like a static safety issue like landing gear on a plane – we can see stuff like that – this is more of a quiet, hidden problem that’s happening to all of us. Once we all can get on board, we can work on the problem, because it is everybody’s problem. Finally, and again as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, what don’t you want to see in your kid’s future in regard to the overindulgence in that technology, how can we strike a balance between the convenience it gives us and what we have to give of ourselves to get it? How does that interact with the vision in your film?

Brown: Undoubtedly, we’re heading toward more virtual environments. When we play video games, for example, they are much more realistic than we could have imagined twenty years ago, so twenty years from now can we imagine what they will be? But we are losing our sense of environment, interaction and becoming isolated as individuals within this sphere. I feel like in the next twenty years, as those technologies close in upon us, we’ll have to relearn the element of ‘going outside and running.’

In regard to the film, in statistics like 50% of our population is affected with cancer, if one in five children have autism, what will those numbers look like fifty years from now? Is it going to be 100% of the population that has cancer? Without holding a crystal ball, that’s the reality we’re facing, unless we get together and make some good decisions really soon.

“Unacceptable Levels” makes its film release premiere on Saturday, August 3rd, 2013, at the Stateside at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. Written and directed by Ed Brown. Not Rated. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald,

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