Tom Levitt: Did you have any problems making this film? Any legal challenges from the chemical industry?
Emmanuelle Schick Garcia: In terms of the chemical industry, Dow Chemical made general comments about toxicology and dioxins in the Midland Daily News.
Security from chemical companies were constantly taking our license plate numbers when we were filming facilities, even though we were on public property. We were also not able to secure E&O insurance in Canada, which is important to release a film in North America. That's a roadblock to releasing the film in Canada and the US. Many insurance companies who insure for E&O, some of their biggest clients are in the biotech and petro-chemical industry, so there's a conflict of interest that obviously didn't help our case.
TL: Can you briefly explain what you mean by the idiot cycle?
ESG: We create problems, but business and governments don't like to deal with the source of the problem, it's too complicated and our current economic system does not benefit from it. Like GMOs for example. They're a scientific trick. They're not necessary, but the intended or unintended consequences of that "trick" or "invention" will create other problems.
Business doesn't see those as problems, but as more business opportunities. For citizens it's not beneficial, but for corporations, it's very profitable. Like in the environmental "cleaning" industry. Much of the contamination is being cleaned up by the same companies (with public money) that created the contamination in the first place (because they didn't do sufficient testing before unleashing their chemical, asbestos, etc.). So corporations profit twice. It's idiotic that we keep letting this go on. Same cycles, different products.
TL: Aside from GMOs, you focused mainly on dioxins in the film - why are they a cause for such concern?
ESG: There is much more dioxin contamination than governments are making the public aware of. The source of this dioxin contamination, aside from municipal incinerators, hospital incinerators, etc., are the six main chemical companies. The EPA has for years been pressured by the chemical industry to re-assess their assessments of dioxins, to downplay their toxicity and the danger. So the public, once again, as a result thinks the problem doesn't exist because they don't hear about it, or think it's not that important because the industry has done a fantastic job in trivialising the problem.
TL: You say the industry has been successful in downplaying the problem but is there also a lack of scientific studies out there linking or measuring the impact of dioxins on our health? For example, with things like asbestos, second-hand smoke or radon gas we have a clear scientific evidence but we don't have that on other toxin exposure?
ESG: The lack of scientific studies is something brought up constantly by the industry. First, there are about 150 different types of dioxins. The most toxic have been listed as carcinogenic by The International Agency for Research on Cancer. The industry also tries to confuse the public by speaking of "natural" dioxins and man made dioxins, but the type that are emitted from forest fires are not the same as those emitted from chlorine chemical processes.
There are researchers who are doing important work on dioxins, but because no one wants to dig too deep into the problem (since it benefits no one creating them), we are left with the impression that we don't know very much and that we don't know the extent of the problem.
My major concern though is with conflict of interest. If the industry has a say in how the studies are shaped is that going to deform the study?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of WHO, (in turn part of the United Nations) is meant to be a completely independent institute. For the most part they are, and they do very good work. But conflicts of interest are occuring within the institution, which seem subtle, but they open the door for more conflicts of interest. The researcher I spoke with said that cigarette companies were calling the institute during the process of the testing of second hand smoke. Not to put pressure, or harass the reserachers, but to get information and updates on the testing.
Since my film deals with the health issue of cancer and the lack of testing anything before it reaches the consumer (ignoring or not testing it's carcinogenic potential), it is important to outline who is supposed to play this preventative role on the public's behalf and why it is failing to do so. It's supposed to be public institutions, like universitiites, or governments, or IARC, which receive public money, to protect the public with information and testing.
But my film outlines that those public institutions are being eroded by public-private partnerships because their goals are not the same, even though private companies repeat that they are. Who can we trust and who do we get independent information from when conflicts of interest abound?
For example, on IARC advisory group sits a Bayer Cropscience consultant, Dr. Rice who also "chairs an advisory panel on benzene research for the American Petroleum Institute." The petroleum sector is one of the largest emitters of benzene, a known carcinogen. Even though it is disclosed in the document, it doesn't make it less of a conflict of interest.
TL: So what do you believe is holding back action - political will, scientific proof or industry pressure?
ESG: It's a combination of things. But the one thing that makes a difference is the public's anger. A head of state I was at dinner said the thing he hates most, the thing that scares him is when he sees mass protests. People think they don't have a voice, that they can't change anything because they don't have the resources. But that's what these companies want, for the public to feel hopeless and helpless, it's easier to get things passed. Public anger has kept GMOs out of Europe for years, it does make a huge difference. Debate is vital to democracy.
TL: On the GMOs issue, is the bigger problem with GM foods not the possible health problems but the control of our food system by just a few hugely powerful multinationals?
ESG: I think environmentalists and farmers have played into industry hands by focusing protests on food control. The industry will just say, 'but you always have a choice, just buy something else.' And most people who are removed from a farming community or don't know farmers (which is most city people) don't get a sense that it's a problem because they walk down their grocery store asiles and see hundreds of choices. The problem doesn't register and they easily dissassociate themselves from it.
But the health issue is harder to ignore. Everyone knows someone with cancer, everyone wants to protect their loved ones and themselves from getting sick, and that's why the industry constantly avoids this debate. People don't dissassociate themselves from their health or the health of their family.
TL: Toxins and chemicals seem to have gone off the campaigning radar in recent years, are they a victim of the focus on issues like climate change and obesity?
ESG: There are people who have campaigned on chemicals for decades and continue to do so, we just don't hear about it in the mainstream media. I mean if we look at what most daily newspapers are focusing on it's usually: the economic crisis, Iraq War, Afghan War, jobs and then maybe a major natural disaster.
Unless a lawsuit is settled, media might write about it, but most of the time they're not interested (and then you have to look at who's advertising in that newspaper or magazine, that sways content as well).
It seems that at no other time in history has man found more ways to destroy the planet as today - climate change, nuclear proliferation, GMOs, nanotechnologies, geoengineering, chemicals, strip minint, trawl fishing, etc. etc. Growing up I heard a lot about nuclear waste since Bob Hunter of Greenpeace was part of a group of friends by dad hung out with. But, I mean, today, it's pick your poison.
And I'll close with a quote from Fargo: "And for what? A little bit of money."
TL: Are there enough alternatives out there now to the chemical toxins we use? In other words can we avoid them to an extent in our daily lives?
ESG: I think the best alternative is to start your own garden. Find a local AMAP (those are associations in France, from an idea started in Japan, where you sign up with a local organic farmer for weekly produce). If you don't know what the chemicals are in the ingredients, don't buy it. Use vinegar and water for cleaning. Sit in the shade instead of using sunblock. Even "organic" sunblocks have nonatechologies in them, some even have carcinogens. That's why finding an alternative by buying something that is "natural" or "organic" is not always the best choice either. The more self sufficient you can be, the better for your health and your bank account!
I had someone come to my door the other day selling "natural" cleaning products. I asked what was in them since no bottle had a label. He said natural plant essences because the owner of the company cares about the environment. I didn't buy any of course, but I did some research. Turns out the "little company" was owned by a huge corporation and there were carcinogens in those "natural" cleaning products. But how many people in my village fell for that pitch? The saleman had no idea, he was just reciting a sales pitch. And round and round we go.
TL: So what's the solution? How can we break the idiot cycle?
ESG: For the last five years I've been tring to break my own cycle and to address my own hypocrisy. First I got rid of my car, my tv, dishwasher, clothes dryer and changed the products I used for cleaning everyday, then I started a garden, then I debated my family members, then my friends. So one thing at a time, but as you start, it gets easier and easier. Mass protests, definately. Stop donating to cancer charities, stop voting for officials with conflicts of interest. We have so many opportunities everyday.
The Idiot Cycle is being released on DVD in October 2010 - find out more at www.theidiotcycle.com