Opinion: What TEDx talk censorship reveals about the US chemical regulatory atmosphere

In early July I received the news that I had joined the ranks of TED iconoclasts: a TEDx talk that I gave several months before had been censored by TED, despite a water-tight list of scientific references I provided them with to back up every claim.

The talk was on environmental medicine and elaborated five pearls of advice about how to protect your immune system from common substances that can poison it. It was originally titled “Take the Lid off your Coffee Cup” – and that was about as punchy as the content got.

Why, then, would it be censored? Was the coffee lid advice too hot for TV? The key points of my talk seemed innocuous enough:

  1. Certain chemicals in your immediate environment can damage your immune system.
  2. Some are worse than we thought or worse than we were told.
  3. There are steps you can take to avoid these chemicals as an individual and even to help shift how these chemicals are used on a community-level.

It’s more about what I didn’t say than what I did that triggered TED’s censorship radar. If you read between the lines in my TEDx talk you’ll get the message, which I didn’t explicitly articulate for good reason: The federal regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect U.S. citizens from the chemicals I mentioned are doing anything but that.

The truth hurts (almost as much as environmental chemicals)

While I never explicitly mention the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the National Toxicology Program, the implicit comparison to European chemical regulatory activity intimates how feeble the theater of safety is in the U.S. I highlighted a new public health recommendation in Europe regarding the toxicity of BPA (a chemical that frequently shows up in plastics) to human health. The European Food Safety Authority (aka EFSA) has always taken a more cautious stance toward BPA than the FDA, but in a recent draft opinion that reviewed a large body of BPA studies conducted between 2013 and 2018, EFSA lowered the “tolerable daily intake” of BPA by 100,000 times. About a month after I gave my talk EFSA revised the new tolerable daily intake by five-fold (now to 20,000 times lower than their 2015 recommendation). The numerical edit amounts to a negligible difference in reality as complying with either of the new recommendations means getting plastics out of food and beverage storage and production completely.

If U.S. federal regulators didn’t already have egg on their faces, they certainly do now. EFSA’s draft opinion comes on the heels of a multi-million dollar investigation in the U.S. called CLARITY-BPA that combined the efforts of the FDA, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program to settle a longstanding dispute in BPA toxicology research. For most of the near decade over which the investigation was conducted, the independent researchers involved in CLARITY reported that the FDA was cooking the books on the studies for which they were responsible and willfully misleading the public about the safety of BPA.

Plastics are poisoning your immune system

So why is TED protecting the interests of the FDA and chemical manufacturers like Dow Chemical, Bayer Material Science, Sunoco Chemicals, SABIC Innovative Plastics and Hexion Inc (to name a few…)? Shady investors? Conflicts of interest? Maybe they’re there, maybe they’re not. I don’t want to follow the breadcrumbs back far enough to find out.

What I do want is for your immune system to work the way that it’s supposed to: To protect you from cancers and viruses and not attack your own tissues and cause chronic diseases. A functioning immune system is your birthright, but you were born into a rigged game and the people whose job it is to protect you are in on it, too. I’m not here to take TED down, and ultimately I still have respect for almost everybody involved. I just wish they’d stop supporting the guys who rigged the game.

Protect yourself from plastics

The good news is, now I’m actually mad. Things happen in environmental medicine. The bad guys come for your colleagues and friends. You get the message, time after time, that speaking up will hurt you more than it will help anyone else. Once in the 90s my mom received an implicit death-threat (an unmarked envelope filled with photos of me playing) while she was working on a public health initiative to get cigarettes out of public indoor spaces in Colorado. These people are ruthless, so actually mad is where I need to be right now, both to mount the energy to push forward and to keep from spooking when they come for me. The alternative is to cower and watch generations suffer at the hands of these disease-mongers.

I’m in ally gathering mode now, and my promise to you, dear reader, is that I will teach you how to protect yourself so that you don’t have to rely on the systems that are failing you. There’s one thing you can do for me if you feel like you’re in support of this cause: For the rest of the day, look at where plastics show up in your life (especially around your food) and visualize an alternate solution. What would it look like and feel like in your hands? Get the image in your head and keep it there for 30 seconds. Then think about puppies! (It’s a long story, but it actually works).

And to my censors: Here’s an idea worth spreading! If you’re going to choose to be a pawn, at least have the presence of mind to know which side of the chessboard you’re standing on.

A version of this article originally ran on the Body Logic substack, and is republished here with permission.

See the full length TEDx talk — which was subsequently banned — given in Ibiza, Spain, in March 2023 below.