Why Was This TED Talk Banned?

What TEDx Talk censorship reveals about the US chemical regulatory atmosphere

Photo courtesy Instagram

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 banned 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.

Banned, though? For the coffee lid advice?? There has to be more to it than that, right?

There is more. There’s a whole, extremely well-funded, federal/corporate toxic chemical cover-up at the end of this TEDx rainbow, as well as a peek into the heart of darkness itself: A growing cultural trend of self-censorship and co-censorship, especially in large media organizations.

So What’s Really Bothering TED? 

The key points of my talk seem 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 simple 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.

*And there’s the rub. 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 US citizens from these chemicals 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 tells you everything you need to know. 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 American 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 caved to industry pressures and revised the new TDI 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 US 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 US 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.

Dream Big, Fail Bigger

See, as lame as it feels to admit it now, doing a TED Talk had kind of been an adolescent dream of mine. I really thought my talk might move the needle on public understanding of environmental medicine and raise the stakes in the environmentalism discussion.

If you see patients long enough, you realize that statements like “save the whales,” don’t hold people’s attention very long, but when you tell them that the same thing that’s killing the whales is causing their weight-loss resistance — NOW they’re listening.

TED Vs. Functional Medicine

TED, of course, did not endorse any of the above as reasons for the ban.

I’ll take you back to the morning I got the news: TED’s editorial team had been taking their time approving recordings from the conference. When I finally heard from them, I was informed they had posted my talk on a hidden link, tagged it with a lengthy disclaimer aimed at discrediting me, and stripped me of my title – MD — in the title of the video.

To add insult to injury, their alleged reason for censoring my talk had nothing to do with the strength of the science on which it was based. In their own words:

“… our research team and science editor found several principles from the speaker’s Functional Medicine practice were not backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.”

Their only explanation for the ban and the accompanying defamatory statement about me was dogmatic rather than scientific: It was the fact that I’m trained in, or even associated with functional medicine. (For background, I am also trained in conventional medicine and environmental medicine, and even though TED took the liberty of omitting MD from my name, I remain a medical doctor).

I know the stickier moments in life are usually blessings in disguise, and I wish I could tell you that I skipped the melodrama and proceeded directly to feeling grateful for the street cred. In reality, though, I had to breathe through several hours of rage that morning.

Preparing For A Fight

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 find ways for you to protect yourself, and to return to health without having to rely on the systems that are failing you. If you’re with me, pop a like on the Highlight Reel linked below, share this story as broadly as you can, and keep in touch.

There’s one more thing you can do 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.

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.

Zandra Palma MD, is an environmental medicine doctor and a writer/producer. She studied human evolutionary biology at Harvard as an undergraduate, received her medical doctorate from Columbia University, and did her residencies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Most recently she completed clinical training in environmental medicine through EMEI. Dr. Palma practices virtually in New York, California and Florida, and spends the rest of her time on creative work. She is currently making content that aims to promote information as medicine, and put the power to heal into the hands of the patient, reducing dependence on healthcare systems.

This article originally appeared on the Body Logic substack, and is republished here with permission.


Highlight Reel – The spiciest 90 seconds of my TEDx Talk

Full-length TEDx Talk with full list of references

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