Friday, April 30, 2010

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

I’ve just finished reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a surprisingly charming book about a not-so charming topic: the proliferation of toxic substances in common products and how this exposes us to cancer-causing, brain-wrecking, hormone-disrupting chemicals. Subtitled The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, the book chronicles an experiment cooked up by its authors, Canadian environmental leaders Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, who decided to shut themselves in a condo with several ubiquitous but highly health-damaging substances, then measure the effects on their bodies.

As Rick and Bruce take turns dosing themselves with phthalates, mercury, and more, the first eight chapters of their book raise awareness about the ways everyday products regularly bring us into contact with chemicals that endanger our health. A ninth chapter tells us how to “detox.” In the course of their experiments, the authors’ facetime with chemicals is somewhat concentrated, but they make a point of only exposing themselves in ways we normally encounter these substances.

In Chapter Two, for instance, Rick exposes himself to phthalates – a group of chemicals used to soften plastic and carry scents – by using a complete set of phthalate-containing body care products over 24 hours. During this same period, he also hangs out in a room with a plug-in air “freshener,” another prime source of phthalates (I can’t think of a more oxymoronic product than these toxin-spewing devices turn out to be). Children, as it happens, regularly consume phthalates when they chew on rubber ducks and other soft plastic toys. Adults and children inhale them because they are in almost every commercial fragranced product on the market, including soaps and other toiletries. With his 24-hour experiment, Rick manages to substantially increase the phthalates in his urine. And if they are coming out in urine, it means they have first traveled into the body and bloodstream, where they mess with hormones.

In Chapter 5, Bruce more than doubles the mercury levels in his blood by eating a series of seven tuna meals and snacks over three days: tuna on sushi trays, tuna sandwiches, tuna steaks. He reports feeling irritable by the time his mercury levels have spiked, perhaps an indication of the neurotoxic action of this heavy metal. Mercury is linked to a wide range of neurological and behavioral problems, and at high enough levels can kill. At this point, thanks mostly to the coal-burning that disperses mercury into the air and from there into the food chain, we all have it in us.

In other chapters, our heroes bravely dose themselves with flame retardants, bisphenol A (BPA), the ubiquitous (and largely unnecessary) antibacterial chemical triclosan (think: Microban®), and Teflon® ingredient PFOA. They also look at pesticides and nanotechnology. Variously cancer-causing, mutagenic, and/or linked to birth defects and developmental problems, all these things contaminate our lives in hidden and unexpected ways.

A good example of this comes from coffee. Buy it organic, fair trade, or shade-grown all you want, but if you run it through a typical coffee maker – most are constructed with polycarbonate plastic – you’ll get BPA in your brew. Rick discovers this when he attempts to lower his BPA exposure before deliberately attempting to raise it in his experiment. In determining how to prep for the procedure, he realizes he can’t drink his coffee from home or office coffee makers, since they’re both mostly plastic. He decides instead to get his coffee from a café that uses a stainless-steel cappuccino machine. But when the café owner gives him a tour of the shop’s entire coffee-making process, he sees two places where beans meet BPA: they sit in one polycarbonate plastic storage tank before grinding, and land in another one once ground. As Rick notes, “The possibility of some serious BPA contamination was there in the grinding process.”

This is typical of the way chemicals have insinuated themselves into our everyday lives. They’ve seeped so far into the cracks and crevices of our existence that it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. However, we can reduce our exposures. In the case of his coffee, Rick finally hits on the solution of using a glass French press coffeemaker. There are similar solutions that can reduce exposures to many toxics, and this book includes very helpful guidance on how to do that.

Equally enlightening and entertaining are the true stories of political struggles over these chemicals. Yes, this book does focus on one side of the issue. These are tales told by environmental campaigners. But this is the side we don’t hear nearly as often as the billions of dollars worth of “Better Living Through Chemistry” messages that inundate us via advertising and public relations campaigns. Slow Death by Rubber Duck reports things that are important for consumers to know, and I don’t doubt that the book serves to balance the overall body of information about chemicals in consumer goods.

Particularly inspiring – even moving – is the story of events leading up to Canada’s 2008 ban of BPA-containing polycarbonate plastic baby bottles. I can understand why the authors saved this chapter for nearly the end of the book, as it closes on a very triumphant note and affirms their opening line: “The book that you’re holding is downright hopeful.” After reading how a horde of stroller-pushing parents swayed Canadian politicians to enact the BPA ban, we’re left with the feeling that similar triumphs are imminent, or at least pending. In the meantime, the book gives enough information to enable readers to watch out for these problematic products and reduce the quantity of toxics in their everyday lives.

This is a very readable blend of science and storytelling, in places even laugh-out-loud funny. Most of us need to raise our awareness about how the chemicals around us can affect our health, and I can’t think of a better way to do so than by reading this kind of book.

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