Books: exploring the dangers of daily life

In Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie probe the harmful chemicals found in ordinary household products. Their words moved Debbie Lee to make changes in her own home.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
Counterpoint LLC, 2010

The environmental movement was founded upon visible threats to our physical environment. It gained momentum thanks to dramatic images of rivers aflame, the hole in the ozone layer and smoke spewing from factories. But in Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, Canadian environmentalists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie write about a form of invisible pollution that is much more dangerous, pervasive and long-lasting: the chemicals that are by-products of our industrialised, consumerist culture.

Smith and Lourie decided to use themselves as guinea pigs, purposefully exposing themselves to chemicals found in normal household products and measuring their blood and urine levels before, during and after the experiment. For a week, they sequestered themselves in a room in Lourie’s home, where the carpet had been treated with the stain-resistant product Stainmaster. There, they ate canned tuna, drank out of plastic baby bottles, heated their meals in microwavable plastic containers, washed their hands with antibacterial soap and used other personal-care products known to contain phthalates. Phthalates are commonly used chemical plasticisers, added to plastics to increase their flexibility, durability and other properties.

The book is divided into chapters focusing on the various chemicals that the authors are concerned about: phthalates, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), mercury, triclosan, 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), and bisphenol A (BPA). These chemicals have serious environmental and human-health implications. This review will not go into details about why each is dangerous, as that information can easily be found elsewhere. It is enough to know that they are dangerous to our — and our children’s — health and that they are common chemicals that everyone is exposed to in their daily lives.

Phthalates are used in rubber and vinyl toys to keep them supple, and in lotions and other scented products to prolong the life of the fragrance. PFCs are used to make non-stick coatings in cooking pans and self-cleaning ovens, and are in the stain-resistant coating applied to furniture, carpet and curtains. PBDEs are the most common flame-retardants on the market today. Mercury has had a variety of uses throughout history and can be found today in fluorescent light bulbs, “tilt switches” such as those found in refrigerators, and even in tooth fillings.

Triclosan is the most popular antibacterial ingredient on the market and is used not only in soaps but also in deodorant, trash bags, garden hoses — anything labeled “antibacterial”. 2,4-D is a hormone herbicide that targets flowering plants while leaving grasses alone. BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastic and is found practically everywhere, including in baby bottles.

Smith and Lourie detail the history of each of these chemicals, their human-health effects and their status today. In each case, the authors show how industry does not work to protect public health, but to keep the chemicals in use and on the market in the face of growing scientific evidence of their dangers. Slow Death by Rubber Duck is more than just a personal experiment; it is a plea for people to educate themselves about what they are buying, to ask questions about the chemicals in the products on the shelves, to demand change for the sake of their and their children’s health, and to not accept unthinkingly the safety claims of industry.

These chemicals are present in every human body, but are especially dangerous in the most vulnerable populations: infants and children. Some of these substances, such as phthalates and BPA, are endocrine disruptors and interfere with hormone secretion, which is vital to proper development. Children are exposed to chemicals more than adults are because they breathe, eat and drink proportionately more of them. Children also are closer to the ground, where these chemicals tend to accumulate in dust. And scientific studies that say these substances are safe are shaped or funded by the chemical companies.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck starts out saying that despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation, the book is a hopeful one. Each chapter highlights an instance or instances of people challenging – through science, lawsuits or public demonstrations — the companies making and using these chemicals. As the public becomes more aware of the risks, legislators feel pressure to ban or limit the chemicals’ use and manufacturers move to alternatives before legislation is passed. While these alternative chemicals often are not any safer than their predecessors, the cycle of scientific evidence, public awareness and pressure is speeding up and new chemicals are being scrutinised and challenged faster than before.

In the end, Smith and Lourie did not see a drastic change in the chemical levels of their blood after just one week of experimenting. The exception was mercury. Blood mercury levels can be raised to well above the “safe” level, they learned, by eating tuna for every meal. But there were still detectable changes for enough of the chemicals to cause concern.

After reading this book, I went through my lotions, soaps and shampoos to look for “fragrance” in the ingredients list – a red flag for phthalates — and found that almost all of them contained it. I bought a cast-iron pan and learned how to cook eggs properly, without a non-stick surface. In my own way, my behavioural change is contributing to the hopefulness of the book.

Debbie Lee holds a master of public policy degree from the University of Maryland.