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Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie (2010)
There’s no escape from pollution. Today’s most serious toxins lurk in the most private recesses of our homes. The places where we—erroneously, it turns out—feel the safest.
Pollution today is global and highly invisible, with effects that are often chronic and long-term. Good or bad, our choices as consumers have a profound effect on the pollution levels in our bodies.
Slow Death By Rubber Duck is “a big, unprecedented, adult science fair project,” in which Canadians Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie investigate-by-doing. Smith and Lourie spent four days exposing themselves to a number of pollutants by doing everyday activities, using only commonplace items and food. They then summarized their findings and experiences in this timely book, released in paperback in 2010.
The book is extensively researched and takes a more scientific angle than many of its recent eco book counterparts. Despite its in-depth scientific research, however, the book is still incredibly readable and even quite humourous at times.
The self-experiment focused on seven toxic chemicals:
- phthalates [children’s toys],
- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) [Teflon],
- polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) [flame retardants],
- mercury [fluorescent lights],
- triclosan [antimicrobial soaps],
- 2,4 – D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) [synthetic chemical herbicide], and
- bisphenol A (BPA)[plastics].
The human body is a “permeable sponge” that can’t help but soak up these man-made chemicals.
Phthalates, often hidden on labels as “fragrance” or “parfum”, are used to keep substances like vinyl and rubbers soft. Phthalates can lead to cancers and birth defects, and are associated with demasculinization in men. There is some good news, though: phthalates break down in the body and don’t seem to bioaccumulate.
More good news since (and, perhaps, as a result of) the book’s publication: In January 2011, Canada’s Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, announced restrictions on phthalates in children’s toys and products in Canada. Regulators are starting to pay attention.
Teflon, or PFOA, known as the “world’s slipperiest substance,” is incredibly persistent in the environment and can lead to a multitude of issues, such as birth defects and hormone disruption. Smith and Lourie focus a section of the book on DuPont, the sole manufacturer of PFOA in the United States, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, “the town that Teflon built.” The issues associated with Teflon are further illustrated by true-to-life case studies, lawsuits and trials.
The book also focuses on antimicrobial and antibacterial products, such as triclosan. These unnecessary chemicals are clogging up waterways and leading to an “over-triclosanitization of the planet.” Triclosan bioaccumulates in human bodies and has been shown to interfere with thyroid and endocrine activity. The authors suggest plain soap as a safer alternative.
Smith and Lourie don’t simply tell readers what not to do—there is an extensive final chapter with a number of helpful action items and detoxification tips, such as the following:
- unplug air fresheners;
- avoid non-stick pans;
- choose natural fibres (wool, hemp);
- eat fewer big fish and more smaller fish; and
- wash hands the “old-fashioned” way, with a good 30-second lather of plain soap and water (avoiding products labeled antimicrobial or antibacterial).
There is also a reading resource guide at the back of the book, organized by pollutant.
The authors’ overall goal is not to depress readers, but to educate and empower consumers to make smart product choices. “Once people realize they’re immersed in pollution, it’s a fine line between motivating them to action and having them lapse into a kind of pollution nihilism.”
The authors have made it clear that there is hope for the future. Life doesn’t have to be one big toxic chemical experiment.