Slow Death by Rubber Duck
When friends and family ask, “What are you reading?” they can pretty much expect my answer isn’t going to be a mystery or a romance or even an engaging novel (though I do miss great novels), at least these days. So, when my sister-in-law, Judy, and I discussed books the other day, she probably had a pretty good idea of what she was in for.
When I said I’m reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, at first she laughed — it sounds like a lighthearted title or maybe a bizarre mystery where the victim dies from having a rubber duck stuffed down his throat.
“No,” I said, responding to her quizzical look. “It’s not a mystery. It’s about the toxic chemicals found in all sorts of items we come into contact with each day — including toy rubber ducks.” That got her attention; Judy has grandchildren, one of whom is just six months old. The full title of the book is Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. (Titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health in Canada.) Not exactly a bodice ripper, legal thriller, or gumshoe tale.
Taking Risks in the Name of Science
The information in Slow Death by Rubber Duck doesn’t make for relaxing reading, even though the authors, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, do a masterful job of translating statistics and technical data (sometimes very technical) into highly readable prose. The problem is, the book is about a very unsettling topic.
When I first received my review copy and read the introduction, I was struck by the experiment that forms the basis for the book: The authors voluntarily and quite deliberately exposed themselves to toxic chemicals — lots of them.
Now, why would these men risk their health by loading their bodies with toxins? Isn’t that irresponsible? I wondered. It sounded so dangerous. And, from the way they tell it, their families were none too thrilled by their participation, either.
How They Did It
The scary thing is, the test the authors ran on themselves, the one in which levels of toxins in their blood and urine shot up (“from 64 to 1,410 nanograms per millilitre” of urine for monoethyl phthalate [MEP], for example), involved ordinary exposure to regular household items. They didn’t do anything extraordinary, other than to purposely select products they knew contained high levels of toxins.
The authors tried to stay away from products containing the chemicals and metals in question before immersing themselves in products heavily laden with toxins.
Bruce avoided eating fish for one month before the tests, and Rick tried to steer clear of phthalates, bisphenol A and triclosan for 2 days [48 hours] prior to the tests. We measured any increases or decreases by methodically taking blood and urine samples before and after performing our planned activities.
It wasn’t easy to eliminate phthalates and Bisphenol A, as Rick recounts: “This is a lot harder than it sounds. Try it. I dare you.” Because he couldn’t be sure which plastics contain these chemicals, he decided to avoid plastics completely. “I sort of knew it already, but once you start carefully keeping track, it really hits you: plastic has taken over our lives…. I started to realize that virtually everything … with a few notable exceptions … are [sic] covered in plastic.”
To control their exposure to the chemicals they were testing, the men spent two 12-hour days together in Bruce’s condo in their “test room”:
About 10 by 12 1/2 feet, the room was much like any bedroom, TV room or home office in any apartment across North America.
Mimicking Real Life
Looking at their test schedule, I’m struck by how ordinary their testing days were. The only thing that seems at all unusual (to me, a recently converted vegetarian) is that they ate a large amount of fish during the two days. (Fish is a staple in many people’s diets, of course, so I’m the odd one out here.)
Otherwise, the two Canadian environmentalists do mundane activities like drink Earl Grey tea, “drink coffee brewed in a polycarbonate French press,” have a carpet company come “to protect/STAIN-MASTER the test-room carpet & couch,” use antibacterial soap, microwave chicken noodle soup & canned spaghetti “in Rubbermaid microwavable containers,” wash dishes, use lotion, brush their teeth and wash their hands, and so on. Nothing really out of the ordinary at all. In fact, they write, “We set only one ironclad rule: Our efforts had to mimic real life….”
As we started consulting experts and poring over scientific studies, it frequently felt as if we were assembling a giant puzzle. the critical pieces that needed fitting together were a list of chemicals for which there was mounting human health concern, a good sense of daily activities that might expose the average person to these chemicals and the outline of an experiment that would reveal whether these daily activities measurably affect the levels of the chemical in question in our bodies.
The authors alternate writing the chapters, each one chronicling his own chemical exposure and test results.
In Chapter 2, “Rubber Duck Wars,” I found it touching to read Rick’s worries about the phthalates his own small sons are consuming as he writes about the ubiquitous chemical and how impossible it seems to avoid it.
He has very real concerns, as Dr. Ted Schettler, the Science Director at the Science and Environmental Health Network, tells him —
“The child is going to encounter the same environment as an adult but in a different way. They’re going to be playing and moving around in it in a different way and putting their fingers in their mouths much more frequently than you are. They’re going to be more intimately in contact with their physical environment than adults are, and this will be reflected in their level of exposure.”
In other words, by virtue of being closer to the dust bunnies, licking their fingers relentlessly and chewing on phthalate-containing items that they shouldn’t be putting in their mouths, my kids are sucking in more of this stuff than I am.
And so are everyone else’s kids.
In Chapter 3, “The World’s Slipperiest Substance,” Bruce writes about perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a major chemical ingredient in Teflon, Silverstone, and Capstone, non-stick coatings for cookware. PFOA “is considered by many scientists to be toxic and to cause birth defects, developmental problems, hormone disruption and high cholesterol. The EPA has labelled it a ‘likely carcinogen,’ and it’s now found in every corner of the globe,” he writes.
To no one’s great surprise, PFOA is also found in drinking water in the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Teflon is manufactured. Bruce writes of the class action lawsuit filed by some of the town’s residents against DuPont, the sole manufacturer of PFOA. It’s an intriguing story, and about as close to a legal thriller as the book gets.
Parkersburg is at the center of the PFOA story. We can all likely think of more than enough examples of people being polluted by the chemical factory or toxic waste dump ‘next door’. And this is one of the dimensions of the Parkersburg experience. But the tale of Parkersburg may be the first environmental-disaster story in which a small town is also responsible for contaminating the entire world and almost every living thing in it.
“It turns out that DuPont knew of health risks associated with PFOA as far back as 1961,” Bruce writes, though the company wouldn’t admit to it when sued in 2001. This chapter alone makes the corporation seem to be out for profit at any cost, and damn the consumer. ” ‘They knew [PFOA] was in the water, they knew it caused deformities, they knew of the problem and they knew how to solve it,’ ” said Joe Kiger, the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against DuPont.
But there was one surprising result. The authors tried to raise their own levels of PFOA during their experiment, but two days of exposure to what they believed to be Teflon Advanced stain protectant on the test room’s furniture didn’t do the trick. Why not? They later learned that the buildup of PFOA in the blood takes time. Still, they, like just about every other living thing on this planet, already had some levels of PFOA in their bloodstream.
I don’t want to spoil the read by giving you a blow-by-blow account of every chapter. And, I really couldn’t, because there’s just so much information woven into each one. But here’s a taste of what you’ll find if you give it a read (and I recommend that you do, whether or not you have kids or grandkids).
In Chapter 4, “The New PCBs,” Rick learns about flame-retardant clothing and “brominated flame retardants, a family of compounds that seems to be repeating the nasty history of PCBs.” Again, Rick uses his own small children’s clothing as an example of the dangerous toxins we unthinkingly expose our little ones to.
Chapter 5, “Quicksilver, Slow Death,” explains how all that fish Bruce ate quickly elevated his blood mercury level. “After seven meals/snacks in three days, I had managed to more than double the mercury levels in my blood! Almost two and a half times, in fact…. After reading these results, I got a firsthand understanding of how communities that depend on fish in their diets can quietly poison themselves.”
Chapter 6, “Germophobia,” Rick explains that the chemical triclosan, which was originally used only in hospitals, is now ubiquitous. You can’t get away from “antibacterial” products. And even if you want to, you’ll find that many people around you are trying to use more and more of them.
The Environmental Working Group has found the chemical in household items as disparate as liquid hand soap, toothpaste, underwear, towels, mattresses, sponges, shower curtains, phones, flooring, cutting boards, fabric and children’s toys. One hundred and forty kinds of consumer products in all.
He goes on to say that, by 2007, the Canadian government had “registered 1,200 brands of cosmetics containing triclosan.”
We all should. According to Stuart Levy, Director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University, “wide-scale antimicrobial misuse and related drug resistance is challenging infectious disease treatment and health care budgets worldwide.”
The (Im)Perfect Lawn
And then there’s Chapter 7: “Risky Business: 2,4-D and the Sound of Science.” Here we meet up with pesticides and herbicides. We learn about the health effects of DDT, long-since banned, but still present in our environment, it contributes to both testicular and breast cancers.
And let’s not forget the herbicide named in the chapter title. 2,4-D is used to “beautify” lawns (a matter of opinion), but it’s been banned in some parts of Canada:
Like many pesticides 2,4-D is associated with a number of potentially serious health hazards for humans. In fact, the list of known or suspected health effects reads like an inventory of the worst possible things that could happen to a human…. non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a form of blood cancer), neurological impairment, asthma, immune system suppression, reproductive problems and birth defects….
[I]n a subsample of the U.S. population between the ages of 6 and 59… one-quarter of Americans who had their blood tested in 2001 or 2001 has detectable levels of 2.4-D in their bodies.
So why isn’t 2,4-D banned everywhere?
Danger Lurking in Sippy Cups
In Chapter 8: “Mothers Know Best,” Rick talks about the power of moms to persuade the Canadian government to ban bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that’s frequently found in children’s toys, baby bottles, and sippy cups. It’s also found in the lining of food cans, in microwaveable containers, and in plastic thermal mugs, among a whole lot of other things.
Rick describes his diet and the containers he used for cooking and eating. It’s not much different from most people who haven’t gone organic and natural — the majority of North Americans, I’d wager: lots of canned food and a couple of Cokes (there’s BPA lining the cans). He made coffee in a polycarbonate French press he purchased at Starbucks, drank it from a child’s plastic bottle, and microwaved his food in a Rubbermaid microwaveable container.
And the result? His BPA levels shot up “more than sevenfold from before exposure to after exposure.”
But there was also BPA in his blood even after trying to detox before the test. I was amazed to learn some of the sources, as was Rick.
So-called “carbonless” paper—the very white, glossy, coated paper that most cash register receipts are printed on these days—has very high levels of BPA. High enough levels that absorption of BPA through the skin on the fingers is likely an increasing source in daily life. printers ink used in newspapers also contains BPA. Because these high-BPA-content papers end up in the recycling bin in many places, levels of BPA in recycled paper are generally extremely high.
Maybe you’d like to know why BPA is such a bad thing to have in your blood. It’s a hormone disruptor that has potentially disastrous effects. In 2005 —
the U.S. National Toxicology Program … raised concerns regarding BPA’s links to early puberty, breast cancer, prostate effects and behavioural problems and highlighted that pregnancy and early life are especially sensitive periods, given higher exposure to the chemical and limited ability to metabolize it.
Remember, BPA is in baby bottles and sippy cups! As I checked on line to find out if the U.S. has followed Canada and the E.U. in banning BPA, I’ve found mention of two bills being “introduced” in the House of Representatives in March 2009. Their intent was to ban BPA in food and beverage containers in the U.S. But I haven’t seen anything that says either bill has been passed. What are we waiting for?
Still, There’s Hope
There’s so much that’s worth reading in Slow Death by Rubber Duck. And it’s not all depressing, despite what I’ve written above. I’ll leave you with a short excerpt from Chapter 9: “Detox.”
It would be easy, given the daunting nature of the toxic dilemma we’ve laid out, to be either paralyzed into inaction or driven to distraction with anxiety or both. But there’s no need for this. We’re trying to instill some concern, not worry. As we outline in this chapter, there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your family. And many that will start to take effect almost immediately.
So buy the book. Learn about the perils of the chemicals discussed in it, then find out what you can do to make your home — and your family’s — a safer, healthier place to live. The book cover lists the price at U.S. $25, and, in my opinion, it’s worth every dime.
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