Excerpt – Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

An excerpt of Slow Death by Rubber Duck from Globe and Mail

By Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

The book that you’re holding is downright hopeful.

Now this may seem counterintuitive, given that the word “death” appears in the title and the book describes a great many toxic chemicals that are screwing up our bodies in myriad ways. There is that. And getting all Pollyanna-ish is certainly premature.

But things can change. Sometimes very quickly and for the better.

As we wrote this book, we had to run hard just to keep up, as governments the world over complicated our writing with a European ban on noxious flame-retardant chemicals in televisions, Canadian legislative changes to put the kibosh on toxic baby bottles and, after a prolonged drought, a new U.S. law (signed by George Bush, no less) restricting hormone-mimicking ingredients in the plastic of children’s toys. That’s a lot of action in six months.

And as we started to catch the first glimmers of our elected leaders getting their collective act together, many people began systematically purging their homes of suspect consumer products to make way for safer alternatives.

The tide has started to turn. With surging public awareness quickly pushing the issue of toxic chemicals up the societal priority list, we set out to design something that would contribute, in some small way, to this awakening.

This is more than a book. It’s kind of a big, unprecedented, adult science fair project. In the tradition of Super Size Me and Michael Moore, we investigated by doing. It’s an unorthodox (“cuckoo,” in the words of some of our loved ones) and very personal examination of the chemicals in our own bodies and the lives of our families. Along the way we’ve confronted the companies that made the chemicals, interviewed the government regulators who looked the other way while problems mounted and met the scientists and community organizers who are making a difference.

In our day jobs we’re long-standing environmental advocates in Canada. We toil away in the trenches, trying to secure better government policy to protect the environment and human health. The idea for this book came out of that work, and specifically from Environmental Defence Canada’s Toxic Nation project, a campaign to expose the dangers of pollution through testing Canadians for measurable levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies.

A New Kind of Pollution

Far from being the rock or island in the Simon and Garfunkel song, it turns out that the best metaphor to describe the human body is “sponge.” We’re permeable. We’re absorbent. And Toxic Nation tries to measure the nasty things the human sponge has soaked up. Like efforts in the United States and Europe, the Toxic Nation project applies scientific testing techniques – previously restricted to the pages of obscure scientific journals – to the raging public debate about what pollutants we are exposed to, in what amounts and from which sources – and tells us what we can do about it. Since 2005 Environmental Defence Canada has tested the blood and urine of more than 40 Canadians for over 130 pollutants. People from all walks of life. Of all ages. Men, women and kids from different parts of the country and different ethnic backgrounds. They all turned out to be polluted to some degree.

As we chatted about the implications of these findings with the test volunteers, the media covering the story and the members of the public who took notice, it became clear that the whole concept of “pollution” that we carry around in our heads needed updating.

Belching smokestacks. Sewer outfalls. Car exhaust. For most people these are the first images that come to mind when the word “pollution” is mentioned. It’s still seen as an external concern. Something floating around in the air or in the nearest lake. Out there. Something that can still be avoided.

“ We have all become guinea pigs in a vast and uncontrolled experiment ”

As our Toxic Nation testing makes clear, however, the reality is quite different. Pollution is now so pervasive that it’s become a marinade in which we all bathe every day. Pollution is actually inside us all. It’s seeped into our bodies. And in many cases, once in, it’s impossible to get out.

Baby bottles. Deodorants. A favourite overstuffed sofa. These items, so familiar and apparently harmless, are now sources of pollution at least as serious as the more industrial-grade varieties described above. The market-leading baby bottles in North America are made of polycarbonate plastic, and they leach bisphenol A, a known hormone disruptor, into their contents. Deodorants – and nearly every other common product in the bathroom – can contain phthalates (pronounced “tha-lates”), which have been linked to a number of serious reproductive problems. Phthalates are also a common ingredient of vinyl children’s toys. Sofas and other upholstered products contain brominated flame retardants and are coated with stain-repellent chemicals, both of which increase the risk of cancer and are absorbed by anyone sitting on a sofa or chair to watch Friday night TV.

We found all of these chemicals, and many more, in the bodies of the Canadians we tested.

The truth of the matter is that toxic chemicals are now found at low levels in countless applications, in everything from personal-care products and cooking pots and pans to electronics, furniture, clothing, building materials and children’s toys. They make their way into our bodies through our food, air and water. From the moment we get up from a good night’s sleep under wrinkle-resistant sheets (which are treated with the known carcinogen formaldehyde) to the time we go to bed at night after a snack of microwave popcorn (the interior of the bag being coated with an indestructible chemical that builds up in our bodies), pollution surrounds us.

Far from escaping it when we shut our front door at night, we’ve unwittingly welcomed these toxins into our homes in countless ways. In a particularly graphic example, it’s been estimated that by the time the average woman grabs her morning coffee, she has applied 126 different chemicals in 12 different products to her face, body and hair.

And the result? Not surprisingly, a large and growing body of scientific research links exposure to toxic chemicals to many ailments that plague people, including several forms of cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

We have all become guinea pigs in a vast and uncontrolled experiment.

At this moment in history, the image conjured up by the word “pollution” is just as properly an innocent rubber duck as it is a giant smoke stack. The first chapter of this book makes this case by giving a whirlwind history of pollution and examining how humanity’s ability to poison itself has changed from a local, highly visible and acute phenomenon to a global, largely invisible and chronic threat. A threat very often coming from everyday household products.

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