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Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health [Paperback]

Rick Smith , Bruce Lourie
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Product Description

Quill & Quire

Science is full of stories about daring researchers who will go to almost any length to prove a point. When it is unethical, expensive, or just plain unfeasible to use animals or other people as test subjects, some intrepid souls have used their own bodies – sometimes with fatal results. Self-experimentation of the wiser kind frames Slow Death by Rubber Duck. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie voluntarily ate, drank, breathed, and absorbed commonly encountered toxins, then measured samples of their blood and urine for intake levels. Their brief adventures in planned self-toxification led Smith and Lourie, both Toronto-based environmental professionals, to conclude that “Pollution is now so pervasive that it’s become a marinade in which we bathe every day.” The duo’s experiments involved a brief period in which the “guinea pig” attempted to cleanse a specific toxin from his body, followed by steps to maximize its uptake. For example, to test for the highly neurotoxic element mercury, Lourie ate expensive tuna steaks and sushi several times a day for two days. His readings went off the charts. Other experiments involved such seemingly benign activities as sitting on upholstery (flame retardants) and using microwave popcorn bags (Teflon), soft plastic (bisphenol A), shampoo (phthalates), and anti-bacterial soap (triclosan). In most cases, with even brief exposure, their levels of toxicity rose significantly. The stunt science, if you will, may be the book’s key feature, but what really stands out is the solid writing. Though chock-full of Canadian and international statistics, the book never sounds preachy or dense. Considering how undeniably depressing their findings are, the authors manage to stay this side of apocalyptic without sounding flippant. Not only is the book scary, it’s hard to put down. The take-home message from this excellent volume is that we don’t have the luxury to wait for governments to impose limits on chemicals. It is up to us, as consumers, to stay informed, so that we stop being guinea pigs ourselves. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Indispensable and unputdownable, Smith and Lourie take our — and their — toxic temperature. As scary as it all is, the really surprising part is how easily we can start cleaning up our act."
— Ann-Marie MacDonald, author of The Way the Crow Flies and Fall On Your Knees

"Open this book and you'll never look at a rubber duck the same way again. . . . [Slow Death by Rubber Duck] goes beyond scare tactics to solutions that we can all apply to our daily lives."
Green Living"A fascinating and frightening read leavened by frequent references to pop culture — everything from Saturday Night Live episodes to quotes from Miss Marple — as well as the authors' brio in using their own bodies as test subjects. . . . Important and timely."
The Globe and Mail

"Alarming, engrossing, and just plain loony at times, their experiments drive home just how mundanely day-to-day our mass chemical poisoning has become."
— Adria Vasil, author of Ecoholic

From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

As Executive Director of Environmental Defence, Rick Smith is one of Canada’s leading environmentalists. Bruce Lourie is an environmental professional with expertise in toxic pollution and mercury. He is president of the Ivey Foundation. Sarah Dopp is a veteran grassroots organizer, political staffer and campaigner. They live in Toronto.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl.
–Dave Barry

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.

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.


Back-of-the-Envelope Planning
As I waited for Tony Clement’s announcement in that hotel basement, I was also thinking about writing this chapter. Clement’s press conference took place only a few weeks after my self-experimentation with BPA. So there I was, waiting for his speech to begin, getting distracted by wondering what my BPA results were going to look like.

Our BPA experiment was, truth be told, a bit of a pioneering venture. Sure, there’s been testing for BPA in the bloodstreams of people around the world. But no one has actually been dumb enough to try to seek out higher BPA levels through a variety of deliberate actions. With BPA – unlike phthalates, triclosan and mercury, where we had at least some scientific experiments to guide us – we were breaking completely new ground.

In designing the experiment I’d first called up the BPA guru himself, Dr. Fred vom Saal, to pick his brain. After laughing out loud when I told him my intentions, he started musing with me about how it could be done. I filled him in on what we already had in mind for the phthalates experiment: an initial period of “detox” to depress my phthalates levels, urine collection of this lowered level 24 hours later and then a second collection 24 hours after that, to see the effect of my phthalates exposure.

“Sounds okay,” vom Saal responded. “The BPA experiment will be similar, and you can probably do it at the same time. Because the half-life of a BPA molecule in the human body is relatively short, give yourself 18 to 24 hours to try to flush it from your system. The other thing you should do to get rid of the BPA in your system is to avoid showering. It’s in surface waters and you want to avoid inhaling the steam.”

No shower for two days? No problem, I thought. That’s more common on busy, kid-filled weekends than I care to admit.

“Then you should move into the deliberate exposure phase of the experiment. You’re going to want to eat foods that are as rich in BPA as possible. Canned foods are ideal.” Vom Saal told me he could help prepare a shopping list, based on the relative levels of BPA in different canned goods that he has measured. The makings for a Meal from Hell (as I came to call it).

Coffee Troubles
As I explained in Chapter 2, I decided to go two whole days eating food that had not come into contact with plastic, to try to depress levels of BPA and phthalates in my body. I won’t duplicate that explanation here, but let me tell you that the cruellest blow came when the no-plastics rule disrupted my daily coffee intake. My original plan was to forego my morning coffee from coffeemakers both at home and a...
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