Slow Death by Rubber Duck – Book Review

Back in early March, I told you about the dangers of eating microwave popcorn, because of a chemical called PFOA. And earlier this month, I told you that the Government of Canada had declared a chemical called triclosan toxic to the environment. Both of these chemicals are things we come into contact with on a regular basis in our daily lives. To find out just how much we’re affected by these and other household chemicals, authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie locked themselves in a chemical-laden apartment for a weekend. They tested themselves before and after the experiment, and the results were published in a terrific book called Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.

You might think of it as the Super Size Me of chemicals. In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds for a month to see what would happen to him. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie are not documentary filmmakers – in fact, they’re anything but. Both are among the leaders of the Canadian environmentalist movement – Rick Smith is the director of Environmental Defence, which has spearheaded some of the biggest pro-environmental policy changes in Canada in the last decade. You might remember them from their Toxic Nation campaign, in which they tested the blood of a bunch of Canada’s major political heavyweights for a large suite of toxins, all of which they eventually found.

But given that campaign, it came as no surprise to me that they put their own bodies to the test. For their experiment, they exposed themselves to the following chemicals:

  • Phthalates – A huge class of chemicals found mostly in plastics (used to keep certain plastics soft and rubbery) and personal care products (frequently used to provide products with a particular scent). Pthalates also disrupt hormone levels in the human body.
  • Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) – Another range of chemicals, but PFOA and PFOS are the most common. Could be found in anything containing Teflon or any product with some kind of no-stick surface. Also potentially found in microwave popcorn. PFOA is a likely human carcinogen.
  • Mercury – We’ve all heard the warning – pregnant women and children should not eat too much of certain types of fish, like tuna, because they can contain potentially harmful levels of mercury. Mercury affects the nervous system and can lead to neurological disorders.
  • Triclosan – Triclosan is found in just about anything with the ‘antibacterial’ or ‘antimicrobial’. Common everyday products, that many of us have in our homes – Colgate Total toothpaste, Gillette shaving gel, Right Guard deodorant, Dawn dishsoap, etc – contain triclosan. And earlier this month, the Governement of Canada declared triclosan toxic to the environment.
  • Bisphenol-A (BPA) – Most people have heard of BPA – it was the centre of controversy a few years ago over its inclusion in just about every plastic water bottle on the market. Though its no longer commonly used in water bottles, its still found in just about all hard plastic materials, and its a known hormone disrupter.
They also measured their blood levels of the following chemicals, without actually intentionally exposing themselves.
  • Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) – PBDEs have one interesting property that makes them very useful – they prevent fire. As a result, they get used in a huge variety of products as flame retardants, everything from curtains to children’s pajamas. Like phthalates though, they are also suspected of disrupting hormone levels in the human body.
  • Pesticides – The authors looked for a number of commonly used pesticides in their blood, many of which have nasty health effects.

The results are astounding. In every case, Rick and Bruce had detectable levels of all of the above chemicals in their body, even before exposing themselves. And these are guys who try to avoid these chemicals as much as possible in their lives. They then exposed themselves by doing normal, everyday things over a two-day period – brushing their teeth with triclosan-containing toothpaste, eating a mercury-containing tuna sandwich as a meal, showering with phthalate-laced shampoo, etc. They measured their blood or urine levels after two days, and with the exception of PFCs, in every case, their levels went way up. In many cases, their levels after the experiment were not out of whack with the average levels found in typical Canadians. These chemicals are in all of us, and that’s not a good thing.

The authors give good background on each of the chemicals, they talk about how you might be exposed, what the effects might be, and how you can avoid exposure. And they do it all with a humorous tone that will leave you laughing out loud. One story that always sticks with me is what Rick Smith called the ketchup dilemma. He found himself one late night at the grocery store staring at the shelf in the ketchup aisle, faced with three options – the plastic, phthalate containing bottle of organic, pesticide-free ketchup; the plastic, phthalate containing bottle of local, likely-pesticide-low ketchup; and the glass, phthalate-free bottle of Heinz, likely laced with pesticides ketchup. Which enemy is worse – the phthalates or the pesticides? These are the choices that we, as consumers, are faced with today.

Readers, I highly recommend Slow Death by Rubber Duck and I urge everyone to find a copy of it so you can learn more about your everyday exposure to chemicals, and what you can do to help yourself.

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4 thoughts on “Slow Death by Rubber Duck – Book Review

  1. I’m scared to read this book because I might question everything I eat and become more of a germ-a-phobe than I already am. And eating microwave popcorn is bad? Good thing I like to cook it the old fashioned way.

  2. I’m concerned about the chemicals in lotion. A lot of attention has been placed on what we eat. But what we put on our bodies (that’s absorbed through our skin) hasn’t received as much attention. I’ve been thinking of switching to 100% Shea butter to moisturize my skin.

    • You’re absolutely right, the chemicals in the cosmetic products we use can be just as damaging to us as the chemicals in the foods we eat. See if you can find fair-trade shea butter when you do buy it 🙂

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