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"Slow Death by Rubber Duck:" Everyday Chemicals Can Hurt, Even Kill Us

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Written by Miranda Spencer for RHRealityCheck.org - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

By now most of us have heard about the dangers of the hormone-mimicking chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), found in common items such as baby bottles and the lining of canned foods, and the international movement to ban it.

If those headlines have got you wondering about other connections between human health and toxics in the environment--and especially if they haven’t --Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things (Counterpoint Press) is the perfect primer on the topic.

By “the environment,” the authors -- Canadian environmentalists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie -- means not so much the visible pollution outside the home but invisible chemicals inside it.  The ones with unpronounceable names and funny acronyms like phthalates and PFOA, created by modern chemistry and placed in products – such as rubber duckies – to make them flexible, flameproof, fragrant, slippery, and/or germ-free.  As the book documents, these products and chemicals not only have become ubiquitous parts of our lives but are actually part of us, residing in our bloodstreams and possibly penetrating our DNA.  A growing body of research shows that even in infinitesimal amounts, these synthetic compounds are linked to a host of chronic health problems in kids and adults, from asthma and obesity to infertility and breast cancer.

But this sobering book is no bummer. Smith and Lourie heave created an ingenious work that’s simultaneously practical, comprehensive, accessible, hopeful, and humorous in a Grist magazine sort of way.

The book pivots on a bit of a gimmick: The authors, taking a leaf from Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me,” perform experiments in which they deliberately expose themselves to seven common toxics including pesticides, brominated fire retardants, and the (natural) element mercury, then compare the levels in their bodies before and after lab tests. Sure enough, their levels rise substantially. But unlike Spurlock, who ate every meal at Mickey D’s for a month, which most of us never do, Smith and Lourie engage in activities most Americans do everyday, such as eating tuna sandwiches, sitting on ScotchGuarded furniture, washing with antibacterial soaps, using shampoo, and cooking on Teflon pans.  Rick and Bruce R Us.

Importantly, each chapter presents a fascinating narrative outlining the scientific, sociocultural, and political history of one of the classes of chemicals in question. I found it particularly distressing to learn that the dangers of most of them have been known for years, and yet rather than discontinue manufacturing them, companies have a tendency to contrive new uses and marketing campaigns (pouring old poisons in new bottles, as it were).

Best of all, the book outlines both personal and professional actions readers can take to reduce our exposure to these substances and even help eliminate them from our bodies. The final chapters alone, offering detoxification advice and resources for further study and action, are worth the price of admission ($25, hardcover).  (I wish, though, they’d mentioned websites and companies that sell alternatives and substitutes for chemical-laden products, such as Debra’s List.)

Slow Death by Rubber Duck is of special interest to women because so many products --especially those used by and marketed to us, from beauty products to frying pans --hold particular harm from a reproductive angle. They tinker with our hormones, infiltrate our breast milk, and can affect the fetuses we may carry and any young children we already have. As the authors write, “Children are most at risk to the many serious ailments linked to toxic chemicals….their developing bodies cannot tolerate chemicals in the same way that adults' can.”

Considering that 82,000 chemicals are currently in use in the United States but “only 650 are monitored through the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory], only 200 have ever been tested for toxicity, and only five have been banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act,” the old saw “Buyer Beware” is an understatement.   But thanks to concerted activism, a movement to tighten regulations (such as the introduction by Sen. Dianne Feinstein last year of the Ban Poisonous Additives Act of 2009 ) and ultimately eliminate such substances is going full steam.  After reading this book, you’ll want to jump on that train.  Or at the very least, grab that “rubber” duckie out of Junior’s mouth.