Slow Death by Rubber Duck
How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health
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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.
Funny, thought-provoking, and incredibly disturbing, Slow Death by Rubber Duck reveals that just the living of daily life creates a chemical soup inside each of us.
Pollution is no longer just about belching smokestacks and ugly sewer pipes - now, it's personal.
The most dangerous pollution has always come from commonplace items in our homes and workplaces. Smith and Lourie ingested and inhaled a host of things that surround all of us all the time. This book exposes the extent to which we are poisoned every day of our lives. For this book, over the period of a week - the kind of week that would be familiar to most people - the authors use their own bodies as the reference point and tell the story of pollution in our modern world, the miscreant corporate giants who manufacture the toxins, the weak-kneed government officials who let it happen, and the effects on people and families across the globe. Parents and concerned citizens will have to read this book.
Key concerns raised in Slow Death by Rubber Duck:
• Flame-retardant chemicals from electronics and household dust polluting our blood.
• Toxins in our urine caused by leaching from plastics and run-of-the-mill shampoos, toothpastes and deodorant.
• Mercury in our blood from eating tuna.
• The chemicals that build up in our body when carpets and upholstery off-gas.
Ultimately hopeful, the book empowers readers with some simple ideas for protecting themselves and their families, and changing things for the better.
From the Hardcover edition.
; April 2010
ISBN 9780307374011Read online
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Title: Slow Death by Rubber Duck
Author: Rick Smith; Bruce Lourie
The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl.
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.
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).
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 at work. They’re standard drip machines and are both made largely from plastic. Instead, what I thought I’d do was to load up on double Americanos – made fresh in a giant, expensive, stainless-steel cappuccino machine – from my favourite café on Queen Street near where I live in Toronto.
I’m in the place enough that the owner knows me, and I asked him to show me how he made my coffee – from the moment the beans came in the door of the café to the minute the cup hit my lips. I followed him around the tiny shop. First the beans arrived in bags. Then the bags are poured into the bean grinders, which look like classic grocery store bubble-gum machines – storage “tank” for the beans up top, grinder on the bottom.
Problem #1: The storage “tank,” where the beans can sit for hours on end, is made of polycarbonate.
Next the beans are drained down into the grinder.
Problem #2: The receptacle that catches the crushed beans is made of polycarbonate.
From here on in, as the grounds are packed into the filter and transferred to the cappuccino machine, the beans seem to contact only metal before the beverage is poured into the paper cup. But the possibility of some serious BPA contamination was there in the grinding process.
I felt snookered. Grumpier by the second, I muddled through until the early afternoon, unclear as to how I was going to satisfy my caffeine addiction. I was saved only when our project coordinator, Sarah, came up with the idea of using a glass Bodum-style French press coffeemaker. One problem solved.
The one-litre jug of urine quickly filled up in the fridge.
Enriched with Delicious BPA
During our time in the condo test room, there’s no question that Bruce ate better than I did. While he was chowing down on expensive, tasty, mercury-laden tuna steaks, I was slurping up more pedestrian fare. You can see the details in Chapter 1, but in a nutshell I ate nothing for a day and a half but canned foods heated in a polycarbonate Rubbermaid container in the micro-wave. Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, canned pineapple, Heinz spaghetti and leftover tuna casserole (not quite as good as my wife, Jen’s, but not bad) cooked by Sarah with a variety of canned ingredients were the highlights. I drank a few Cokes (the cans are lined with BPA), and made my coffee in a polycarbonate French press coffeemaker purchased at Starbucks. I then drank my coffee from an old Avent polycarbonate baby bottle that Jen and I had used with our eldest son, Zack.
“Aha!” I can hear the supporters of bisphenol A crowing. “He drank his coffee out of an old baby bottle. Who does that? Smith broke his own cardinal rule of experimentation by doing something abnormal.”
Not true. Most parents I know who use polycarbonate baby bottles heat them in the microwave. The hot coffee drunk from the bottle mimics the warm milk that babies receive. Also, until recently, the Starbucks near me sold a wide variety of polycarbonate travel mugs. Drinking coffee from a polycarbonate bottle is well within the bounds of normal.
So what was the outcome of this strange diet? I increased my BPA levels more than sevenfold from before exposure to after exposure. In addition to the 24-hour samples, I took three “spot” samples throughout the two-day test period. These show my BPA levels at a moment in time and, as you might expect, show a dramatic spike in BPA levels and then a decrease as my body gradually rid itself of the toxin.
“Holy mackerel!” were Fred vom Saal’s first words when I sent him the numbers. He zeroed right in on the implications for babies. “This is really scary. . . . The implications of you eating canned products and drinking out of polycarbonate the way a baby would do, and as an adult increasing the amount of BPA in your body by more than sevenfold through this procedure, are very concerning. . . . Babies are essentially doing all day, every day, what you did for one day.”
Vom Saal explained that babies have a very different metabolism than adults and that the rate at which they are able to flush the BPA out of their systems and into their urine is much slower. This means that in addition to receiving high levels of BPA in 100 per cent of their food (formula from BPA-leaching cans delivered in polycarbonate bottles warmed in the microwave), any given hormone-mimicking BPA molecule is bound to stick around in a little baby body much longer than in my six-foot-six frame.
“Remarkable,” said Pete Myers. “You managed to pull yourself from just below the median BPA level for the U.S. to way on top of the curve by these manipulations. But interestingly, the low levels are still reflecting some exposure and the question is: Where is that coming from?”
It turns out that since the last time Myers and I had chatted, some new potential sources of BPA exposure in everyday life had surfaced – sources that I hadn’t been aware of during my attempted experimental “detox.” 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. When I asked vom Saal about this, he agreed that contact with recycled paper could be a significant source of BPA: “When you buy a pizza, for instance, it comes in a recycled cardboard box.”
I didn’t eat pizza during my testing period, but I certainly handled a few newspapers and cash register receipts from the St. Lawrence Market and while I was running other weekend errands. Although I showed it’s possible to reduce BPA levels in the body, it’s just not possible (unfortunately!) at the moment to eliminate BPA completely and carry on a normal life without it.
Jerry Garcia Was Right
As usual, Jerry Garcia nailed it when he sang: “That’s right, the women are smarter.” If the beginning of the end for bisphenol A isn’t a tribute to the power of concerned mothers, I don’t know what is. Regardless of the excellence and persistence of Martin Mittelstaedt’s reporting on the issue, the huge and escalating public concern over BPA in Canada can’t be explained by stories in the traditional media alone. Within a few short weeks in the fall of 2007, it felt as if public opinion completely flipped. All of a sudden so many people had heard of bisphenol A and had an opinion. What happened?
The answer, I think, lies in the blogosphere (the vast collection of interlinked personal websites that feature regular entries of commentary) and in the rapid growth of Facebook and other social networking sites. Unlike any other issue I’ve worked on before, if you Google “bisphenol A,” the vast majority of the bazillion hits you get are messages exchanged between individuals. People talking to one another online. From comments aimed at companies urging them to stop using BPA to messages to governments urging them to ban BPA to questions about the specific ingredients in everyday items, the blogosphere is abuzz about BPA.
“Please remove these harmful chemicals! Give all kids a better chance to grow up healthy and strong.”
“You can ask your child’s daycare centre to become BPA free and to implore their suppliers to do the same. All the info plus sample letters can be found here.”
“I can tomatoes from our garden, are canning lids safe? Or would they be coated as a can would?”
“We blogged it on Blog Action day. We signed the petition. We closed our eyes really tightly and tapped our shoes together three times. But it hasn’t gone away yet. Bisphenol A is still all around us . . . including in baby bottles. The battle continues to be waged and we can be part of the front lines.”
The mission of one of the blogs, LeagueofMaternalJustice.com (the home page of which is festooned with superheroine graphics) is “to use the power of the mom internet community to expose the injustices perpetrated against mothers everywhere and to exact vengeance through aggressive finger-wagging and online shaming.”
You don’t want to be running afoul of that, I tell ya.
BPA and Me
As you can probably tell, I take BPA personally. It’s hard not to when I look at my two fantastic little boys and remember that Zack was raised on an Avent BPA bottle and sippy cup because Jen and I didn’t know any better and Owain was not. I worry about the effects of Zack ingesting all that BPA. And the more I learn about this substance, the more my worries grow.
As my father is fond of reminding me, I’m also personally responsible for polluting him with BPA over the past decade. “Do you think it’s responsible for my hair loss?” he once asked me with a wink. My dad is an avid canoe tripper. And sometime in the early 1990s, at Christmas I think it was, I replaced all his beat-up stainless-steel and aluminum camping plates, bowls, mugs and utensils with a matching, brand-spanking-new polycarbonate set. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
And that’s the problem with having all these ill-understood chemicals in everyday products. You shouldn’t have to be a chemical engineer to shop for your dad for Christmas or to supply your child’s baby needs. What we’ve seen with bisphenol A in North America in the last year is many parents waking up to the fact that their governments are not doing enough to protect their children’s health. And together, more quickly than anyone imagined, they are working to do something about it.
In North America, the term “soccer mom” was coined in the 1990s to describe a demographic of middle-class women who spend a significant amount of time transporting their kids to activities like soccer practice. Politicians and marketers were particularly anxious to reach them because they’re an influential group that has considerable disposable income and votes in large numbers.
The significance of the BPA debate is that the soccer moms and the slightly younger parents, let’s call them the “sippy cup moms,” started biting back. The founder of SafeMama.com explains it this way: “I am a mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old little boy, a working mom, an author and woman of many trades. I found it completely overwhelming spending so much time researching safety issues for my child. I spent hours looking up bisphenol A or looking for the latest toy recalls. I had an ‘a-ha’ moment and thought that I must not be the only parent scouring the Internet for information about things that affect our children. So I started this website to keep it all in one place.” SafeMama.com, together with other blogs like MomsRising.org (co-founded by Joan Blades, she of MoveOn.org fame), mobilized over a hundred thousand letters to Congress in support of the Children’s Safe Products Act, which was passed as I was writing this chapter in August 2008.
The power of moms clearly had an impact on the Canadian Conservatives. The very first thing that Conservative Environment Minister John Baird mentioned when I asked him why his government had moved against BPA was this: “I had two mothers come up to me sometime last year in a grocery store to raise this issue with me. You can see that while you have large issues like climate change, like smog, this is an in-your-face, frontline environmental concern for Canadian families.”
And what companies are only beginning to understand is that this new parental community can damage or benefit brands. As one blogger put it, “the word is out – none of my friends will buy these products, nor will I. These companies risk their reputations and their profits. Mothers are networked together around the country. If they don’t change – they’ll see it in their bottom line.”
The final word goes to Agatha Christie. Because, well, Miss Marple is a fount of knowledge about human nature: “A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity; it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
"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.
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