Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books
Science + Tech

'Slow Death by Rubber Duck'

Co-author Bruce Lourie on the chemical 'marinade' we share, his experiment in self-poisoning, and more.

By Colleen Kimmett 21 May 2009 |

Colleen Kimmett writes about environmental and sustainability issues for The Tyee and others.

image atom
Fear of floating phthalates
  • Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health
  • Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
  • Knopf Canada (2009)

Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith take toxic chemicals personally -- very personally.

While researching their new book, Slow Death By Rubber Duck, they consciously exposed themselves to everyday products (food, cleaners, soap and shampoos) and measured the levels of chemicals that leached into their urine and blood as a result. Known toxins like mercury, phthalates, and PBDE's (flame retardants) all increased, some dramatically.

The point was not to make themselves sick on air fresheners or microwave popcorn. Instead, they wanted to show how quickly these chemicals accumulate in the human body. And with what we know for certain about how some chemicals affect our long-term health, why take risk using any of them?

Knowing further that the benefits of many of these chemicals are questionable, and that alternatives exist, it's hard to read this book without feeling angry at the corporations that make them, and the government agencies that are supposed to protect us. In 2005, DuPont (manufacturers of Telfon) agreed to a possible $340 million settlement to the citizens of Parkersburg, West Virginia, for poisoning the town's water supply with a carcinogen called perfluorooctane sulpohonate (PFOS). That sum is about one-tenth of DuPont's after-tax profit in any given year.

More recently in the U.S., there were reports on how industry lobbyists influence the FDA.

Like it or not, we are all guinea pigs in a grand experiment on how chemicals affect our bodies.

Lourie, an environmental consultant and president of the Ivey Foundation, insists there is hope. The pervasive nature of invisible, toxic chemicals was thrust into the public spotlight last fall when the federal government announced it would draft legislation to ban baby bottles that contain bisphenol A. Although there is still uncertainty about the health effects of the chemical, the message was that extra precaution is necessary when babies are involved.

For other chemicals, however, the same precautionary principle has not been used. Although the European Union decided in 1999 that the risks of phthalates justified banning them from all children's toys, Health Canada merely advises manufacturers of the potential health risk to babies.

In 2006, NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) introduced a private member's bill that would create restrictions on the use of certain phthalates in cosmetics, children's toys and medical devices. The bill passed in the House of Commons, but was still being reviewed by the Senate when the election was called last fall.

Lourie also points out, despite the fact that chemical pollution is "a marinade in which we bathe every day," it's possible to decrease the amount you as an individual are exposed to simply by knowing what to look for and avoid in everyday products.

In a recent coversation with The Tyee, here's what Bruce Lourie had to say about what he learned while researching the book, and why he's still hopeful that we can eliminate chemicals from our environment and bodies.

Did researching the book affect you psychologically?

"I've been working on these issues for many, many years so in some ways I guess I took it for granted that that's how we live. We've always suspected that there's a lot of health issues associated with these things, and I've always been suspicious of chemicals and plastics. The evidence now is really starting to point to some of the scary stuff that we didn't know for certain years ago but it's becoming much more conclusive."

Did anything really surprise or shock you in your research?

"Two things were shocking. We exposed ourselves to all kinds of daily products and measured our blood before, during and after that exposure. After doing those experiments, we found elevated levels of the chemicals in our blood. So, for example, I've been doing mercury research for about ten years but I'd never actually consciously sat down, eaten a bunch of tuna and measured my levels. I found that my mercury levels almost tripled in a few days, just by consuming several tuna meals consecutively."

Why do you say the book has an ultimately hopeful message?

"These are scary subjects, but throughout the book there are a lot of stories about how people have managed to succeed in making significant changes, either in government regulations or in the products that are now available. We really think that if we continue with this kind of momentum we will see some very dramatic change in the products that are out there.

"And, when we stopped using the products I mentioned, we quickly saw a decline in the levels of chemicals.”

What should governments do?

"There are only two options. The products are properly labeled and people are incredibly well informed, or government simply bans these products, which is the ultimate solution.

"Labeling is a critical part of the solution. Canada has some of the most lax labeling laws of any industrial country. There are no labeling requirements for phthalates, for example.”

Why aren’t there better regulations?

"There are a few things going on. First of all, over the last number of years, we've evolved to a regulator system where basically you have to prove that something causes a health problem before it will be banned or restricted in any way. For many of these things, it's next to impossible to come up with the level of proof. The system we have in place doesn't really protect us from these kind of chemicals, that are subtle, sometimes inter-generational.

"Another blatant problem is the extent to which chemical companies are able to lobby governments that try to ban their products. That's still a very active force in society."

Should the science community do more to influence public policy on toxic chemicals?

"Absolutely, I think there is more of a role for scientists in public policy. After all, the scientists are on the front lines of this issue.

"We see both sides of it. There are some scientists doing research, for example we talk about bisphenol A [BPA] in one chapter and the role of Dr. [Fred] vom Saal in the U.S. who has really been a leading science activist, and certainly a very saavy policy advocate around BPA.

"In other cases, we have concerns about scientists that really feel it's their job to simply do research and not really make any commentary. And on the far end of the spectrum there are scientists who are on the payroll of industry who do research on how these things are safe. There may be 1,000 studies on one particular substance. 950 will be done independently and 50 will be supported in one way or another by industry. You find quite fascinating numbers where those 50 will conclude that we don't know enough or the substance seems to be safe, and the 950 others will say there are concerns. That's used by industry to justify the continued use."

Do you think we have reached some kind of tipping point or watershed moment in how we view these chemicals?

"For sure I think there is some kind of tipping point going on where we're seeing a community of concerned mothers in a very big way. We're seeing some more scientists and doctors, the cancer community in Canada is now becoming very active on pest issues and very supportive. And frankly, three or four years ago or more it was very hard to get the more formal cancer community supportive of some of these environmental issues.

"And we are seeing some genuinely enlightened and concerned politicians on these issues. Once you start talking about affecting how childrens' brains and bodies develop, it's a very compelling issue. I don't think politicians want to be on the wrong side of that."

Do you have some general advice on what to avoid?

"Avoid phthalates. They are in what we call plastic, but it's really vinyl. Ask what's in the product, and find alternatives. Avoid really artificially fragranced body care products [anything that says "fragranced" or "parfum" on the label]. Try to go for unscented.

"Avoid non-stick and stain-repellant products. These are found on clothes, furniture, carpets. They are well-known in frying pans but they also line microwave popcorn bags.

"Go back to natural household cleaning products. Use biodegradable products or basic things like vinegar and baking soda.

"Make sure you're getting rid of bisphenol A plastics [number seven on the bottom]. Generally, in plastic look for numbers four, five, one and two on the bottom. Numbers three, six and seven are not so good. More generally, make sure you're not heating or microwaving food in any plastic.

"If you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, you shouldn't eat any tuna at all, zero. The recommendation for the rest of the population is once per week."

With files from Amelia Bellamy-Royds  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Science + Tech