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Vol. 8, No. 4, 2009
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rick smith, bruce lourie and sarah dopp's


reviewed by



She writes a regular health column for the Georgia Straight newspaper ( where this book review originally appeared. She is also the managing editor of Blush Magazine ( and contributes regularly to the Globe and Mail.

Rick Smith remembers a Christmas Eve when he and his wife were sorting through stocking stuffers. The executive director of the Toronto-based Environmental Defense happened to notice on a package of socks, in tiny print, a label for triclosan. A synthetic broad-spectrum antibacterial agent, triclosan is also registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a pesticide and has been linked to human health effects.

“Triclosan is now being put in countertops, socks, underwear, and garbage bags,” Smith says in a phone interview. “What kind of logic is it to put a registered pesticide in underwear?”

According to Washington, D.C.’s National Coalition on the Misuse of Pesticides, triclosan -- aka 2,4,4’-trichloro-2’-hydroxydiphenyl ether -- is associated with skin irritation, allergy sensitivity, bacterial and antibiotic resistance, and the destruction of aquatic ecosystems. In addition to certain brands of socks, it’s also found in everything from makeup to children’s toys.

And as far as Smith is concerned, it’s just one of thousands of harmful substances that are lurking in everyday products and leaching into our bodies.

Along with environmental consultant Bruce Lourie and writer Sarah Dopp, Smith wrote Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health (Knopf, $32). The pair’s new book describes an experiment in which the two essentially turned themselves into human guinea pigs. They bought scores of brand-name products -- stain removers, shower gel, shaving cream, soap, microwavable plastic containers, toothpaste, air fresheners, and canned foods among them -- and used them over a 4-day period, taking blood and urine samples before, during, and after. In the days leading up to the stunt, they limited their exposure to such chemicals as phthalates (which the authors claim could cause testicular dysfunction in children), bisphenol A (BPA, which has been shown in some studies to be linked with breast and prostate cancer), and triclosan (which may interfere with thyroid function).

The results astounded them.

Smith’s phthalate level went up by 22 percent, the amount of BPA in his blood climbed 7.5 percent, and the level of triclosan shot up by 3,000 percent.

“We were really shocked,” Smith says. “It made us think hard about the implications for millions of people around the world. These are just the most common brand-name products you can buy. Millions are living their lives with very high levels of toxic chemicals, and various mixtures of those chemicals, in their bodies. It’s not just the hundreds of thousands of chemicals that are the concern; it’s the toxic impact of the witch’s brew of many chemicals inside us that is worrisome.”

As scary as our exposure to toxins might sound, Smith stresses that it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There’s a lot of hope out there,” he emphasizes. “We’re very much at a watershed moment. The federal government banned BPA from baby bottles. Even George Bush, for God’s sake, banned phthalates in children’s toys. Things are starting to happen very quickly. The scientific evidence of human harm from these chemicals is overwhelming. It’s driving different consumer buying habits and forcing companies to change.

“Parents, especially, are driving a lot of this change,” he adds. “They have an intuitive sense of children’s vulnerability to this kind of exposure . . . Chemical companies would have us believe that’s bullshit and say if the level of toxin X falls below a magical threshold we’re safe. We know that’s nonsense.”

People need to more closely examine the basic ingredients of products in their homes, Smith says, pointing to Web sites such as -- which rates toys for levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and bromine, among other chemicals -- and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site. The latter outlines ingredients in makeup and personal-care products and which ones are associated with such effects as neurotoxicity, allergies and reproductive toxicity.

The EWG also has a shopper’s guide to pesticides, which can be downloaded for free, and lists the fruits and vegetables that are the most and least contaminated. Plus, it’s campaigning to get “rocket fuel” out of baby formula: the organization claims on its website that recent studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found perchlorate, a substance in rocket fuel that can interfere with infant brain development, in 15 brands of powdered infant formula.

Smith says he and Lourie came to two conclusions during the course of their research.

“What we do in our everyday lives really matters in terms of the level of pollution affecting us . . . It doesn’t seem to matter where you live or what you do for a living; we’re all united by pollution.”

And greater government control of potentially harmful substances is vital. “These chemicals are so ubiquitous; we can’t escape them altogether but we can completely reduce our exposure . . . It’s never-ending, the new and crazy uses of these chemicals dreamed up by chemical companies. There’s literally no end of the snake oil they can peddle.”

For a 20 minute video interview of the authors, click HERE.

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