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.
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?”
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
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.
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).
results astounded them.
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.
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
scary as our exposure to toxins might sound, Smith stresses
that it’s not all doom and gloom.
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.
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
need to more closely examine the basic ingredients of products
in their homes, Smith says, pointing to Web sites such as Healthytoys.org
-- 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
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.
says he and Lourie came to two conclusions during the course
of their research.
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.”
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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