Book review: 'Slow Death by Rubber Duck' by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

Sunday, January 10, 2010


The Secret Danger of Everyday Things

By Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie with Sarah Dopp

Counterpoint. 328 pp. $25

"We're all marinating in chemicals every day," write Toronto environmental activists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. They go on to soak in a potent, home-made marinade for a week. They do so not by camping out next to a smoke-belching factory but by confining themselves to Lourie's condo -- where canned food is nuked in plastic containers and the carpet and couch have been sprayed with a fresh coat of Stainmaster.

The pair analyze seven everyday chemicals, including those found in personal-care and antibacterial products, nonstick coatings, pesticides, flame retardants plus the bisphenol A (BPA) that leaches from some plastic products and is found in the linings of cans for canned goods. The results are staggering. Among other ad-hoc tests, Smith lathers up with scented Pantene shampoos and Gillette shaving gel and plugs in a Glade-brand air freshener to increase his exposure to phthalates, a group of chemicals commonly found in household products and children's toys. After three days, the amount of phthalate byproducts in Smith's blood spikes, especially one byproduct that has been linked to male reproductive problems. Lourie gorges on tuna for three days, and his blood mercury level more than doubles, well past the level deemed safe by the U.S. government.

This story of everyday pollution features not only the authors' self-experiments and struggles to create cleaner homes for their families but also their parsing of scientific studies of these chemicals and links to such problems as birth defects, childhood autism, attention-deficit disorder, hormonal imbalances and rising cancer rates. But it's not all doom and gloom: Lourie's grass-roots work with his nonprofit group, Environmental Defence Canada, proved instrumental in Canada's recent decision to ban BPA-laced baby bottles, and other governments are moving in similar directions. "Slow Death by Rubber Duck" is hard-hitting in a way that turns your stomach and yet also instills hope for a future in which consumers make safer, more informed choices and push their governments to impose tougher regulations on the chemicals all around us.

-- Lisa Bonos

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