'We are now into the fourth generation of people exposed to toxic chemicals from before conception through to adulthood," writes noted health
analyst Theo Colborn in the foreword to Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health.
Its authors, Canadian environmental activists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, describe our bodies as sponges soaking in harmful, petrochemical derivatives that leach out of common household objects - everything from the upholstered sofa and TV set to the popcorn bag and garden hose.
In one example, the authors estimate that by the time the average woman grabs her morning coffee, she has applied 126 chemicals in 12 products to her face, body and hair.
They write: "Pollution is now so pervasive that it's become a marinade in which we all bathe every day."
So in the tradition of Super Size Me, they holed up in Mr. Lourie's Toronto condominium for an "adult science experiment." In 12-hour shifts over three days, they exposed themselves to seven toxic chemicals that have been linked to long-term health risks.
To do so, they had to do remarkably little: Mr. Smith showers, shaves, washes dishes, drinks coffee in a polycarbonate cup and eats lunch heated in a plastic microwavable container. Mr. Lourie, meanwhile, eats seven meals of tuna.
The authors tracked their blood and urine before and after exposure, and spoke with The Globe and Mail about the surprising results.
What you do in that condo sounds like a banal version of anyone's life.
Mr. Smith: We were conducting very run-of-the-mill activities, so it felt weird to be planning so methodically your tooth brushing or sandwich making.
The one rule we set for ourselves is that the tests had to mimic people's everyday lives. It was very complicated to organize and we consulted experts all over the world to help us design the tests.
What did you find?
Mr. Smith: Just through the use of a few well-known, brand-name shampoos, aftershaves and shaving gels, I was able to raise my phthalate levels by 22 times. Just eating out of plastic warmed up in the microwave, I raised my bisphenol A [BPA] by almost eight times. Probably most mind-blowing was what happened with triclosan when I used anti-bacterial products for a couple of days: The levels of that chemical went up by 2,900 times. But with bisphenol A and phthalates, if you can limit your exposure, they can be flushed from the body within a day.
Mr. Lourie: I've done research on mercury for years and have been telling people about tuna, but to actually just consume seven meals of tuna over a three-day period and watch my mercury levels triple was still astounding to me.
You cite a growing body of scientific research that has linked the toxic chemicals to several types of cancer, birth defects, respiratory illnesses such as asthma, neuro-developmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, reproductive problems, testicular deformities and impaired sperm quality. But what about the argument that the chemicals are often present in levels too low to harm anyone?
Mr. Lourie: That's a spurious kind of argument. For many of these synthetic chemicals, the effect on children or a developing fetus can occur with parts per billion or parts per trillion. Quantity isn't really the issue. It's the particular kinds of chemicals and the way they can affect our genetic development.
Are people loath to take these links seriously because we are the guinea pigs, in effect?
Mr. Smith: Maybe there's a little bit of denial going on, but the bisphenol A experience in Canada over the last year has been a real eye-opener for people. This is one of the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the world: It's the plastic that CDs and DVDs are made out of, it's in people's eyeglasses, it's in the interior lining of a lot of tin cans and it's in the little, tiny windshields of my son's toy cars. When Canada became the first country in the world last year to take action against bisphenol A in kids products, almost overnight you saw stainless-steel bottles and parents jettisoning their classic polycarbon baby bottles in favour of glass baby bottles. That happened within the space of a month or two.
You write that you had to update the book several times thanks to sweeping legislative change, including Canada's ban on BPA baby bottles, Europe's ban on noxious flame-retardant chemicals in televisions, and the United States' restriction on hormone-mimicking ingredients in children's toys.
Mr. Smith: Canada actually followed suit with deca, the most common flame retardant, in the last couple of months. We're now matching Europe's ban on that chemical in electronics. We're actually waiting for a federal announcement on phthalates because now the United States and Europe have banned phthalates from kids' toys. There's really no choice but for Canada to follow suit.
What do you think it will take for companies to cease inserting potentially toxic chemicals into everyday products without consumer knowledge?
Mr. Smith: One of the really exciting things that's happening now is that the corporate community is dividing into two camps. You have some companies who have eliminated these chemicals from their products and are then advertising that as a selling point. Mountain Equipment Co-op, Lululemon and Wal-Mart are deciding to be pro-active on these issues and actually trying to get out ahead of government. On the other hand, you've got other corporate actors who are dragging their heels and sticking their heads in the sand and increasingly being penalized by consumers. These days, especially with the Web, when parents can trade information so readily, consumers are demanding transparency and alternatives. We're quite hopeful that increasing consumer pickiness is going to drive some market change.
What is most troubling to you right now?
Mr. Lourie: We really still do not have any systemic way of testing the kinds of chemicals that are going into our products. The reality is we looked at seven chemicals. There are thousands of chemicals in the marketplace and with 90 per cent of them, there's been virtually no testing on the health of humans.
Mr. Smith: The intergenerational effects of these chemicals is only now starting to be realized. Bisphenol A is now known to affect the developing ovaries of fetuses. There are three generations of effect there. We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
There are damaging chemicals in many of the household items we come into contact with every day. Environmental activists and co-authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie offer 10 simple ways to detoxify
VINYL SHOWER CURTAINS
SYNTHETIC AIR FRESHENERS
NON-STICK FRYING PANS
MICROWAVE POPCORN BAGS
PLASTIC BABY BOTTLES
HOUSEHOLD CLEANING PRODUCTS
Phthalates are found in PVC plastic and a range of personal-care products. They both keep plastic things pliable and carry scent well (they're the basis of many products with a strong artificial fragrance). It's best to get rid of phthalates if you can because they mimic human hormones and harm children. The authors found that levels of phthalates increased by as much as 22 times after they used common, brand-name products. Simple ways to avoid phthalates include getting rid of your vinyl shower curtain, refraining from the use of synthetic air fresheners and choosing unscented body-care products.
SAY 'NO' TO NON-STICK AND STAIN REPELLANTS
These types of chemicals are on furniture, carpets, clothing, non-stick frying pans and fast-food wrappers. Known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), they are linked to cancer and can mimic human hormones. To avoid these chemicals, don't buy the latest "stain repellent" pants or shirts, replace your non-stick frying pan with stainless steel or iron, and pop your popcorn the old-fashioned way (microwave popcorn bags are coated in PFCs).
USE SOME ELBOW GREASE
Household cleaning products have a toxic mix of chemicals that are linked to health problems including cancer. Consider making your own cleaners using simple household ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda, vegetable oil and lemon juice.
GET RID OF BISPHENOL A (BPA)
BPA mimics estrogen and has been linked to a host of health problems from breast cancer to diabetes. The authors' levels of BPA increased 7.5 times after eating canned foods out of a microwavable, polycarbonate plastic container. Don't use any polycarbonate plastic containers, including baby bottles, reusable sports bottles or microwaveable containers. BPA also lines canned food, so choose fresh or frozen food when you can. And never microwave your food in plastic.
DUMP THE TOXIC FLAME RETARDANTS
These chemicals are linked to cancer, impaired brain development and a host of other health problems. Called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) or simply "brominated flame retardants," they are in furniture, mattresses, curtains, carpets and electronics. To avoid them, use natural fibres, such as wool, hemp and cotton. Ask stores or manufacturers to identify PBDE-free products for you.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH GERMS
Our fear of germs has led to an explosion of antibacterial products, from soaps to toothpaste. There are two types: those with alcohol and those with triclosan. Alcohol is fine but triclosan weakens the immune system and is suspected of causing cancer. The book's authors found levels of triclosan in their blood increased an astounding 2,900 times just by using anti-bacterial soaps and other personal-care products. Avoid products with triclosan.
EAT BIG, OLD FISH IN MODERATION
Fish is generally good for you, but levels of mercury increased by 2.5 times after the book's authors ate both canned albacore tuna and fresh tuna. Mercury is a known neurotoxin that harms the development of children. It builds up in certain fish, so smaller fish are safer to eat than big fish. Follow Health Canada's guidelines for how much fish to safely eat. If you are pregnant or are planning on becoming pregnant avoid all tuna, shark and swordfish.
Growing your own food means you can avoid pesticides, and have great-tasting veggies. Start by growing fresh herbs; it's easy to do and requires little space.
Organic fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products have a lower pesticide content. Some studies have linked pesticides with an evaluate risk of cancer, neurological disorders, and damage to our immune and reproductive systems. So choose organic food whenever possible, particularly dairy, soft fruit and vegetables. Can't find organic? Make sure to wash produce well before eating.
BECOME AN ACTIVE CONSUMER
Companies that add BPA, PFCs and other controversial chemicals to their products are very sensitive to consumer demand. So read the labels, ask store staff questions or call the 1-800 number listed on products and find out what is in them. Government action is often needed to keep products safe, so raise these issues with your elected officials.
Check out SlowDeathbyRubberDuck.com for more information.