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The Author Speaks: Is Your Home Bad for Your Health?

Q. Good to know phthalate-laced ducks will soon go the way of the dodo. But according to the book, that’s not the only way to get exposed.

A. No, they’re also in scented personal care products. Normally I use unscented stuff. In the experiment we did, I used name-brand, off-the-shelf products. The result of 48 hours of using these products was that my phthalate levels increased by 22 times.

Q. You spent a week holed up in Bruce’s condo and intentionally exposed yourself to seven chemicals, one for each day of the week. Didn’t you worry a little bit about turning yourselves into chemical-testing guinea pigs?

A. It did feel very strange to be deliberately poisoning ourselves. On the other hand, one cardinal rule was that our tests had to mimic everyday life.

Q. So even though it was harmful, it was also normal.

A. Right. It would be easy to increase your Teflon levels if you went to the hardware store, bought a bottle of Teflon and chugged a little of it. But of course no one does these things. We deliberately structured our experiments to mimic what millions of Americans do everyday. So it’s not that dramatic if you look at it that way. Bruce ate tuna fish sandwiches and saw his mercury levels more than double.

Q. The EPA says a blood mercury level of 5.8 micrograms per liter is the point when mercury starts hurting your health. What was his level after the sandwiches?

A: Nine micrograms per liter.

Q. Tell me about the test you did for bisphenol A, or BPA.

A. I have a particular grudge against BPA. Before I knew what it was, my older son drank out of baby bottles made with BPA, and I assume he got quite an exposure. So one thing I did was actually drink out of my son’s old baby bottles. My level of BPA increased 2.5 times.

Q. What is BPA and why is it harmful?

A. It’s one the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the world. Billions of pounds are made every year, and it’s in everything from DVDs to eyeglasses to baby bottles. We’ve known since the 1930s that it’s a hormone-disrupting chemical that mimics estrogen in the body. Some genius in the ’70s decided it was a great thing for food packaging. You might as well make food packaging out of crushed birth control pills. We’ve made lots of kids’ stuff from it, and there’s strong evidence it’s increasing breast cancer, prostate cancer, even diabetes.

Q. You make the point that many of these chemicals have the worst effects on growing children, fetuses and pregnant women. Anything older people should watch out for?

A. Mercury exposure is going to be far more harmful to a small child than to a grown person, but mercury obviously isn’t healthy for older people either. There are intergenerational differences in pollution levels that are striking. If you compare DDT levels in grandparents, parents and kids, the good news is that levels of chemicals that have been banned steadily decrease with each generation. But on the other hand, newer chemicals like PBDEs, which are flame retardants linked to cancer and brain development problems, are found at higher levels in children than in their grandparents.

Q. There’s no debate that some substances are harmful. But manufacturers of others say they’re safe, and that the studies you and other environmentalists cite are inconclusive.

A. The chemical industry has a clear game plan going back decades, which is to deny the problem right up until the moment the evidence is so overwhelming manufacturers can no longer ignore it. That’s when they pull up stakes and move on to defending the next toxic chemical. You see it over and over.

Q. Any examples?

A. They’re only now beginning to admit there might be a problem with brominated flame retardants, but that’s after years of systematically going around pushing state governments to gin up their flame retardant laws simply to sell more flame retardants.

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