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

Anyone who remembers further back than a couple of decades might doubt claims that pollution is getting worse. The effects of federal clean water and air laws are easy to see, after all. Rivers once choked with factory and farm effluent are running with fish again; smokestack emissions are far less foul today; and even car exhaust is a wisp of what it was.

Enter Canadian environmentalists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, bearing bad news. While more visible pollution has indeed been declining in North America, they contend, the laws have done little to address another kind of pollution. The difference with this stuff is that you can’t see it. It’s inside you.

In their new book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, Smith and Lourie do more than recite a litany of potentially dangerous substances that can be found in the body. Using common, everyday products, they introduce the substances into their own bodies to see what will happen—and methodically test their blood and urine before and after each exposure. In one experiment, fish-loving Lourie downs a series of big tuna sandwiches, followed by sushi. Feeling cognitive effects he suspects might be related to mercury, he nevertheless tops off his feast with a one-pound tuna steak cooked on a nonstick pan coated with perfluorinated chemicals, which themselves may cause a host of ills. Sure enough, blood tests soon show he is approaching twice the mercury level considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Some of Smith and Lourie’s claims about commonly used chemicals are controversial. For instance, manufacturers of food and beverage containers made with bisphenol A, or BPA, have maintained that their products are perfectly safe. Health agencies often straddle the fence, saying the substances merit more study without outright endorsing the view that they’re dangerous.

Nevertheless, the debate is largely moving the authors’ way. Concerning BPA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2008 dismissed concerns with the comment that human exposures are “orders of magnitude below the levels known to cause toxic effects in animals.” Early this year, however, the FDA changed gears, saying studies on the health risks of BPA raise “some concern.”

Coauthor Rick Smith spoke recently with the AARP Bulletin about the chemicals we carry within, and how they got there.

Q. What’s your beef with rubber duckies anyway?

A. We’re very much pro-duck—pro-rubber duck, anyway. The problem is that what’s called a rubber duck these days isn’t a rubber duck at all. It’s actually a vinyl duck.

Q. And that’s bad?

A. Vinyl in its natural state is hard as a rock—not something that works as a toy for babies. To make it pliable, you have to add an oil called phthalate that acts as a plasticizer. It makes it soft. The problem is that phthalates are known hormone disrupters. They get into the body and imitate hormones. They’ve been linked to cancer and reproductive disorders, and yet for some reason they’re in toys children chew on.

Q. Why did that stuff replace real rubber in these kinds of toys?

A. No good reason I know of. I suppose there’s some reason, economic or otherwise, manufacturers could point to, but you would have ask them. It certainly wasn’t done with health in mind.

Q. Is anything being done about the danger?

A. There has been a ban on phthalates in toys made for kids under 3 years of age in Europe since the 1990s. Similar bans were adopted in the U.S. in 2008 and in Canada in 2009, but they’re not fully in effect. In anticipation of these bans, many retailers have already taken phthalate-containing toys off their shelves, but consumers should be cautious because they are still around.

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