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.
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.
Q. When you learn about these chemicals, and then actually take a look around your house, it can be a little demoralizing—phthalates in your deodorant, PFCs in your Teflon pans, PBDEs in your electronics. Is there anything we can do?
A. The good news here is that for chemicals like phthalates, triclosan and BPA, if you can take steps to limit your exposure, your body can do a good job of flushing them out. As I exposed myself to BPA, I watched my levels skyrocket for a few days, then come back down. That’s why we make the point our book is sort of hopeful. If consumers make an effort, even in the absence of government regulations, you can lower your level of pollution, or your kids’ or grandkids’, literally within a couple hours.
Chris Carroll is a journalist from Maryland.