Book review

Slow Death

by Rubber Duck: How the toxic chemistry of everyday life affects our health, by Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie.
Published in 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Rick Smith, who has a PhD in biology from the University of Guelph, is the Executive Director of Environmental Defence, an activist group based in Toronto. Bruce Lourie is President and Chair of ED’s board of directors. This book, not surprisingly, calls for reducing the levels of several classes of chemicals in our food, personal products and the environment.

An introductory paragraph gives a short history of several pollution cases, which makes very interesting reading. The authors devote the next seven chapters to: phthalates, which can leach from many products, including toys such as polyvinyl rubber ducks (hence the book title); perfluorinated compounds such as the Teflon in your non-stick skillet, which break down and enter the atmosphere; polybrominated biphenyl ethers and other fire retardants, which are widely used in clothing, computers, etc.; mercury, which is found in tuna, tooth fillings and coal-burning plant emissions; antimicrobial, such as triclosan, which are added indiscriminately to consumer products; 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and other herbicides; and bisphenol A, the monomer used to make polycarbonate plastic products such as non-disposable water bottles.

The final chapter is entitled “Detox”. It gives dozens of ways of avoiding many of the chemicals discussed in the preceding chapters. A couple examples:

  • Unplug your air fresheners. Many air fresheners contain phthalates. Baking soda is a natural alternative that can be used to absorb bad odours.
  • White albacore tuna should always be avoided as it has the highest level of mercury of any canned tuna. If you’ve got a tuna craving, try canned light (skipjack) tuna instead.

An interesting hook is that in each chapter, one of the authors increases his intake of the chemicals in question, through normal activities in everyday living, and then sends urine or blood samples for testing. In chapter 2, for example, Rick explains how he raised levels of phthalates in his urine more than 10-fold by using ordinary toiletries and showering with a plastic curtain. Similarly, in chapter 5, after seven days in which he ate about 500 g of tuna (partly white albacore, partly other, less-contaminated tuna), Bruce’s blood mercury level rose nearly two and one-half fold, from 3.53 mg/L to 8.63 mg/L. That initial level was higher than the North American average of less than 1 mg/L (Bruce likes fish!). His final level was somewhat higher than the 5.8 mg/L “safe” level set by the U.S. government.

Is this book a balanced report of the best science on the issues discussed? Definitely not. The authors do refer to many articles in highly respectable, peer-reviewed journals. However, they hardly ever deal with evidence that disagrees with their conclusions. They depend on results of experiments that other scientists view as poorly designed and/or not pertinent. They also make unsubstantiated claims. An example is the long list of health problems allegedly caused by 2,4-D (on page 192). This is based on an article in Journal of Pesticide Reform, a “journal” that was published by an activist group and ceased appearing in 2006. Caroline Cox, the author of this particular article was also the editor of the “journal” and is now associated with an activist, environmental group in California. Her highest degree is an MSc in entomology, not exactly the preparation one would expect for someone claiming expertise in environmental toxicology. (This, by the way, is an example of an official-sounding “journal” title, that is no such thing — see my article on aspartame in the September 2009 issue.)

However, in the authors’ defense, I must add that in recent years, some of the chemicals viewed here with concern are attracting the attention of regulators. For example, a recent issue of Chemical and Engineering News (June 22, 2015, pages 10-22) contains three articles on steps to remove phthalates from consumer products. And there are recent calls to ban triclosan.

The authors write well, but with some redundancy. There are lots of anecdotes, historical and otherwise, that you can use in your classes. But don’t look here for a balanced treatment. The authors do not consider evidence that doesn’t support their views.