As I mentioned a while back, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Now, I must admit, when I first saw this book, my initial reaction was to roll my eyes and think, “Ugh, do I really need to be more paranoid about everything I eat, drink, use and so on? Isn’t fretting about global warming giving me enough stress?” So I put the book down and walked away. But then, it began following me. For reals. While on a stop in Calgary to promote Sleeping Naked is Green, my publicist kept making all these phone calls for the next day’s marathon of interviews — her clients happened to be Rick and Bruce, who were coming into town right after me. Then, a friend of mine got in touch the next week wanting to meet for lunch, and low and behold, it turned out that her mom used to be Rick’s employer at IFAW. When we sat down to eat, she brought out a copy of his book and handed it to me. No avoiding it now.
Well, I’m pleased to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Slow Death — yes, there’s a lot of disturbing information to digest, but the authors write about it in a very smart yet accessible, self-deprecating kind of way, and offer a host of ideas for how to be proactive about eliminating chemicals from your day-to-day life. So, without further ado (or rambling… what the heck does “ado” mean, anyway?), here’s the interview:
Bruce: Yeah, the notion of getting to zero is impossible, even if you’re hyper-vigilant about it, because all this stuff is not only in the products we use but in the environment, the water, the air.
Rick: And Bruce and I pretty much obsessed in a way nobody ever would over how to insulate ourselves from these chemicals, but in no case were we able to completely rid ourselves of a toxin. Even with something like triclosan, which is relatively well-labelled in Canada — theoretically, you should be able to stay clear of it, but the problem is that so many consumer products are being made with it and it’s ending up in landfills, leaching out of them into lakes and rivers, and into our drinking water.
Bruce: You can actually test polar bears in the Arctic for most of these things and they’ll test positive, despite the fact that they don’t use deodorant or microwave their food… although the modern ones do.
Thistle: [Laughs] Of course. But just knowing that you couldn’t rid yourself of these chemicals no matter what you did must have made you slightly neurotic or depressed, no?
Bruce: Yes, for sure. There’s a whole body of evidence now showing that the theory of chemicals only affecting our health at higher levels isn’t true, and that, actually, nothing more than 0 is safe. Any level can affect the body and our brains during development, especially if it’s early fetal or childhood exposure. It’s tough to document direct evidence of these things, but you can see in the general weight of evidence that it’s pointing to modern childhood epidemics such as obesity and diabetes.
Thistle: How many people realize this? Is there anything we can do?
Rick: That was one of the main reasons why we wanted to write this book. At Environmental Defence, we’ve been working in this area of policy for a while. We tested 50 Canadians for levels of toxins in their blood — politicians, urban and rural Canadians, children and so on — and the recurring questions that people had over and over again was ‘How does this stuff get in me?’ and ‘What can I do to get it out?’ We couldn’t say with certainty that if you avoid a certain brand of shampoo you can dramatically reduce a certain hormone-disrupting chemical, so we needed to establish cause and effect properly. We concluded that if you focus on a few really important chemicals, you can dramatically reduce their levels in your system almost overnight.
Thistle: That’s kind of reassuring. But do you ever feel helpless?
Rick: It can be immensely frustrating, especially as parents, when you’re trying to do right by your kid, trying to choose the right brand of baby wipes or whatever. Sometimes you feel like you’re losing your mind; you’re trying to do the right thing but labelling requirements are often inadequate and chemicals have a million letters and syllables so they’re hard to decipher.
Thistle: How does one start tackling this problem?
Bruce: People generally seem to think the marketplace will solve these issues, but when it comes to regulating toxic chemicals, protecting people from obscure toxic ingredients, it doesn’t work at all. So the public has to be aware and involved, but at the same time governments need to be better regulated.
Rick: The web has also made a huge difference recently — there are cosmetics databases, healthy toys databases, blog groups dedicated to answering these questions. This is all happening now and it didn’t exist two years ago. On the government side, they’re also really at a tipping point — there’s a tremendous amount of progress happening right now, exciting progress.
Thistle: How did you decide which chemicals to focus on in your book?
Bruce: There are something like 10,000 chemicals in commerce and 95% have not been tested on human health and we know nothing about them. We tried to choose things that were representative of daily products in your life. But there are dozens and dozens.
Rick: There was also some method to our madness in choosing these few. They’re some of the most broadly distributed toxic chemicals that people come into contact with on a daily basis, they have the strongest evidence of harming children, but most importantly, they have the most exciting progress in terms of government action. With swine flu, there’s been an explosion of anti-bacterial products in last few months. The ones that are alcohol-based are fine (like Purell), but there are other ones that have triclosan (most often found in antibacterial soaps), which is linked to thyroid problems. And as a population, just in last few months, you have to think that the country’s exposure to this has gone through the roof.
Thistle: Do you think maybe people aren’t considering the toxicity of these chemicals and preservatives because there isn’t an immediate, physical cause-and-effect between using antibacterial toothpaste twice a day and becoming more susceptible to disease?
Bruce: Well, it’s always a much more curious or publicly appealing thing to be preventing people from getting very sick immediately, but in the case of something like swine flu, maybe six people have died of that in Canada. Conversely, how many thousands have developed some kind of neurological impairment or cancer because of pervasive toxic chemicals, including the hand sanitizers in office lobbies?
Thistle: So if you were able to just convey one or two important changes that people should be making right now to avoid these chemicals, what would they be?
Bruce: Don’t buy non-stick frying pans — that’s an easy one. Don’t eat food out of a plastic container, especially if you’ve just put it in the microwave. Try to avoid stain-repellant stuff.
Rick: Coating on furniture. That used to be impossible to figure out how to avoid, but there are huge companies, like IKEA, that advertise the fact that their upholstered products are made without flame retardants or other chemicals. On older furniture, you can check for a manufacturing label. A lot of stuff is Google-able, so you can go online and look up different chemicals.
To watch a brief video of Rick and Bruce’s experiment in toxicity, click here!