Toxins in the Home: Pollution from Inside
10 Feb, 2010
The bad news is there are thousands to tens of thousands of chemicals inside the average home that are linked to diseases. The good news is they can be dealt with relatively swiftly and easily—if you know what they are and where to find them. So advises a new book with the unlikely title of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a revealing look at indoor pollution, which spent 16 weeks on the bestseller lists in its home country of Canada and is now enjoying great reviews and climbing sales in the US and other countries. Through this work, authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie set out to assist consumers in living healthier everyday lives by ridding themselves of home-based toxins.
To bring the point home, the co-authors conducted an experiment on the level of Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me. They conducted their own research by ingesting and inhaling a host of things that are part of everyday lives and published their findings in this unique work.
“What we wanted to do was make it clear to people that pollution isn’t this abstract thing that’s ‘out there,’ and that in fact it’s really in our daily lives, in our homes and in our food,” co-author Bruce Lourie told Organic Connections. “Some of the most dangerous pollutants, it turns out, come from commonplace items in our homes and workplaces—shampoos and toothpastes, carpets and children’s toys.”
Both Smith and Lourie are career environmentalists. Rick Smith is the executive director of Environmental Defence in Toronto, Canada, and Bruce Lourie is an environmental advisor to governments and non-profit organizations, president of the Ivey Foundation, a private environmental charitable foundation, and a past president of Environmental Defence.
The book also shows us that pollutants are found in such unlikely places as baby bottles, deodorants, or a favorite overstuffed sofa. Market-leading baby bottles in North America are made of polycarbonate plastic and leach bisphenol A, a known hormone disrupter, into their contents. Mass-market deodorants—along with nearly every other common product in the bathroom—can contain phthalates (pronounced “tha-lates”), which have been linked to a number of serious reproductive problems. Phthalates are also a common ingredient of vinyl children’s toys (hence the title of the book). Sofas and other upholstered products contain brominated flame retardants and are coated with stain-repellent chemicals, both of which increase the risk of cancer and may be absorbed by anyone sitting on a sofa or chair to watch Friday-night TV.
Were our homes always such dens of poison? According to the authors, the current problems began just after World War II, when petrochemicals—the mainstay of plastics—boomed as an industry. The US became the leader of this industry and, consequently, US citizens became the guinea pigs in an unannounced human experiment.
Through the book, we follow Smith and Lourie as they examine seven different chemicals routinely found in the home—chosen because of their commonness in everyday life. These include phthalates, Teflon and its chemical relatives, fire retardants, mercury, the antibacterial triclosan, pesticides and herbicides, and bisphenol A.
Weren’t the authors worried that they would pollute themselves as their experiments progressed? As it turns out, not really—and their reasoning ties in with why the book is positioned by Smith and Lourie as a message of hope. “In some ways, you could look at what we did and see it as pretty scary,” Lourie said. “We were exposing ourselves to known toxic chemicals, carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. But the other way we looked at it was we didn’t do anything that 10, 20, 50 million Americans don’t do every day, which is just going through the daily routines such as having a shower, washing and conditioning their hair, using shaving cream, and microwaving food. Our one cardinal rule for all of our experiments was that they had to mimic everyday life, so we didn’t do anything crazy like bathe in vats of chemicals. The only difference was that we measured the levels of chemicals in our blood before, during and after the tests, and we had scientific advisors guiding us during the whole process.
“Throughout the time of these experiments, we saw the different levels of these chemicals increase in our blood dramatically. So what we know is that, in the same way that the levels of chemicals increased dramatically, if you don’t expose yourself to these things, the levels of these chemicals will actually be much lower in your body.
The other encouraging fact is that, while Smith and Lourie were engaged in writing the book, they saw positive change occurring on both a government and a corporate level. “All the way through our work we were constantly in touch with scientists in different government departments and businesses,” remarked Lourie. “We’re seeing worldwide advances in terms of governments banning these chemicals and companies deciding to stop using them, as well as people in communities mounting efforts to make sure citizens aren’t exposed to these things. So there’s a lot of progress going on around the world that we’re very excited about and that we’ve been able to include in the book.”
You can also find out more about the authors by visiting the website of their organization, Environmental Defence, at www.environmentaldefence.ca.