Slow Death by Rubber Duck

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On Tuesday evening in San Francisco, the Breast Cancer Fund and the Center for Environmental Health sponsored a reading by two of our Canadian colleagues, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, of their new book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things

I know, it sounds ominous and terrifying, but as the authors claim, the book is actually “downright hopeful.”

The frightening news first: There are over 80,000 chemicals in use today in the United States, with 700 new ones added every year. Less than 10 percent have been fully tested for their effects on human health, and only five have ever been banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act, our current and broken system for regulating chemicals in this country. Not even asbestos, a well-known carcinogen, has been banned in the U.S.

Smith, the executive director of Environmental Defense Canada, and Lourie, an environmental consultant and funder, began working together to test a variety of Canadians for the presence of these chemicals in their bodies, a process known as biomonitoring.

The study soon became personal. On a dare, they decided to exposure themselves over a week to common off-the-shelf food and personal care products, making sure to mimic everyday life. They had their urine and blood tested at the beginning of the week and again at the end of the week, and they focused the study on the presence and levels of seven key chemicals that are some of the most pervasive in everyday products and surroundings, including phthalates, Teflon and mercury.

For example, their lunch would simply consist of a tuna sandwich or canned food that was microwaved in plastic (tuna contains high levels of mercury and bisphenol A (BPA) is found in can linings and hard plastics). They would also shower and shave using commonplace personal care products, and they sat in a living room with a plug-in air freshener and furniture sprayed with STAINMASTER (personal care products contain a variety of chemicals including phthalates and lead, as well as “fragrance” which allows companies to avoid disclosing its ingredients, and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are used in water-repellant fabrics). 

I won’t give anything way, but I think you can guess what happens.

Smith and Lourie took on a simple but powerful science experiment – one that the average American goes through every day and, for the most part, is unaware of.

There is a happy ending to this book, though. Outside of telling an entertaining story, the book provides helpful, everyday tips for reducing your exposures. (HINT: if you’re still microwaving in plastic, stop!) They also cite some of the significant progress happening globally, giving credit to the growing movement concerned about the impact of this “new pollution” on human health and the work being done by organizations, including the Breast Cancer Fund, to eliminate the environmental causes of disease through proper chemical regulation.

And, after you buy the book (which we highly recommend) look to Chapter 2 for a recap of the Breast Cancer Fund’s successful campaign to rid phthalates from children’s toys, told through our own director of program and policy, Janet Nudelman!

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