Slow Death by Rubber Duck. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Canada: Vintage Canada, 2009. 339 pp.
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie compile a most comprehensive collection of the toxic substances that surround, affect and damage our daily lives in Slow Death by Rubber Duck, in trying to inform the everyday individual on how to reduce our chemical exposure as well as that of unprotected infants. Rick Smith is the Executive Director of Environmental Defense, a leading environmentalist in Canada holding a doctorate in biology from the University of Guelph; Bruce Lourie is an environmental thinker who began one of the largest consultancies in Canada, working tirelessly with a wide range of businesses, governments, foundation and non-profit organization from the local to federal level. In writing Slow Death By Rubber Duck, Smith and Lourie’s motivations are concerned with informing the general public the dangers of long-term effects by exposure to everyday items made and containing highly toxic chemicals; protecting ourselves from further exposure by providing simple consumer methods and choices in better selecting products and in trying to reduce the chemicals in our bodies over the long term, especially in children who’re most vulnerable.
Based on information provided by the book’s author, Slow Death by Rubber Duck provides a mixed bag of information, analysis and reaction. The method of informing is insightful; the testing is a bit absurd but represents the minutia of everyday toxicity; results are too simple and are disproportionate to testing sample and percentages for the general public. The method to detox is enlightening and simplistic for the everyday person and challenging the status quo is made to be simpler than intended. Nevertheless, the book itself riles you up in wanting and needing you to take action. Although Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s simplistic manner of informing everyday readers, the conscientious methods of informing the public and subsequently providing methods to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals are attainable and make a hopeful future chemical-free.
Certainly the method to inform readers would be an arduous task and thankfully the book’s authors didn’t make it so. Every chapter deals with a different toxin (from plastics to mercury and to bisphenol A) and turns around back to a method of detox from all these chemicals. All of this information is provided in terms and concepts easily digested by those lacking a doctoral degree and so the layman’s terms may come across as insulting one’s intelligence. In the first chapter “Pollution Then and Now”, the authors point out simple and effect ways at assessing the vast reaches of thousands of toxins in today’s world: “1. It’s now global rather than local 2. It’s moved from being highly visible to being invisible 3. In many cases its effects are now chronic and long-term rather than acute and immediate” (Smith and Lourie 14). If that isn’t terrifying, and yet insightful, how else can an environmentalist and an activist rile up the everyday person to stand up to their government (from local to federal) to fight for causes that will benefit them and their families in the long-term? Certainly, this thinking of saving long-term costs on health-care and other various medical facilities and their associations would be a primary reason in Canada, especially since out Medicare is entirely supported by the government and the taxpayers money, to combat the perils of toxins.
When it came to proving the possibilities of these specified toxins, the duo decided to test themselves in certain controlled situations the exposure, ingestion or subject themselves to the chemicals. Deciding to host themselves in an apartment and expose themselves to these chemicals in a method that mimicked “real-life situation” and so, they got their blood and urine tested at two specific points during the experiment: before and after exposure. They tried to reduce their exposure from these chemicals before the experiment (about 24-48 hours), thus reducing the chemical in their bodies. Therein lays their first mistake: reducing natural exposure to levels would be premeditative in what would be an out-of-the-normal efforts compared to a “real-life situation” experiment. Smith and Lourie would reduce their exposure to of Bisphenol A from heating plastic containers; fish that have high levels of mercury; phthalates in plastic toys; PFCs and PFOA (from non-stick cookware.); PCBs (flame-retardant clothing and furniture); triclosan from antibacterial labeled products and pesticides. They not only unnaturally reduce their exposure to said chemicals, but they over exaggerated and overexposed their exposure during testing by spraying PCBs on all surface in the apartment, to which they nearly suffocated themselves; constantly cooking or heating food in plastic containers or in Teflon non-stick pans (Bisphenol A and PFCs, respectively); eating ridiculous amounts of meals with canned tuna, those specifically higher in mercury; and cleaning themselves with products marked antibacterial (Triclosan) and those with “Fragrance” (phthalates). If these methods, reducing these toxins or manipulating exposure to them, were part of their supposed “real-life situation” experimentation, they failed miserably. Such failure leads to misleading results caused by said experimentations with toxins.
As mentioned above, the manipulation of reducing the particular level of toxins in their bodies (the authors subjugating themselves as lab rats), and them overexposing themselves to said toxins in an enclosed space does have an effect of testing, but results as well. If the methods are faulty or irregular, so will the results and those were reflected especially in the mercury testing. Eating several meals, and in larger quantities, had results that weren’t accumulative but compounded when the mercury levels had nearly tripled after 7 meals/snacks, it “showed that the mercury concentration in my blood was 3.53 µg/L (micrograms per liter). The North American average was less than 1 µg/L, so [he] had about four times the average mercury levels in [his] blood before [his] tuna eating even began” (Smith and Lourie 138). This grabbed my attention and made a faulty representation once the final results came in. Bruce Lourie tried to equate this result to most people, even after they stated that the national average was nearly 4 times less than initials results. If there’s an average stating the mercury levels in those living in North America, what is the point in equating the results of Lourie’s experimentation, to which was manipulated beforehand and during testing, as something that people have already been avoiding? The interesting thing that they may have overlooked is the eating habits of fish by North Americans. They could be below (which certainly would attribute to the levels indicated in Rubber Duck) or are they above average as far as eating habits go when it comes to fish. I certainly would believe that they’re below, since our culture is certainly eating more red meat than any other kind of meat available. Therefore, if those eating habits reach the standard meal guide as recommended by Canada’s Food Guide, what would the mercury levels be then? How would they compare to the results that have been attained? One thing is for certain, that issue was not tackled, nor even mentioned, in the Smith and Lourie’s documentation from their experiment or their analysis.
One of the issues surrounding this experimentation was: “What effects would these have on the authors as their own guinea pigs?” Certainly the end result would be detoxification. The method to reducing exposure to said chemicals are fairly simple, if not excruciatingly confusing to execute. Many of these toxins are labeled under trademark names that give them an innocent gloss. For example: Triclosan and Phthalates are on product labels with the prettied label of “Antibacterial” and “Fragrance/Parfum”, a deception to say the least. Firstly, it has been stated in the book that most antibacterial products are part of a trend or obsession with germ-phobia and the need to sanitize everything. There’s only one problem: “1. Mounting evidence that, in many products, it works no better than competing products that have no triclosan 2. Increasing levels in people and the environment that have now been linked to health problems—and the biggie: 3. Good reason to think that it’s contributing to bacterial resistance, aka the rise of “superbugs”” (Smith and Lourie 165). Thankfully, authors Smith and Lourie parsed some specific warnings throughout the entire book, but reassembled the advice given into one single chapter who’s simplicity and condensed nature were easily digestible and permit a much easier flow into anyone’s daily routine. Providing easy “action items”, anyone can follow some simple guidelines and begin their path to living chemical-free.
While living chemical-free is ideal thinking, most of these toxins are everywhere and nearly unavoidable outside your home, in your products and in the areas surrounding you. That’s why an interesting issue came up here in Canada. Bisphenol A, the dreaded ingredient in plastics that sent mother and anyone who was aware of the issue into grass-roots campaign mode. When heating a plastic container (for food storage or even baby milk bottles), there’s a release of BPA which can cause many health problems including: mimicking hormones to negative effects on growing infants, obesity, neurological disruptions, dopamine activity, thyroid receptors, cancer and abnormalities in reproductive organs of both males and females. The evidence has begun to trickle in and it’s rapidly becoming insurmountable. That’s why mothers in Canada rallied and challenged the use of BPA in plastics, especially for infants, where the Health minister of Canada Tony Clement and Environment Minister John Baird stated:
“Based on the results of our assessment, today, I am proposing
precautionary action to reduce exposure and increase safety…
We have concluded that early development is sensitive to the
effects of bisphenol A. Although our science tells us exposure
levels to newborns and infants are below the levels that cause
effects, it is better to be safe than sorry… It is our intention to
ban the importation, sale and advertising of poly-carbonate
(Smith and Lourie 243)
Nothing can be more reassuring than having a federal stance on the removal of a toxic chemical from the products sold in Canada. It is this action of “changing the status quo” that becomes the greatest asset to Slow Death by Rubber Duck, that the motivation and justification to rally together, in grass roots campaigns, to help change regulations and legislation and in convincing government (at any level) to champion what’s better for the public and not for the corporation. After all, they should answer to consumer demand and concern rather than spend millions in advertising to confuse or sell us “death”.
Through all of the good and bad about the book, the toxins (information, results and detoxing) are something we can begin to avoid and challenge status quo. Concluding the simplistic manner by which we can all become involved in a larger scale than just in our homes. Smith and Lourie provide simplistic and conscientious methods of reducing exposure to toxic chemicals, because long-term effects of these chemicals have negative impacts on the health of individuals. Despite the described simplicity of taking action against these chemicals from the perspective of an everyday reader, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s informative methods are concepts easily adapted into everyday living.