Avoid the Rubber Duck of Death

In Slow Death by Rubber Duck, two guys expose themselves to commonplace chemicals to call out the new reality of pollution, and how you can protect yourself.

March 9, 2010

Duck of doom: Some seemingly benign objects can contaminate us with chemcials.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We're all awash in chemicals, including components of the plastic we encounter every day. There are more than 80,000 chemicals used today in various consumer products and industrial processes. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with protecting us from the most hazardous chemicals, has reliable safety data on only 3,000 to 5,000 of them.


The fact that many of the remaining 75,000 are used in products we encounter every day, such as water-repellent clothing and, yes, rubber ducks (which are made from vinyl, a plastic that is softened with hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates) should be disconcerting, as it was for Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defense, a Canadian advocacy group, and coauthor of the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things (Counterpoint, 2010). What he and his coauthor, Bruce Laurie, found even more disturbing was how easily these chemicals migrate out of products and get absorbed by us, turning the public into guinea pigs for chemical companies who often can't account for their safety. Smith and Laurie subjected themselves to a weeklong science experiment, using products as any normal person would and then measuring the levels of chemicals from those products in their bodies. They ate out of canned-food containers, microwaved in plastic, ate food made in nonstick pans, and used everyday personal-care products like scented shampoos and antibacterial soaps.

Rodale.com talked to Rick Smith to discuss what he found, and the attention he hopes his experiment can bring to the ongoing debate about chemical regulation.

Rodale.com: What brought about the idea for the book?

Rick Smith: A certain amount of curiosity and outrage at the extent to which these giant chemical companies have been getting their way for years. At the same time, people are waking up to the new reality of pollution. As a society, we've made progress cleaning up the big, obvious sources of pollution, the big belching smokestacks, the big sewer pipes that used to be so prominent. Now, more people are realizing that some of the most serious sources of pollution affecting our health—causing increasing rates of certain types of cancer, causing childhood epidemics that we're seeing like obesity and ADHD—are coming from these innocuous products that we have in our homes. Our governments have totally let us down in terms of consumer protection, and I think people are getting that. My hope with our book is that we demonstrate that even in the absence of government regulation, people can have a dramatic impact on the levels of pollution in their bodies, simply by being smarter consumers, by reading labels more carefully and by buying greener, less-toxic products.

What made you want to experiment on yourselves?

Both Bruce and I have worked in the environmental world for years, and going back to 2005, we started to test Canadians for measurable levels of pollutants in their blood and urine. We tested all sorts of people—urban folks, rural folks, folks from blue collar backgrounds, upper middle class white collar folks, people from different ethnicities. In total, we tested 60 Canadians, and it doesn't matter who you are or what you do for a living, or if you eat organic spelt every day of your life, we all have these measurable levels of pollutants in our bodies all the time.

Then, a couple years ago, we were trying to think of ways to take this idea of testing to another level. We thought that if we were really serious about this, we'd test on ourselves and see whether it was possible to manipulate the levels of these chemicals in real time. It was a novel approach that nobody had taken before—to try to pin down the sources of exposure in daily life. We had tested lots of Canadians for measurable levels of pollutants in their bodies, but when they asked the question, "How did this stuff get in me?" we didn't have satisfying answers.

What's the most disturbing aspect of what you found?

The ease with which these chemicals increased in our bodies and the scale of increase we saw so quickly. Levels of phthalates [hormone-disrupting chemicals found in artificial fragrances as well as soft vinyl] increased 22 times just by using personal-care products that contained those chemicals. The most mind-blowing increase was with triclosan [the active ingredient in antibacterial products that's been linked to reproductive problems and hormone disruption]. Our levels of triclosan increased by 2,900 times over a two-day period, just by using common household products. A 2,900-time increase in a two-day period is just mind-boggling. You've got to think that all those people who really like antibacterial products—and there's a lot of people like that out there—would have massive levels of that chemical in their bodies all the time. And at the same time, the American Medical Association has called for a ban on the household use of antibacterial products because they're afraid these chemicals are creating a whole new generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

And we just tested chemicals one at a time. When you think of the implications of all the hundreds of chemicals we're exposed to and the marinade we're soaking in every day, the results of our experiments are quite disturbing.

Do you get the impression that these companies know the risks or are completely ignorant of them?

Ultimately, we're very optimistic. That might sound weird, considering what we found, but it's quite an optimistic book. The stories we tell are generally good news stories about companies trying to do things differently, both manufacturers and retailers. Now if you're shopping for toys for your kids, quite often you'll see big honking "No Phthalate" and "No BPA" stickers, put there by companies that want to advertise that they got these chemicals out of their products. I’m quite optimistic about corporate behavior, even given the fact that most chemical companies are still acting as though it's 1950 and your average consumer is a dummy and will just take whatever the chemical companies dish out.

You've been studying the impact of chemicals and knew their dangers for quite some time before writing this book. Is there anything you do differently now that you didn't do before you wrote the book?

It's more a matter of degree. I always read labels before, but I'm even more careful now. One of the biggest problems we found is that these chemicals have become so ubiquitous that they've crept into so many unlikely places. Take triclosan. That was one chemical I was feeling smug about because it's so well labeled. You can avoid it in toothpaste and body wash and dish soap because it's listed right there on the label. But the more I looked into it, I found that it's in a bunch of crazy products.

Can you name a few?

Well, for instance, it's in my garden hose. Apparently, our civilization is being undermined by germy garden hoses. Why do you need it there? You can now find it in the steering wheels of new cars, the liners of hot tubs. If you get your kitchen renovated, you can buy countertops treated with it. It's in cutting boards and pizza cutters. Quite often these days, the presence of triclosan is advertised as a positive, and it's often marketed under the trade name Microban.

When you come up against chemicals like that, that are hidden in so many unexpected places, do you get discouraged? How do you keep from living in fear of everything you buy?

You can't totally protect yourself 100 percent. That's the first thing you have to realize, and that's why we need governments to step in to regulate these things. For instance, BPA [bisphenol A, a hormone-disrupting chemical found in the epoxy resin used to line cans linked to certain types of cancer, obesity, and heart disease]. Unless you're willing to go without canned food entirely, you can't avoid BPA in cans because there's virtually no brand that doesn't have it. So we've cut down on the amount of canned food at my house. But I really like canned chickpeas. So that's one source of exposure to BPA that I'm resigned to until governments do a better job of regulating.

But there are other entire categories of products I avoid entirely, like anything with triclosan. Why the U.S. government thinks it's OK to put a registered pesticide in toothpaste is beyond me. And once you know what you're looking for it's pretty easy to avoid. Phthalates are another. They're most often used to carry scent, so anything that smells like a rain forest or a patch of strawberries probably contains lots of phthalates. So buy an unscented shampoo or one that uses essential oils. That'll make a huge difference in your levels of phthalates.

The way I approach it is, I've got a sort of mental short list of chemicals that I avoid in my daily life and that my wife and I are careful to avoid, particularly in products for our kids: triclosan phthlalates, BPA, mercury (from tuna and other large fish), and nonstick and stain-repellent chemicals, which are often sold under the trade names Teflon and Stainmaster. You have to start with those things that you can control, and we can control things that happen in our homes.