Beware of rubber ducks
- Published: 17 November 2009
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Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie experimented on themselves to see how their bodies were affected by toxic ingredients in everyday products. The results are surprising. And scary.
Belching smokestacks. Sewer outfalls. Car exhaust.
For most people these are the first images that come to mind when the word “pollution” is mentioned. It’s still seen as an external concern. Something floating around in the air or in the nearest lake. Out there. Something that can still be avoided.
However, the reality is quite different. Pollution is now so pervasive that it’s become a marinade in which we all bathe every day. Pollution is actually inside us all. It’s seeped into our bodies. And in many cases, once in, it’s impossible to get out.
Baby bottles. An overstuffed sofa. A friendly rubber duck. These items, so familiar and apparently harmless, are now sources of pollution at least as serious as the more industrial-grade varieties described above.
The world’s market-leading baby bottles are made of polycarbonate plastic, and they leach bisphenol A, a known hormone disruptor, into their contents. Deodorants—and 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.
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 are absorbed by anyone sitting on a sofa or chair to watch Friday night TV.
It’s been estimated that by the time the average woman grabs her morning coffee, she has applied 126 different chemicals in 12 different products to her face, body and hair. Today’s most serious toxins lurk in the most private recesses of our homes. The places where we—erroneously, it turns out—feel the safest. Our exposure to these toxins is significant: An average person in the western world can spend up to 90 per cent of his or her life indoors.
All these chemicals, and more, have now been measured by researchers in the bodies of thousands of people worldwide. In excess of 400 chemicals have been found in the bodies of some individuals; likely the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of age, ethnicity, place of work or residence, everyone is contaminated. Even the most clean-living among us are polluted.
And even the youngest are vulnerable. Unborn babies were found to have hundreds of chemicals in their little bodies, clearly indicating that toxins are passed on to children not only through breastmilk during nursing, but also through the placenta during pregnancy.
The result? Not surprisingly, a large and growing body of scientific research links exposure to toxic chemicals to many ailments that plague people, including several forms of cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We have all become test subjects in a vast and uncontrolled experiment.
We decided to investigate this worrisome state of affairs through the most direct of means. In order to illustrate how the living of daily life can dramatically affect the pollutant levels within the human body we experimented on ourselves. We focused on seven groups of everyday chemicals and measure the increase or decrease in ourselves by methodically taking blood and urine samples before and after performing certain run-of-the-mill activities.
There are two basic take-home messages from our experiments.
The first is that our choices as consumers really do have a profound, and very rapid, effect on the pollution levels in our bodies. Through doing things that people do every day, Rick increased his urine levels of monoethyl phthalate (MEP, a common ingredient of personal care products) 22 times, his levels of bisphenol A (a plasticizing chemical in food and beverage containers) 7.5 times and his levels of triclosan (the active ingredient in many anti-bacterial soaps and cleansers) a mind-blowing 2,900 times.
Bruce increased his mercury levels almost 2.5 times through the simple act of eating fish. If we could crank up our levels of these things in a couple of days, anybody can reduce their levels—and their children’s levels— of these and other chemicals in a similarly quick fashion simply by making different purchasing choices at the supermarket.
The second conclusion flowing from our experiment is that no matter how hard you try; no matter how obsessively you’re focused—even making the elimination of toxic chemicals from your body the single purpose of your day—you can’t succeed completely. The toxins are too widespread.
The sources of contamination are so numerous that no precaution taken by an individual will work completely. In the end, the only answer to ridding our lives of these harmful chemicals is improved government regulation and oversight.
We need to reduce our exposure, and the exposure of our families, to the toxic ingredients in everyday consumer products, and to pressure our elected leaders to do a better job in controlling pollution.
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie are the authors of the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, in which they offer helpful tips on how to reduce exposure to everyday toxic chemicals.