By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Having just read and reviewed Slow Death By Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things, I had a few questions for co-author Rick Smith, head of Environmental Defence Canada.
And since his book was costing me — some $120 for a new set of stainless steel cookware to replace the stick-free, Teflon-coated set I’ll be getting rid of since reading this eye-opener — I thought he owed me some answers.
We chatted earlier this week, while he took advantage of Family Day in Canada, visiting a playground with his young boys, a strong impetus behind his work to educate the public about harmful environmental and household toxic chemicals. The younger generation, he worried, has an even higher ‘body burden’ of chemicals than we adults grew up with.
In the book, he and co-author Bruce Lourie, an environmental consultant, test common toxics to find out how they get from consumer goods and food into our bodies. In fact, they ingest or expose themselves to these chemicals to chart the effects.
The basic idea: Since many of these toxic ingredients have been shown in lab experiments to act as endocrine disruptors and cancer triggers figuring out how to limit or reduce our exposure could have positive health effects, for kids and adults.
The chemicals the two examined included:
- Phthalates, used as plasticizers and preservatives or binders in many things, notably, body products, toys and pliable plastic good. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors suspected of interfering with the sexual development of boys, in particular.
- Bisphenol A – A plastic-making chemical found in clear, hard polycarbonate plastic. Once nearly ubiquitous in baby and water bottles, a huge campaign by angry mothers in Canada (and led by EDC) and protests in the U.S. and elsewhere has persuaded manufacturers to make alternatives out of safer plastic; glass and stainless steel bottles also serve as safer options. Studies have shown BPA interferes with the endocrine system, even in tiny doses, and could pre-dispose people to cancers, particularly of reproductive organs.
- PFOAs, classified as “likely carcinogens” and present in the “Teflon family of chemicals” which includes stick-resistant pans and Stainmaster treatments.
- PBDEs and other flame retardants, linked to cancers in studies.
- Triclosan, an antibacterial agent that has proliferated in hand soaps and crept into many other consumer items, and is implicated in the rise of “super-bugs” in the environment, and prompting health agencies to advise the public to return to plain old soap and water for hand hygiene.
- Mercury, a natural compound whose presence has been magnified in the world by industrial pollution, such as emissions from coal plants. Mercury can turn to super toxic methyl mercury in fish. That aside, even the regular mercury contamination of freshwater and ocean fish has governments concerned enough to warn people, particularly child-bearing women and children, to limit their exposure by tempering their consumption of seafood.
- Pesticides, in particular, 2,4-Dioxane, a chemical used in lawn treatments, that has been linked to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neurological impairment, birth defects, asthma and reproductive problems, according to the authors.
Here’s the Q & A with Dr. Smith:
Your book aims to make the connections between all these toxic chemicals in everyday items, and how they get into and affect our bodies. Was that the idea behind polluting yourselves?
The point of the book was to demonstrate number one how easily these chemicals are absorbed by our bodies, and then how predictable the levels are, depending on the product that you use. Quite often enviromentalists will say avoid this product or avoid that product because this will increase your pollution level. We wanted to demonstrate that cause and effect in real time. The results of our experimentation was quite disturbing and quite dramatic.”
Tell me how the idea of polluting yourselves evolved?
It started off as a joke between Bruce and I. We were talking about how we could illustrate the problem of toxic chemicals in consumer products. One of us said well, if we were really serious about this we would experiment on ourselves, and it sort of went from there, much to our family’s alarm.
We did expect to see some increases in these chemicals (internally). But the rapidity and the scale of the increases really surprised us. Nobody had really done this work before, maybe because nobody had been stupid enough. Nobody had tried before to manipulate their internal levels of pollution in this way.
What was the effect on your personally of seeing the effect of some of those chemicals, the mercury and others, that you absorbed?
It reinforced, it very dramatically underlined for us how important it is in our own lives and the lives of others to avoid these chemicals if you can. I mean over a 48 hour period my levels of Triclosan, this common antibacterial chemical increased by 2,900 times. That’s just just a mind boggling experiment in a 48 hour period. That experiment really reinforced for me how important it is to avoid antibacterial products, something I was trying to do anyway, but I now avoid them like the plague.
Antibacterial chemicals have gotten a lot of attention for what they can do to the outside environment (fostering superbugs), but what’s your understanding of what they can do internally? The direct harmful health effects.
First of all, the use of this chemical has dramatically increased in the last few years. You can find it in a huge number of products, whether its antibacterial chopsticks or if you’re renovating your kitchen you can now buy a countertop that’s impregnated with Tricolsan and you can buy cutting boards with Triclosan. You can buy hot tubs with Triclosan in the sides. There’s just a ludicrous number of applications for this product now. And it’s very strongly linked to thyroid problems, and doctors are now very concerned about how commonplace it’s become because of the evidence that it’s leading to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. So these superbugs are becoming more and more common and causing serious illness. It’s out of that concern that the American Medical Association and the Canadian Medical Association have both called for a ban on the use of Triclosan antibacterial products.
I should point out that there are a lot of hand sanitizers on the market now and the ones that are alcohol-based…are safe to use.
Didn’t you worry that you were going to get sick doing these experiments?
The one cardinal rule of our experiments was that our tests had to mimic everyday life. Because obviously it would be very easy to dramatically increase your levels of Teflon if you were willing to go to the nearest hardware store and buy a jug of Teflon, which you can do, and paint yourself with Teflon, or it would be easy to increase yr levels of mercury if you were willing to swallow a few drops of mercury from your thermometer. But nobody does that. So those extreme tests wouldn’t have any applicability to everyday life….
We weren’t really doing anything that millions of people aren’t already doing every day. We were just extremely deliberate about sampling the levels of these chemicals in our blood and urine for about a week. So thought it felt strange to be deliberately poisoning ourselves, that anxiety was kind of offset by the fact that our tests were so mundane. The actions we were undertaking were so mundane and commonplace.
When you sat in the room that had been treated with the Stainmaster chemicals…I don’t think I could have done that.
Ironically that was the one experiment where we didn’t see a dramatic increase in our pollution levels. But it was certainly the experiment that was the most unpleasant to conduct. So even though we followed the directions of the guy who stain-mastered our carpet and opened the windows to let it air out, the off-gassing was quite nauseating. And that was the one experiment where we didn’t see any discernible increase in our pollution levels. We went back to talk to the scientist who helped us design the experiment to look at why it hadn’t worked, and his conclusion was that, perversely, Teflon chemicals are so ubiquitous that we all start off with such elevated levels anyway that it would be very difficult to see a discernible increase in a two day period.
That was ironic.
Why do you think consumers and governments tolerate all this toxicity in products?
Until recently here’s been a real lack of information for consumers. I think that has changed dramatically, especially in the last year or two. It’s very difficult now if you are a company manufacturing chemically intensive consumer products to hide what is in your product. There’s an amazing amount of information online now. People are trading information about the stuff they’re buying. So if you’re a manufacturer today, the name of the game is transparency and getting toxic chemicals out of your product. And if you’re not doing that then you’re liable to lose market share.
I think until now there’s been a real lack of awareness and that is changing fast.
But I think for the last several years people would look at having Microban in pillows and nanosilvers in socks and they would think, Yippee, Something positive has been done here to protect me from germs. I mean the marketing claims seemed good, if you didn’t know any more about it.
I think that’s entirely right. You can see the indication of how quickly things are changing in like the new Clorox line of Greenworks products or SC Johnson, a very old family company producing chemically intensive cleaning products – all of a sudden they’re disclosing all the ingredients in their products and they’re trying to get toxic chemicals out of their products. That’s a very interesting development.
You see that in other areas too, like toys. I’m talking with you from this park and I’m surrounded by literally 200 kids under the age of 5 and I bet if I went around and talked to the parents around me and I mentioned names like bisphenol A (BPA) and Triclosan and other chemicals, they would know what they are and they’ve already been making choices to shield their children from them.
We’re in the middle of a very profound market shift away from these toxic chemicals.
But don’t you think people doubt that these chemicals are really harmful? I mean isn’t it hard to prove that exposure to a certain chemical, say PFOA’s, caused a cancer, when we’re all exposed to a tank full of chemicals?
I think that’s right. But I think many people have a deep sense that something is wrong with the way things are made. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had a brush with cancer themselves, or had a family member that’s had cancer. People you know who have breast or prostate cancer seems to grow every day. Illnesses like childhood asthma are at an all-time high.
I think most people, certainly parents, have a strong sense that there must be a link. And they have a sort of commonsense better safe than sorry approach and it’s changing their buying habits. You can see this with baby bottles for instance where over the last two years millions of young parents decided that given the choice between buying (those containing) bisphenol A or nontoxic glass, they would err on the side of caution.
That’s the good news about a lot of these toxic chemicals – they’re not necessary. There are competitive products on the market right now that parents can choose other than these toxic products.
You dealt with flame retardants, non-stick coatings, phthalates and parabens, mercury, synthetic antibacterial products and to some extent nanoparticles. What scares you the most? What really worried you in going through this exercise.
Generally the effects on my kids worry me. There’s no question that for a lot of these chemicals our children are growing up with a greater burden than we did.”
As for the specific chemicals that really freaked me out, I have to say the Teflon family of chemicals concern me greatly. These are chemicals that scientists now say may never break down. Every molecule of Teflon that was ever created still exists, is floating around in the atmosphere or is lodged in someone’s body somewhere or in the tissue of a killer whale or a polar bear or a penguin, and no amount of stomach acid or time will break these chemicals down. That’s freaky and concerning. We need to not only discontinue the use of thse chemicals but address how we get rid of the tons of chemicals that have already been produced.
The section of your book on Parkersburg, Ohio (where residents have been harmed by pollution from a Teflon factory) was alarming to me also.
That’s a very troubling story and those folks have really suffered.
How do we get companies to reduce this pollution? You seem to be focusing on education of consumers and transparency.
People need to be smarter as consumers, and as citizens demand more from our government. I’m not saying we can shop our way to safety. But the good news from our experiments, that was shown conclusively, is that if you’re careful with what you buy; if you’re careful reading the ingredients list, you can dramatically decrease your levels of personal pollution, sometimes within hours.
So while we are pushing governments to better protect us, to regulate, in the interim, making different choices as consumers can have a very positive impact on our and our children’s levels of pollution.
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