I knew before I began reading that Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie was going to make me go on a rampage through my house and life weeding out toxins that I didn’t know about or had been trying to ignore. And yeah, from the first chapter I have been compelled to start examining everything. The really scary thing is, I thought we were generally very careful and there is still stuff that sneaks in. Even scarier though is that even if a person can manage to totally eliminate all toxic chemicals from their house (something nearly impossible) you would still be exposed to them as soon as you walk out the front door. As a result everyone in the whole entire world, even in vitro babies, are swimming in toxic chemicals.

Just think about that for a second. There is no one in the entire world who does not have toxic chemicals in their bodies.

The book focuses on a handful of the most common chemicals, ones that we come into contact with nearly everyday and probably don’t even know it. Take phthalates for instance. They are in personal care products from shampoo to shaving cream to hand lotion. They are probably not listed on the ingredients label. If you see “fragrance” or “parfum” on the label though there is an almost certain chance there are phthalates in the product. Even unscented products might contain this chemical. If you use air fresheners you are breathing in phthalates. Children’s toys often have this chemical in it too and when kids put toys in their mouth they are ingesting this chemical. Most vinyl and a lot of plastic products have this chemical in it from shower curtains to raincoats to medical devices. Why should we care? Studies have found that phthalates are hormone disrupters which mean in infants and children they affect growth and development. In adults they may contribute to prostate and breast cancer.

Other chemicals mentioned in the book include PFCs, the stuff that make no-stick pans not sticky and can also be found on the inside of microwave popcorn bags and most fast food wrappers; PBDEs, a fire retardant used in children’s sleepwear, mattresses, sofas, TVs and computers; mercury, a naturally occurring toxin but one that we have turned into a health issue because it is produced by coal-burning power plants and is used in batteries, thermostats and fluorescent lights; triclosan, a chemical present in almost anything that claims to be antibacterial and is no more effective that soap and water; pesticides, both agricultural and home use like on lawns; bisphenol A (BPA), used in polycarbonate plastics it is a hormone disrupter and is everywhere from plastic drinking glasses to eyeglasses and just about anything that is a hard plastic and can also be found on the insides of canned foods.

We came to be swimming in toxic chemicals because government regulations do not require chemical companies to prove the chemicals are safe. Instead the burden of proof is placed on government agencies (which are pretty much sleeping with the enemy so don’t expect help from them) and concerned scientists and citizens to prove the chemicals are not safe. At this point we are so infused with hundreds of different chemicals it is very difficult to pinpoint which one is doing what.

Smith and Lourie are both active Canadian environmentalists. In writing the book they actually performed tests on themselves to see if they could raise and lower the amounts of the various chemicals in their bodies. They could. What was really frightening was how easy it was to increase the levels and in some cases increase them higher than what is considered “safe.” The fact that any of these chemicals are considered safe is one big joke. There is no safe level. Do you wonder why so many people are being diagnosed with prostate and breast cancers? Other kinds of cancers? Alzheimer’s? And probably a host of other diseases? We search for cures for myriad diseases whose incidence we could dramatically decrease if we could rid ourselves and our world of toxic chemicals.

The book is well done and eye opening even if you think you already know about all this stuff. It made me scared and it pissed me off. The authors also offer suggestions on how to limit exposure to the chemicals they discuss, provide further reading in the form of books and websites, and encourage everyone to speak up and speak out.

Here is something to think about:

We are eating, drinking and soaking in tens of thousands of potentially toxic substances, most of which we know little about. When all of these chemicals are combined together in our drinking water, we know virtually nothing about how they interact with each other or our bodies, and we know particularly little about how they affect developing brains and fetuses. Medical experts have no idea whether 20 different carcinogenic chemicals in the water are 20 times more likely to cause cancer or 100 times or whether their effect is likely to be no different than that of just one chemical.