Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

As a borderline hypochondriac, I've long avoided reading books on environmental toxins, fearing that the knowledge I'd find therein would send me straight over the edge. I have this Yossarian-esque need to not die even if it kills me, and it's led me to all manner of strange behaviors over the years (one of the reasons I took up knitting is that it's said to help prevent Alzheimer's, for example). I'm too much of a fan of being alive to subject myself to things that will harm me, and sometimes, ignorance is neurosis-free bliss...

...until you get cancer from cooking out of chipped teflon-lined pans, or your kid develops hypospadias because you ate microwaved food out of a plastic container when you were pregnant, or you go insane and die from eating too much tuna (sadly, there is such a thing) and developing mercury poisoning.

These examples are extreme, of course, but the problem with the way that American (and Canadian; Smith and Lourie are from there) chemical companies are regulated is that their products are presumed to be safe until demonstrated otherwise. This is in stark contrast to the way in which the FDA's pharmaceuticals testing works; a drug must be proven safe before it is marketed. The inevitable end result is that toxic products can be on the market for years, if not decades, before a critical mass of evidence and consumer outrage accumulates and forces change. This, too, can take years of work, given how powerful the lobbying arms of the chemical companies are. In the meantime, people get sick and die needlessly.

The cool thing about Slow Death by Rubber Duck is that it's not 100% doom and gloom. Despite going into great, painstaking detail about how easy it is for toxic materials to build up inside your body (and how ubiquitous they are!), they offer an optimistic look at the future. The more environmental awareness grows, they argue, the more likely it is that standards will change and damaging products will be removed from the shelves. In the meantime, though, it is possible to avoid them by being a savvy consumer. They provide long lists of shopping tips that are designed to help people weed out sketchy products as well as advice on how to mitigate any damage that has already been done.

I guess it goes without saying that I've spent the last week going through my possessions and tossing a bunch of stuff. The biggest casualties have been cosmetics and hair/skincare. The crazy thing is that I went sulfate and silicone-free a couple of years ago because of my curly hair, and it turns out even that wasn't effective. Luckily, I was able to find some acceptable hair products at less than what I was paying for the old stuff (Kiss My Face brand, if anyone is curious. One of the good things about living in Asheville is the widespread availability of crunchy products). Less luckily, I discovered that there are few to none brands of mascara that are phthalate-free, and that I will more than likely be switching from body wash to plain soap.

I've also gotten rid of all the scratched-up non-stick pans in the kitchen, and will be looking for replacements at some point in the near future. I'm planning on going for stainless steel with copper bottoms, though apparently Cuisinart has launched a lone of non-stick pans that do not leach carcinogenic or toxic chemicals. I'm also looking into replacing all of the plastic food storage containers we use with glass ones (which will probably still have plastic lids, but they won't be touching the food) and getting rid of the plastic glasses floating around the cupboard.

Luckily, I eat tuna so infrequently that my sushi rolls are safe. Canned tomatoes are another matter entirely, but I guess you can't win them all.

All told, I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It's given me a lot to think about.

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