‘Rubber Duck’ authors point out unfriendly chemicals in home products

  • Thu Apr 22nd, 2010 7:49am
  • News

By Don Hopey Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The “Sesame Street” sing-along song goes “Rubber Ducky, you’re the one. You make bathtime lots of fun.” But, according to a recently published book by Canadian environmental activists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, maybe not.

Make that definitely not.

“Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things” posits that the worst chemical pollution impacting human health isn’t belching out of smokestacks but is instead found inside the home in everyday things like food cans, sofas and children’s plastic toys.

The book details the health impacts experienced by Smith and Lourie following a week spent in a Toronto condo where they came into contact with food, furniture, air fresheners and a host of personal and household cleaning products containing toxic chemicals.

“There’s a new kind of pollution in town and it’s not the obvious industrial pollution of the past,” said Smith. “The pollutants most linked to human disease are more subtle chemicals in our homes and offices.”

He said that there are 100,000 chemicals used in common products in everyday use and most have not been tested for their effect on human health.

In perhaps the scariest self-experimentation since the 2004 documentary film “Super Size Me,” or maybe 1986’s “The Fly” starring Jeff Goldblum, Smith and Lourie lived with plug-in air fresheners, lathered with shaving gels and scented shampoos, sat on a sofa and carpet treated with stain- and flame-retardant chemicals and ate canned food heated in plastic containers.

They measured the levels of seven chemicals in their bodies’ blood and urine before, during and after the weeklong experiment.

Smith said that after three days using shampoos, conditioners and antiperspirants containing phthalates, a group of chemicals commonly found in flame retardants, soaps, household products and children’s toys, including some rubber ducks, the level of phthalates byproducts in his blood spiked to 22 times safe levels. The highest level measured was for a phthalate byproduct linked to male reproductive problems.

And after drinking from one of his son’s old plastic baby bottles and eating canned food microwaved in plastic containers for two days, Smith experienced a significant increase in the level of bisphenol A, or BPA. A report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this year raised concerns about BPA exposure to fetuses, infants and young children, and Canada recently banned use of BPA-containing baby bottles.

“Even the most innocuous of activities, shampooing, sitting on a sofa, eating out of certain containers can have a most dramatic effect on a body’s pollution,” said Smith, executive director of Environmental Defense Canada, which was instrumental in pushing for the BPA ban in Canada.

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous chemical landscape, hope can be found, Smith said, in educating people to read labels and make informed decisions about the products they use.

“There are some things we can control,” he said, “choices we can make, to drastically reduce our bodies’ levels of pollutants.”

He said “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” contains a “toxics shopping list,” information about how people can detoxify their homes and lifestyles and Web links to online resources for healthy toys, household products and cosmetics.