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from saturday's books section

Anne de Haas

Plunge your hands into a well-stocked toy box and no doubt your fingers will alight upon an example of modern chemistry's ingenuity: the soft, rubbery toy that bounces back after being squeezed, pummelled or chewed on. That vinyl plaything owes its pliability to chemicals called phthalates. And it's these invisible additives that leave the toy box stewing in a distinctly modern dilemma: A growing body of evidence links the chemicals to "de-masculinizing" effects in infant boys, according to Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, written by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie.

Over nine chapters, Smith, a biologist and executive director of Environmental Defence, and Lourie, an environmental consultant, examine how the very chemicals that relieve us of bad smells, unsightly stains, sticky foods, invasive weeds and flammability - not to mention brittle toys - threaten our own and our children's health. It's a fascinating and frightening read leavened by frequent references to pop culture - everything from Saturday Night Live episodes to quotes from Miss Marple - as well as the authors' brio in using their own bodies as test subjects.

  • Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, Knopf Canada, 323 pages, $32

Smith and Lourie set up a series of experiments in which they intensify their exposure to everyday toxins, then take before-and-after blood and urine samples to gauge the changes in their bodies. In one instance, they play Guitar Hero for nearly 48 hours straight in a hermetically sealed room in Lourie's condominium that has been freshly sprayed with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), a class of chemicals used as a stain-resistant treatment for rugs and drapes.

It's a tried-and-true narrative conceit. In his 2004 documentary, Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock subsisted for 30 days on the excessive portions of McDonald's menu in order to expose the dark side of fast food. It wasn't the most scientifically rigorous method, but his weight gain, mood changes and doctors cluck-clucking ominously about his compromised liver were compelling viewing.

Unlike quarter-pounders and milkshakes, however, what makes everyday chemicals so insidious is that humans are exposed to small amounts over many years and their effects are not immediately evident. Except for feeling a bit woozy after a few days in the room rank with PFCs, Lourie and Smith show no outward symptoms of their multiple chemical exposures. So they have to rely on what is revealed in their blood and urine analysis for drama, and that is uneven.

Three days of eating several all-tuna meals and snacks more than doubles Lourie's blood-mercury levels. Smith sees a nearly 3,000-per-cent hike in his urine levels of the antibacterial agent triclosan after two days of using an array of personal-care products - from facial cleanser to toothpaste - that could be in anybody's home. Yet their Guitar Hero marathon renders no change in either man's blood levels of the stain-resisting PFCs; the reader has to settle for assurances the chemical is problematic in a way the short-lived experiment can't track.

Meanwhile, the authors don't measure how their blood or urine levels are affected by exposure to pesticides and herbicides (Ontario banned lawn-care products while the book was being written) or brominated fire retardants, opting instead to rely on their base or background levels. Subsequently, the experiments feel a bit inconsistent and ill-conceived, not to mention rushed.

Read an excerpt from the book

Luckily for the reader, there's a more compelling narrative to fall back on in Slow Death by Rubber Duck: the rise of the different chemical producers' oligopolies. Unlike the tobacco industry (whose lobbyists they've hired), chemical companies have an advantageous dexterity. They can appear to be responsibly phasing out a contentious toxin while simultaneously marketing a close chemical relative that will make them just as much money before the science detailing its effects on human health catches up. They can also leverage consumer fears - notably of bacteria and fire - to get their chemicals into a huge array of products. According to Slow Death by Rubber Duck, low levels of antibacterial agents are now embedded in everything from garden hoses to sports socks.

Just recently, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association scored considerable media coverage for an industry-funded study showing that reusable shopping bags - which many consumers choose over plastic bags in order to be environmentally responsible - pose a health risk by exposing Canadians to "dangerous bacteria." Information that so baldly wants to scare consumers into what Lourie and Smith call "pollution nihilism" is an everyday toxin too. A book such as Slow Death by Rubber Duck is an important and timely antidote.

Krista Foss is a Hamilton-based writer and fan of reusable shopping bags. She is purging her home of non-stick surfaces and rubber ducks.