Toronto-based authors Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith drew attention to the toxic chemicals lurking in our bodies with their 2010 bestseller, Slow Death by Rubber Duck. But the question remained, "How do I get these chemicals out of my system?"
To find the answer, Lourie and Smith interviewed top scientists on how to rid our bodies of some of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals around us. They put ionic foot baths, colon cleanses and so-called detox diets to the test. They used themselves as guinea pigs, enduring hazards ranging from sitting for eight hours in an off-gassing car to fainting in a hot sauna.
Lourie and Smith, both of whom are directors of prominent environmental organizations, discovered that we can detox from chemicals such as carcinogenic pesticides in our food and hormone-disrupting phthalates used in perfumes, according to their follow-up book, Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World, released Dec. 31 by Knopf Canada.
But as Smith explains, the process takes commitment – and supposed quick-fixes don't do the trick.
If we are exposed to thousands of chemicals, what hope do we have of detoxing our bodies?
It's easy to get stuck in pollution nihilism, but you can reduce your chemical load very rapidly and significantly. In one experiment, we had nine kids volunteer to eat non-organic food for four days, then organic food for four days, followed by non-organic for another four days. We measured urine levels of cancer-causing organophosphate pesticides each morning. During the organic phase the pesticide levels in the bodies of these kids were one-third what they were when they were eating non-organic. In a sauna experiment, Bruce [Lourie] showed that some chemicals are flushed from the body in greater amounts through sweat than through urine. One of the most effective detox methods is exercise, since a lot of chemicals are deposited in fat cells.
Just how scientific were these experiments?
We don't pretend that these experiments are scientifically rigorous, but they are illustrative and replicable, which is important in science. As part of our research, we also interviewed the scientific experts globally who know about the chemicals we talk about.
Some of your detox steps are the same we've heard for years – buy green products, eat organic. What's different here?
We've grounded our arguments in facts and direct experimentation. In the chapter on cosmetics, for example, we compared levels of certain toxic chemicals when people used conventional body-care products and then switched to green products. There is clear evidence that if you're more careful as a consumer, you can reduce levels of certain chemicals in predictable ways. Even changing a few products can make a big difference. And if you eat organic fruits and veggies and don't manage to have a strictly organic diet in other respects, that will still be a big step forward.
Aren't green and organic products too expensive for many Canadians?
We're now at the point where the price of greener cosmetics and organic food has come down dramatically – side by side with many conventional products, the price is the same. If you compare organic meat and dairy, for sure there's still quite a big price differential, but it depends on the product.
Lots of products are now listed as bisphenol A (BPA)-free. Are BPA alternatives any safer?
In some cases, the newly reformulated products are clearly benign. A lot of parents now use glass baby bottles, stainless-steel bottles and demonstrably safe plastics like polyethylene. In other applications of BPA, we still have a problem. Instead of BPA, a lot of cash-register receipts are now coated in BPS, which is very similar to BPA and probably has similar effects. But since that has hit the news, they are being reformulated again. Consumer demand for transparency and safety has become untenable for companies to ignore.
Is there any evidence of improved health outcomes once we reduce blood levels of this chemical or that?
President [Barack] Obama's Cancer Panel, which is the most mainstream authority imaginable on the causes and treatments for cancer, has increasingly been focusing on the link between environmental toxins and certain types of cancer. The scientific and medical establishment is increasingly convinced that a portion of the risk of these different diseases – breast cancer, prostate cancer – is related to the chemicals that we write about.
Is there a way for people to track their detox progress to encourage them to stick with the program?
Because we are talking about hundreds of different chemicals, it's very hard to find one lab or one doctor who can test for everything. This needs to become part of a new lifestyle. Once you decide this will be a consideration when you go to a store or create your exercise routine, it becomes easier.
This interview has been condensed and edited.