May 19, 2010

Review by Erica Phipps published in Children, Youth and Environments Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2010)

ISSN: 1546-2250 Slow Death by Rubber Duck Smith, Rick and Lourie, Bruce (2009). Canada: Alfred A. Knopf Canada; 323 pages. $32.00 (CAN). ISBN 9780307397126.

Toxic chemicals can be found not only in the environment that surrounds and sustains us, but inside each one of us. Smith and Lourie bring this point home by demonstrating—with a dozen or so off-the-shelf products and a few days spent holed up in an apartment—the role that consumer products play in determining our “body burdens” of toxic substances such as phthalates, Bisphenol-A, mercury and the antibacterial chemical Triclosan. In a semi-controlled experiment on themselves, the authors use laboratory test results of their before-and-after blood and urine levels to illustrate that simple everyday actions such as eating tuna, using fragranced personal care products and drinking from polycarbonate plastic containers can significantly increase a person’s body burden of toxic chemicals associated with cancer, disruption of the hormone system and a range of other health concerns.

While much of the information in the book is not new, Smith and Lourie bring a fresh perspective to the daunting and disturbing issue of the health effects of the many chemicals used in everyday consumer products. With fascinating historical highlights of how substances such as brominated flame retardants have come to be incorporated into sofas and electronics and, ultimately, shed into the house dust that settles on the floors where our children play, the authors reveal the seemingly cavalier manner in which companies have placed our children’s delicate brains and hormone, immune and respiratory systems at risk for the sake of product “enhancement” and market share.

With an engaging, rambling journey through the history of chemicals in consumer products, Smith and Lourie, both veteran environmental activists, successfully deliver their two intended “take home” messages. The first is that our choices as consumers do have a profound effect on the levels of chemicals in our bodies. In one experiment, for example, Smith increased his urine levels of Triclosan from less than 3 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) to a whopping 7,180 ng/mL after using a handful of antibacterial products, including soap, dish liquid, toothpaste, shave gel and deodorant, for just two days. Their second take-home message is that it is impossible to completely avoid these toxic exposures given their ubiquitous nature: we must take action at the societal level.

Despite the serious nature of the issues it addresses and the legitimate concerns it raises, Slow Death by Rubber Duck is a refreshing break from the often depressing books that line the environmental shelf at the local bookstore. While conveying an urgent need for societal action to curb the toxic content of consumer products, the authors’ insider description of recent regulatory gains and the related upsurge in public interest impart a sense of hope and momentum. While not as groundbreaking as Theo Colborn and colleagues’ expertly-crafted exposé of endocrine disrupting chemicals, My Stolen Future, Smith and Lourie’s book is a welcome addition to the growing tradition of books that translate complex scientific and biomedical concepts into terms that ordinary people can understand and incorporate into their daily lives.

Although perhaps worth its inaccuracies given its attention-grabbing power, the book’s title—Slow Death by Rubber Duck—strikes me as somewhat unfortunate. If our kids’ bath toys were indeed made of rubber, a natural substance, we would have less to worry about. Also, the title’s focus on death, although certainly an outcome we want to avoid, belies the perhaps more unsettling concerns about the insidious, often subtle effects that toxic chemicals can have on the delicate architecture and functioning of the brain and other organ systems of the developing fetus and child. The real challenge is getting a scientific grasp of the difficult-to-pin-down chronic effects of the complex mixtures of low-dose synthetic chemicals we are all exposed to on a daily basis, from conception through old age.

This book should be read by parents, grandparents, educators, health professionals, activists, industry leaders, shopkeepers, young people, and lawmakers alike. Because of its accessibility to the lay public, this book will contribute to the ongoing democratic debate in Canada and elsewhere about the appropriate role of chemicals, including pesticides, in our homes and communities. Only with an informed and engaged public will we achieve stronger, more precautionary chemical regulations and product safety laws. Please note: The views expressed above are those of the reviewer and do not necessarily reflect the views of CPCHE or its individual partner organizations. 

Reviewer Information: Phipps Erica Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE) Erica Phipps has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan, where she specialized in environmental health and public policy. She has worked on toxic chemicals management and policy issues for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the United Nations and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The past ten years of her career have been devoted to children’s environmental health protection. She currently serves as partnership director for the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (, a multi-sectoral collaboration of 12 organizations from the environmental, child care, clinical and public health sectors with a common mission to advance children’s environmental health protection in Canada. She lives outside of Ottawa, Ontario, with her husband and three young children.