Feature

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

The authors' real achievement is in revealing how chemical giants stay a step ahead of regulators, said Krista Foss in the Toronto <em>Globe and Mail.</em>

(Counterpoint, 328 pages, $25)

The co-authors of this eye-opening Canadian best-seller took a surprisingly simple approach to documenting the dangers of everyday pollutants, said Lisa Bonos in The Washington Post. Holing up in a Toronto condo for three days, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie microwaved their meals in plastic containers, ate a lot of tuna, used scented shampoo when they showered, and washed their hands with antibacterial products. Meanwhile, they inhaled the fumes from the carpet’s fresh coat of Stainmaster—and played a lot of Guitar Hero. What they hoped to measure was how readily the body absorbs seven potentially hazardous common chemicals, including mercury, triclosan, and phthalates. “The results,” even for these two veteran environmental advocates, were “staggering.”

What’s “staggering” is the thinness of the evidence these “scaremongers” generate, said Terence Corcoran in the Toronto National Post. Take Smith’s concern about his intake of Bisphenol A, or BPA, a plastic additive commonly used in food containers or to line tin cans. When he frets about urine tests that show a “dramatic spike” in his BPA levels, he doesn’t mention that even his elevated BPA is a tiny fraction of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe for an adult’s daily intake. Thus the test results Smith and Lourie generate “prove the opposite” of what they intend.

The authors’ methods may have been imperfect, but their story presents a “timely antidote” to the propaganda of the chemical industries, said Krista Foss in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Canada has already banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, and just last week, U.S. health agencies announced plans to revisit their BPA standards. Smith and Lourie too often claim that chemicals in products like Stainmaster are dangerous in ways that their experiment doesn’t actually measure. Their real achievement is in documenting how chemical giants stay a step ahead of regulators, and those revelations make the book “a fascinating and frightening read.”

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