Weekend Review: Slow Death By Rubber Duck by Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie

This review has been sitting in my queue for several months now. Luckily, I took pretty extensive notes when I read the book and the review was pretty much complete when I came back to it, but my writing reads a bit clunkily and my pregnant brain is unable to do too many revisions. Sorry 'bout that!

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday ThingsDo you ever wonder how they make odor resistant socks? What exactly they do to the fabric to be able to make the claim that they will resist absorbing your foot's stank? One way is by impregnating them with incredibly tiny nanoparticles of silver, which works as an antibacterial agent. This is neat in a very space age sort of way, but it becomes less neat the more that you think about it. Silver, when it is absorbed into our bodies, is toxic to us. No, you're not going to die by wearing a silver necklace, but what happens when your skin comes into contact with particles of silver that are so tiny that they can pass through the protective layer of your skin? And perhaps worse, what happens when you wash those socks and send those space age antibacterial silver nanoparticles into the water stream? Once they're in the water, not only do you get to drink them, but they also enter the ground water. Soil only works because it contains bacteria that consume inorganic materials and thus release crucial  nutrients. This has to happen for us to be able to grow things to eat. Silver is toxic to these bacteria.

In Slow Death By Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things (2009) by Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie with Sarah Dopp the authors conduct "Super Size Me" type experiments where the two authors purposefully abstain and then immerse themselves in 7 common household chemicals (among them: pthalates, Teflon, brominated flame retardants, antibacterials, BPA) to see whether they can manipulate their body burdens of those chemicals. They can. Theirs is an example of the use of science in a creative way to advance public policy goals.

There are 82,000 chemicals in use in the US with 700 new ones added each year. Of those 82,000, only 650 are monitored, only 200 have ever been tested for toxicity, and only 5 have ever been banned. Not even asbestos is banned, even though it is a known carcinogen and has killed 45,000 Americans over the last 30 years. The system is clearly broken.

There are no tests about how these chemicals are taken up by our bodies, what they do to us, and how they react in combination with one another and we know even less about how they effect developing fetal brains. We need to install the precautionary principle and reverse the burden of proof. The burden should be on companies to prove these chemicals safe before they are approved, not the other way around, as it currently is.

As a pregnant woman, the section that stayed with me most vividly was their exploration of BPA. We have known for 70 years that it is an endocrine disruptor, so why did companies start making household plastics out of it? Money. And there was no reason for them not to. They're not responsible for the consequences. BPA exposure can effect three generations at once. In the womb, female fetuses develop all of the eggs that they will ever have. So, every woman who has a daughter, carries within her the seeds of her own grandchildren. This is an amazingly poetic fact about nature. But, in tests where scientists exposed pregnant mice to BPA, they saw effects in the mother, the fetus, and that fetus' eggs. In addition to other damage, 40% of the fetus' eggs were damaged. By simply living our lives in our chemical world we are directly causing the infertility of our children. This is just simply unacceptable.

A key point to take away from this book is the incorrectness of the adage "the dose makes the poison." This makes common sense for salt and for alcohol. But it is not true for endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as BPA. Our bodies are very sensitive to hormones. They have to be in order to do the amazing things that they do. So, we are also very sensitive to even tiny trace amounts of chemicals that mimic hormones.

They close with a "detox" chapter that offers a two-pronged approach. They offer very specific suggestions on how to lower your exposure to these 7 specific toxins and reassure us that our personal actions do make a great deal of difference in our own personal body burdens. But, they remind us that that's not enough. Until industry is reined in, we will always be fighting a losing battle. So, political will and grassroots action is crucial. "It is critical that we address this problem not only as consumers, but also as engaged citizens demanding better of their governments."


  1. Very interesting! Making a note to get this book from the library~Thanks for taking the time to make us aware~

  2. The system is definitely broken, and just as much so here in Canada too. I will definitely give this a read. The amount of chemicals is staggering and the depths of its reach into almost every single item used in our every day lives is overwhelming but in my opinion, better to be informed and make what changes we can, if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren or one of those sci-fi movies where no children are being born will come true.

    Have you read The Ecoholic Home by Adria Vasil? If you haven't, I highly recommend it. She's Canadian but she wrote a version solely for U.S. readers.

    Be well ~Andrea~

  3. It is really disguisting how many unregulated chemicals we are exposed to daily. I don't know if I can read this book - reality is too depressing.

  4. This one has been on my to-read list for awhile! Thanks for the review!

  5. Will add to my list as well. I am a little with Grace though...my brain hurts from years of reading such things without a lot of options as to how to keep it away from myself and my kiddos without sending us into financial chaos!


  6. @Grace and Jen: I couldn't agree more. I've actually taken a big step back from reading this genre of books. This review and one more forthcoming are all I have left of the pre-pregnancy era of reading. I lean towards much more positive fare these days.

    @Andrea: I haven't heard of "The Ecoholic Home." Thanks for the suggestion; I'll check it out!

  7. thanks for this review, courtney! though it's depressing, nothing will change unless we're aware of the problem and start making steps toward change.

    i'm interested in the positive stuff you've been reading lately, too. can't wait to hear about it.