RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We're all awash in chemicals, including components of the plastic we encounter every day. There are more than 80,000 chemicals used today in various consumer products and industrial processes. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with protecting us from the most hazardous chemicals, has reliable safety data on only 3,000 to 5,000 of them.
The fact that many of the remaining 75,000 are used in products we encounter every day, such as water-repellent clothing and, yes, rubber ducks (which are made from vinyl, a plastic that is softened with hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates) should be disconcerting, as it was for Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defense, a Canadian advocacy group, and coauthor of the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things (Counterpoint, 2010). What he and his coauthor, Bruce Laurie, found even more disturbing was how easily these chemicals migrate out of products and get absorbed by us, turning the public into guinea pigs for chemical companies who often can't account for their safety. Smith and Laurie subjected themselves to a weeklong science experiment, using products as any normal person would and then measuring the levels of chemicals from those products in their bodies. They ate out of canned-food containers, microwaved in plastic, ate food made in nonstick pans, and used everyday personal-care products like scented shampoos and antibacterial soaps.
Rodale.com talked to Rick Smith to discuss what he found, and the attention he hopes his experiment can bring to the ongoing debate about chemical regulation.
Rodale.com: What brought about the idea for the book?
Rick Smith: A certain amount of curiosity and outrage at the extent to which these giant chemical companies have been getting their way for years. At the same time, people are waking up to the new reality of pollution. As a society, we've made progress cleaning up the big, obvious sources of pollution, the big belching smokestacks, the big sewer pipes that used to be so prominent. Now, more people are realizing that some of the most serious sources of pollution affecting our health—causing increasing rates of certain types of cancer, causing childhood epidemics that we're seeing like obesity and ADHD—are coming from these innocuous products that we have in our homes. Our governments have totally let us down in terms of consumer protection, and I think people are getting that. My hope with our book is that we demonstrate that even in the absence of government regulation, people can have a dramatic impact on the levels of pollution in their bodies, simply by being smarter consumers, by reading labels more carefully and by buying greener, less-toxic products.
What made you want to experiment on yourselves?