Vintage Canada, 2010 expanded reprint of 2009 original, 339 pages, C$19.95 pb, ISBN 978-0-307-39713-3
One of the most depressing consequences of environmental awareness is the gradual understanding that it’s a never-ending battle. You can remove the belching smokestacks, recycle the garbage dumps, stop dumping waste in the environment and stop clear-cutting forests, and the job still won’t be done. In Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie eloquently demonstrate that even in our everyday life, there are still dangers from everyday products even though those products may be manufactured, shipped, sold and recycled more responsively than ever before.
The analytical centerpiece of the book is the kind of analysis that can now be cheaply done to verify the levels of various toxic materials in our own blood. Everyone today is tainted to some degree by heightened levels of products that don’t belong in our bodies. We have all breathed dangerous metals, cuddled next to treated fabrics, used products made out of toxic products… and the cumulative effect of our daily lives shows in blood tests. In eight chapters, the authors willingly subject themselves to common products to show how easy it is to poison ourselves.
For instance, in the chapter “Rubber Duck Wars”, the authors seek out phthalate-containing products (phthalates being a handy industrial lubricant used in plastics and personal products, now thought to increase infertility risks) and willingly expose themselves to them. Within days, before-and-after tests show how their levels of phthalates skyrocketed. (The good news being that phthalates break down relatively quickly, meaning that returning to normal non-exposure quickly led to more normal toxin levels within a few weeks. This is not the case with all contaminants.)
Phthalates are an interesting case study given how, over the past decade, they were banned after consumer pressure. Slow Death by Rubber Duck is a clever book in not only showing us the toxicity of ordinary products and the extent to which even normal exposure can quickly lead to elevated levels of blood toxins, but also in showing how concerted activism can have an impact. One of the book’s best moments is found in Chapter Eight, “Mothers Know Best”, which shows how environmental groups were able to work with the Canadian Conservative government in order to announce a ban on the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in products, and paving the way for other countries to do the same. It’s this kind of result-based activism that steadily makes the world incrementally safer for everyone.
Reading the book, there’s no doubt that regulation is the way to go for most of those environmental issues. Smith and Lourie (plus Sarah Dopp, who gets third billing everywhere but on the cover) make a compelling (and recurring) case that many of these toxic products find their way in our environment thanks to industry marketing and pressures to solve minor problems with worse solutions. We increasingly create our problems in response to relatively trivial concerns, and it takes us years to realize the error of our ways. In the meantime, it is concerted action that leads governments (even by governments not known for environmental activism, as shown by positive Bush-administration actions) to take action and codify our understanding of biological science into industry guidelines. Left to itself, the industry can’t really be counted upon to self-regulate –especially considering past examples such as the history of mercury use in dental filling and other hair-raising practices.
Until regulations catch up to science, it’s really up to the individual citizen to start taking action. Slow Death by Rubber Duck has a few recommendations to make in order to act as more responsible individuals. The book ends on a series of recommendation that finally got me to stop cooking stuff in Tupperware, get rid of my old water bottles and trash the plastic shower curtain in favor of a fabric one. Small things that amount to real changes, even while industries and government race to catch up to the latest science and tighten up manufacturing and importation standards. Even-tempered, compelling to read and even funny at times, Slow Death by Rubber Duck has earned its national best-selling status. Read the paperback edition for a new afterword describing the reaction to the book, and why the people complaining loudest about the book (the usual environmental deniers) may be the most compelling reason to read it.