Death without Fanfare

Reviewed by Anthony Lee

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Image source: Flickr.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our HealthRick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. 276 pp. Electronic version for Amazon's "Kindle."

When we look back at the Industrial Revolution in 19th century Europe from our contemporary lenses, we inevitably include discussions of pollution and the sacrifice of health for the development of nation states. Fast forward to the developed nations of the 21st century - most people are of the belief that their lives are free from industrial pollutants. But is this sense of security justified? According to the authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, we are in more danger than ever of polluting our bodies. However, the authors argue that instead of breathing in smoggy air, we are now being contaminated with toxins in ways that are often less than obvious.

Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie are both Canadian environmentalists with university backgrounds in Zoology and Geology, respectively (linkedin). The specific nature of their personal work and membership in Canada's environmental foundations has also brought them into extensive contact with the Canadian government. As such, the subject matter of Slow Death by Rubber Duck is pertinent to their field of expertise and their personal interests. However, although we can validate their positions as environmental pundits who can comment on policy, we must also keep in mind that Smith and Lourie are not chemists or molecular biologists by training. Biological toxin pollution inevitably requires an understanding of the aforementioned fields.

From antiquity till the present, every culture has had some kind of ritual for commemorating their dead. With the exception of unsolved murders or unknown diseases, humans have always striven to quantify the causes of death. But with the advent of invisible toxins in our bodies, Smith and Lourie argue that we may be slowly, perpetually, and unknowingly killed. Effectively, the purpose of the book is to identify "where exactly... these things [chemical toxins] are coming from (Smith, 28)" through a series of isolated, home-based experiments over a period of three days. Specifically, the authors dedicate the book to "our [their] families" in the front cover of the text, demonstrating their concern that these chemicals have on their close relations. This theme of familial-concern is continued throughout the rest of the book, forcing readers to embody the authors' problems. In fact, the authors state that every individual in society is exposed to such poisoning, regardless of socioeconomic class, race, or other culturally stratifying categories. Thus, in the eyes of Smith and Lourie, toxins have become a silent killer that most people are unknowingly victims of; unnecessary deaths and their cross generational effects resulting from such chemicals have truly become an occasion without need for fanfare.

Throughout nine chapters, the authors problematize (an Anthropological term) seven different families of chemicals in different ways. Firstly, as society is today, most of us are inevitably exposed to a variety of such toxins no matter how we strive to limit our contact with them. In chapter 2, Smith faces this challenge in a variety of ways. Before his three day experiment with Lourie, Smith attempted to completely free his body of Phthalates. However, when he received the results of his blood tests back, he showed readers how his detoxification efforts were not completely successful due to small but residual levels of Phthalates in his blood even prior to prolonged exposure. In addition to Smith's inability to free his body of Phthalates, he shows how dependent North American society has become on malleable plastics, substances that contain Phthalate-plasticizers. Smith demonstrates this fact by humorously presenting his "ketchup-option paralysis (67)" at the end of chapter 2. The environmentalist was forced to choose between organic ketchup in a plastic bottle and non-local, non-organic ketchup in a glass bottle. Although he chose the organic ketchup in the end, he illustrated how even strolling through a typical grocery store provided unique problems to anyone attempting to avoid Phthalates.

Although contradictory to the author's previously identified argument at first glance, the authors scribe that "our choices as consumers really do have a profound, and very rapid, effect on the pollution levels in our bodies (255)." We may be unable to completely clear our bodies of some substances identified as pollutants, but we still have the ability to significantly reduce their levels. Closely linked to this is Smith and Lourie's point that the opinions of 'average consumers,' banding together, have the ability to override or influence the actions of large companies. This point is most evidently illustrated in the personal success story of the authors' organized rally against Bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogenic chemical with suspected negative health effects. Subsequent to the success of the rally, media attention was drawn to BPA and Canada became the first country in the world to ban the substance. Interestingly enough, I remember this particular event touching my life when a friend insisted on buying a new water bottle for me after the widespread scare of BPA in certain types of plastic.

To prove their arguments, Bruce and Lourie use two types of evidence: direct and indirect. The direct evidence used by the authors is measured in a 'before and after' fashion, with the differences in chemical levels being specified in both cases. All of the evidence I categorize as direct was collected in a span of three days where both the authors bombarded themselves with various products known to contain a certain kind of chemical. On the other hand, Rick and Lourie also utilize indirect evidence gathered from interviews. The most notable use of their interviews is in the defamation of DuPont, the company that manufactures Teflon products. The local voices of citizens in Parkersburg, West Virginia, are used against the city's largest single employer. Given the variety of sources for their argument and easy-to-understand numbers from their personal experiment, all the evidence provided is compelling at first glance.

Being a student exposed to both the fields of Arts and Science, I am often drawn into the 'grey area' between both fields. Slow Death by Rubber Duck only exemplifies this ambiguity. Right from the start, I would like to point out that the results of Smith and Lourie's experiment would never be accepted into an academic scientific journal. The very nature of their experiment could provide extremely skewed results, especially in terms of short/long term human biological response. One of the miracles of human biology is our ability to internally achieve homeostasis. Any first year physiology student will be able to tell you about the complicated rate diagrams, detailing initial increases followed by rapid decreases in X, that need to be memorized. I cannot help but draw parallels between Lourie's tuna binge and Spurlock's McDonalds-fest. I would like to point out that compulsively eating tuna is unrealistic in real life, much like how a supersized McDonalds meal at all points in the day is atypical. If anything, an argument for moderation should be made, rather than one that demonizes the fish itself. In fact, I would like to point out that Queen Elizabeth I regularly used lead-based makeup but outlived most of her contemporary advisors. From my 'Arts' perspective, I can admire the rhetorical strategy that the authors have used - their voice is very easy to understand and their writing is extremely personal. This kind of narration is what the everyday reader (especially parents) can relate and sympathize with. However, I am sure that most scientists in academia will approach the book from a comparatively critical viewpoint.

 Rick and Lourie, being environmentalists, are inevitably drawn towards negative opinion regarding the practice of big businesses/authority councils. Throughout the entire book, industry is constantly villanized as an enemy of the consumer. For example, Jack Gerard, the former president of the American Chemistry Council, is placed in an extremely negative light when he "fumes (62)" that the nationwide Phthalate ban was not based on good science. But, in a sense, I do sympathize with Gerard. At the time, not enough compelling evidence was made to rationalize the Phthalate ban, in spite of what we know today. I felt like the book sometimes problematized chemical issues more related to responsible business practice rather than focus on the danger of the chemical itself. Sometimes, unfitting concepts such as carbon emissions were brought into this particular book. The authors were 'pushing' too many agendas at the same time! As a counterexample to the authors' urges of not using pesticides, a recent breakout of incurable e-coli due to organic farming has occurred in Germany.

 Smith and Lourie have produced a piece of work that has certainly made me question my choices as a consumer. I find myself reading labels and letting the ingredients influence whether I will make a subsequent purchase. As such, one of their many purposes in writing the book has been achieved. Despite the convincing argument presented, you must also take some of the provided evidence in stride, given its possibility of erroneous results and bias towards a 'favourable'(in their eyes) outcome. All in all, a good read that is sure to make you pause the next time you see "parfum (fragrance)" written on a label.  

 Works Cited:

"Bruce Lourie." Canada | LinkedIn. Web. 26 June 2011. <  lourie/1b/aa7/b87>.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. 276

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