Big Yellow Duck: A Modern Toxic Paradise

By Heather Graham

Screen shot 2021-07-14 at 12.01.59 AM.pngImage source: Flickr.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010, 352 pp.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, reads like another pamphlet of "What Not To Do" advice in the modern age. A summary of seven toxic chemicals found in everyday objects: phthalates, Teflon, brominated flame retardants, mercury, triclosan, pesticides, and BPA, the authors chose these chemicals out of hundreds, motivated by their ubiquitous toxic presence. Through subjective self-testing, the authors make objective judgments, simplified explanations, and general summaries of the history, progress and legislation of each toxin, providing a general outline of how to make simple changes in our lives which when implemented will help reduce harmful exposure and benefit all Canadians.

The authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, two Canadian environmentalists who maintain careers as environmental activists, wrote the book as they acted as self-declared guinea pigs performing tests on themselves. The self-regulated elements stipulated that each test must be performed within "normal use" of each product preventing criticisms of inventing an idealized pseudo-environment for the sake of exaggerating cause and effect. Acting as the guinea pigs, the authors were able to demonstrate how easy it is to suffer from harmful exposure by normal daily activities, fulfilling their motivation to uncover how serious the implications from unregulated, misunderstood industries and chemicals can be.

The simplified use and de-emphasis on jargon keep the book from alienating its audience, maintaining an identifiable common-man voice. As I read the book I began to identify with the authors' intent of highlighting simple everyday ways by which I could reduce exposure to toxins in my life. While I disagree with the pretext I interpreted as toxins in the environment to be new modern age dilemma, I found the book to be a well-considered analogy of how toxins have transcended the class-based boundaries of toxic exposure.

One of the strongest points of the book is how toxins have surpassed the external perceptible environment and become invisible agents leeching into our bodies through everyday products believed by the general population to be safe. Phthalates, a chemical class that are used to "plasticize" products, keeping them soft and malleable, are also found in the fragrance and Parfums of personal care products, used to prolong the sense of scent. (p.35) Phthalates are undergoing scrutiny and being studied for their effects on "testicular dysgenesis syndrome [TDS]", a male abnormality causing deformations in the male reproductive system. According to Smith and Lourie phthalate syndrome manifests itself through.

A decrease in the distance between the anus and base of the penis, incomplete testicular descent, and a birth defect of the penis called "hypospadias" -a deformity in which the urethra doesn't open at the tip of the penis but rather somewhere along its length. It also increases the risk of testicular cancer in adulthood and of impaired sperm quality. (p. 35-36).

PFCs and Teflon are the chemicals used to create non-slip, stain resistance products, found in everything from frying pans and cooking utensils, linings of food containing products, and coated on fabrics and carpets. The threats from PFCs are not only its carcinogenic properties, but also its bioaccumulation, and resistance to destruction. PFCs can be found in the blood of 98 per cent of Americans, and has been detected in the Arctic atmosphere, far away from any shampoo bottle or frying pan. (p. 69-71)

Throughout the book the authors maintain a positive voice of optimism, discouraging complacency and encouraging lifestyle changes. While they present daunting facts and statistics, they also provide an abundance of suggestions and resources to reduce exposure, and become more informed of their effects. Smith and Lourie highlight achievements of progress in the battle of health versus industry versus government. They laud contemporary environmental activist groups, and try to spark action from their audience.

Government intervention is a topic that Smith and Lourie do not delve too deeply into, though they do present it as an issue that the widespread population needs to become more informed of to understand the intricate workings of powerful lobbyists and self-serving politicians. It is interesting to read about precedence setting court-battles that remain relatively under the radar, as isolated anecdotes in regulating the chemical industry.  

Canadian Rick Smith is the executive director of Environmental Defense, a Canadian environmental activist organization, whose mandate is to "challenge, and inspire change in government, business, and people to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all". (, 2011) He holds a PhD in Zoology, was chief of staff for Jack Layton, and has served as executive director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He was also voted "most likely to save the whales in [his] high-school yearbook," (Smith,, 2011).  Motivated by family and the complacency of governmental persuasion by industrial lobbyists, Smith along with co-author Bruce Lourie conceptualized the book. Bruce Lourie is the President of The Ivey Foundation, an environmental consulting charitable foundation (, 2011), and the founder of non- and for- profit organizations focusing on environmental preservation and sustainability. He is a governmental advisor, and has founded or consulted on many organizations, which are now considered models of environmentalism within their field. (, 2011).

Slow Death by Rubber Duck uses the self-inflicted tests run by Smith and Lourie as an outline for the entire book. The authors intend to test their exposure by enclosing themselves in an apartment performing "normal" tasks, using day-to-day products that were specifically selected for their low ratings on previous industry tests, though still exist under the pretext of safe consumer products. By testing their exposure levels both before and after exposure, the authors create a compelling demonstration of how susceptible the human body is to these exposures, incrementally increasing levels of some toxins, even going so far as more than doubling levels of mercury found in Lourie's system. (p.138) Given their legitimate power, and anecdotal evidence, the authors are able to humanize the realities of what society has not quite yet come to terms with.

After reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, I found myself scrutinizing the products I shelter in my apartment and use daily in my life. Though the concept of toxic plastics was not new to me, I found I was motivated more than ever to adapt my life to these toxic realities. I began to buy more natural products, specifically restricting exposure to products with fragrance, or Parfum, listed; a telltale sign of phthalates.  I chose to purchase wooden toys for a friend's baby-shower gift. The indestructibility of Teflon and PFC molecules springs forth in my mind when I reach for my frying pan.  I share (without preaching) the information with my friends and hope that they too will be motivated to make small changes. Smith and Lourie have successfully shown that something as small as a rubber duck can be a dangerous thing, but also that small lifestyle changes can make a big difference.


Smith, Rick, Robert Lourie. Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010, 352 pp.

Author Unknown. About Us. Environmental Defense. Web. 7 June 2021

Author Unknown. About Dr. Rick Smith. Green Living Show. Web. 7 June 2021

Author Unknown. The Authors.  Slow Death by Rubber Duck. Web. 7 June 2021

Planta, Joseph. Bruce Lourie. The Commentary. Web. 7 June 2021t

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