GUY RAZ, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
This morning when you woke up, if you shaved or showered or put on makeup, any of the things you do on a normal morning, the chances are pretty high that by the time you're done, you've applied about 150 synthetic chemicals to your body. So, what does that mean? Hard to say.
So, two Canadian environmental activists decided to spend two years exposing themselves to things we use all the time - brand-name shampoos, kitchen cleaners, toys, even foods.
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie tracked the levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies after using these things, and they tell the story in their new book, "Slow Death by a Rubber Duck."
Rick Smith joins me from Toronto. Welcome to the program.
Mr. RICK SMITH (Co-Author, "Slow Death by a Rubber Duck"): Thank you.
RAZ: You describe this book as an adult science fair project. And I should say, you weren't taking baths in mercury or just eating canned tuna for two years. I mean, you did the things that ordinary people do on a daily basis.
Mr. SMITH: Absolutely. We established one cardinal rule of our testing. As we worked with scientists around the world to design these tests, the one rule we always had in mind was that our experiments had to mimic everyday life. Because, you know, obviously it'd be very easy to dramatically increase your Teflon levels if you were willing to drink some Teflon, but nobody does that. It would have an implacability to daily life.
RAZ: I want to ask you about the experiments you did with BPA, because this is a chemical we often hear about. It's widely used in plastics. It's something most of us come into contact with every day and yet it acts as a hormone in the body. Explain what you did and what you found.
Mr. SMITH: Well, the test was really a simple one. My mother always told me not to microwave in plastic - she turned out to be very right. What I did for 48 hours is I simply ate canned food warmed up in a microwavable plastic container. BPA lines the interior of most cans in our cupboards, so that is a significant source of BPA in our daily lives.
And then I drank out of one my son's old BPA baby bottles. So, you know, after only 48 hours, my levels increased by almost eight times. You can only imagine what the levels in an infant would look like if after two or three years of their sole source of nutrition being a BPA baby bottle, their levels would just be through the roof.
RAZ: BPA has been banned in products for babies and infants in Canada. Several states in the United States are also doing that or have done that. Explain what BPA has been linked to.
Mr. SMITH: Well, it was first synthesized in the 1930s, and we knew back then that it was a potent hormone-disrupting chemical. So, it's been linked to prostate cancer, breast cancer, various hormonally driven human ailments, like obesity, diabetes. Even very low levels can be of concern, especially for children. Their cells are dividing; their brains and their organs are growing.
All of these processes in childhood development are hormonally driven.
RAZ: You have a chapter titled the New PCBs. And you talk about phthalates, which is a chemical compound often used in flame retardants, for things like carpets, pajamas for kids and so on. You talk about a typical day for your kids and the chemicals that they're just exposed to simply by walking from room to room in the house. What did you find?
Mr. SMITH: Well, phthalates are another chemical of real concern. This chemical is ubiquitous in our lives. This is the chemical, for instance, that makes rubber ducks rubbery. And all I did with my self-experimentation is I used about a half dozen brand name off-the-shelf products containing phthalates -shampoos, soaps.
And over two-day periods, my levels of this chemical increased by 22 times. So, the upshot of this is that even when people are doing something as simple as showering, shaving, using air fresheners, they are dramatically changing their internal chemical level.
RAZ: Rick Smith, I understand that, obviously, you want to bring to light some of these issues. I mean, you talk about the linkage between these chemicals and an increase in birth defects, childhood autism, Attention Deficit Disorder, rising cancer rates and so on. But I wonder if there's an element of alarmism here in the sense that none of those linkages have been definitively proven scientifically yet.
Mr. SMITH: Well, if you actually look at - we spend a considerable amount of time in the book talking to the world experts in these areas. And on many of these chemicals, the verdict is in - with phthalates for instance.
RAZ: But, I mean, if the verdict is in, why are these things so widely used here in the United States and Canada and in Europe?
Mr. SMITH: Because the chemical industry has been very effective in its lobbying of government regulators. I mean, the Milwaukee Journal, for instance, has done a very interesting series of articles looking at the tight linkages between the chemical industry and the Bush administration. And it turns out that for the allegedly objective FDA assessment of BPA, the government under George Bush literally cut and pasted paragraphs out of chemical industry memos into the government's own documents.
RAZ: I mean, if we are all so exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis without even knowing about it. You know, I'm drinking a cup of tea as we speak and there might be something in this mug that I don't know about it. I mean, if they are all around us, what options do we have?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah, we're very conscious of that when we wrote the book. And so the positive story of what we saw during our experimentation is that levels of pollution in our bodies responded to predictable things. So, when we used a brand of shampoo that contained phthalates, there was a measurable increase in phthalates. But then when we used a brand that didn't contain phthalates, those levels came down.
So, the good news here is that in a relatively short period of time, if people are a little bit careful about what they buy, if they're a little bit better about reading labels, they can dramatically lower their levels of these pollutants, even in the absence at the moment of adequate government regulation.
RAZ: That's Rick Smith. He's the author of the book "Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things."
Rick Smith, thanks for being with us.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you very much.
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