DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jul 16 2010

ShareReads: Chemical Concerns

by ShareReads

ShareReads appears on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it. The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it. The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Remember: posting a response also counts as an activity for the Summer Reading for Adults program.

I hate to admit it, but until recently I’d never really worried too much about things like BPA in my plastic storage bowls, Teflon in my frying pans, or using weedkiller on my lawn.  I come from a family of long-lived folks; my maternal grandmother was 94 when she passed away and my paternal grandmother is currently alive and kicking at 101.  I was concerned about more “immediate” dangers, like plane crashes or falling down the stairs.  Denial can be a powerful motivator (de-motivator, maybe?), and floating around in my mental periphery were books like Fast Food Nation, An Inconvenient Truth, and Silent Spring—books I’d always planned to read but never got around to.  Then…I became a parent.  Suddenly things that didn’t seem so scary for me personally became terrifying when I thought of how they might affect my children.  Even a remote possibility that everyday products could contain potentially hazardous ingredients made me want to learn more.

So we started trying to live greener and eat better.  We planted a garden, and we started reducing, reusing, and recycling.  But living the green life can be expensive, and sometimes the best choice can be elusive.  The list of things we are supposed to be avoiding grows daily, and frankly, it’s becoming a bit overwhelming.  Short of moving out in the woods a la Walden, I’m beginning to lose perspective of what’s most important and how to make an informed decision.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: the Secret Danger of Everyday Things is the story of two men who had similar concerns and set out to find some answers.  Worried about the chemical levels in their kids’ bodies and what problems it might cause, they decided to experiment—somewhat in the spirit of Supersize Me, and much to their families’ dismay—on themselves.  By exposing themselves to everyday chemicals, Canadian authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie attempt to “demonstrate, in concrete terms, the impact of daily life on the pollution load our bodies all carry.”  The authors choose to expose themselves to phthalates, Teflon, brominated flame retardants, mercury, the antibacterial chemical triclosan, and BPA (bisphenol A).  The result is an informative, often humorous, and somewhat hopeful account of the history of chemical use in the world and where the future might be taking us.

I was amazed and horrified by some of the historical accounts of chemical use gone wrong in our past, such as the story of the women who painted luminous dials on watch faces during World War I.  A nifty use for radium—that is until the women painting the dials (and licking the brushes to create a fine tip for painting numbers) began to develop dental problems and anemia.  The suit was settled in 1928, but all five women who had brought a lawsuit against the company died of radiation-induced cancer a few years later.

I appreciate that the book isn’t all doom and gloom, but offers some hope for the future.  Even as the book was being written, laws banning certain chemicals went into effect, and one such law even prevented them from conducting a planned experiment (a ban on the “cosmetic use” of pesticides on lawns in some Canadian provinces).  I was a little worried when I started reading that the book would focus too much specifically on Canada, but I think they did a good job of presenting information in a more universal way.  The authors were sometimes surprised by the results of their testing, but presented their findings even when they aren’t quite what were expected.  They did, however, dash my hopes of escaping out to the woods…studies show measurable levels of chemicals and pesticides in polar bears and residents of remote areas of the world, and long-ago banned chemicals such as DDT still show up in the human body today.

I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but so far I’ve found it entertaining, eye-opening, and thoughtful.  It’s given me some background information on household chemicals and their lasting effects on the environment, as well as a starting place for deciding what sort of changes I want to make in my own life (and that of my kids).  What are your favorite reads on environmental concerns?  Do you worry about chemicals in everyday products?  Are you making choices to live greener and if so, do you find it difficult?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lesley B July 17, 2010 at 10:14 AM

Considering the Gulf oil spill and books like the one you’re writing about, I do find myself looking at plastic stuff in a new way. When I pull out a ziploc bag, I think “Hmmm. Maybe this isn’t the best or healthiest use of our limited resources.” I’m trying (really) to get away from using so much plastic personally. Your post reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I see he’s got a chapter called ‘Polymers are Forever’ so I guess that sandwich baggie will be here a lot longer than me.

Alison W July 19, 2010 at 11:55 AM

I think I have reached the point of information overload when it comes to all the things I should be worried about that my kids are being exposed to. I must admit that for the past few months, I have been tuning out a lot and telling myself, “well, something has to kill me.” Though I may just put Slow Death on my reading list. I did read Fast Food Nation when it first came out and it was a good year before I could set foot inside a fast food restaurant after that. I have also been meaning to read “Twinkie Deconstructed.” The author goes through all the ingredients listed on the Twinkie box and tells you what they are and where they come from. I will admit, I love Twinkies (and Ding Dongs) but I haven’t let my kids eat one yet. 😎

Sara July 19, 2010 at 5:43 PM

Every issue of Wired magazine has a detailed breakdown of the “ingredients” making up household items from fabric softeners to food items-it’s amazing and disgusting and I always read it first.

Kay July 27, 2010 at 11:06 AM

Great post! I’ll put the book on my short list of things to read. I, too, am living greener these days. I drive a hybrid vehicle, pay carbon offsets every month on my electric bill, and prefer organic food when I can afford it. Since I found out production of bottled water takes a lot of energy (and petroleum), I’m drinking more filtered and tap water. And I try to recycle when possible. I am concerned about chemicals in everyday products.

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