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

book review

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?


don\'t throw it awayAre you looking for inventive and resourceful ways to save money? Perhaps you’ve resolved to be “greener” and more environmentally friendly this year. If any of these apply to you, there is a great book here at DCPL that could help you along that path. Don’t Throw It Out: Recycle, Renew and Reuse To Make Things Last (Rodale) is a treasure trove of ideas combining two of my favorite things: being economical and being creative.

This book offers numerous tips and ideas for conserving common household items and getting the most out of your appliances, furniture and gadgets. Do you have an old nightstand that’s becoming an eyesore? Why not turn it into a hideway/sleeping spot for your cat?  Perhaps you can salvage an old nightstand or end table by decoupaging it with pressed flowers (I’m not that crafty but it sounds like a great idea).  Page 84 of this book lists six great ways to repurpose your old dresser drawers, including yet another sleeping spot for your cat (pets make out like bandits when it comes to reusing old items!).

One of the main reasons that I like this book is that not only is it informative but it’s also kind of inspirational. Reading about how to turn a vinyl LP into a wall clock (!) made me really start thinking of ways that I can make the most out of the stuff that I’ve got lying around the house. Each item–whether it’s an old work boot, a stack of worn-out CDs or an out-of-commission baby crib–can be given a new purpose or function. And during cash-strapped times such as these it’s a nice reminder to look at the things we have with an open mind and a little imagination.

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“So…what’s your favorite book?” A simple question, but one that could possibly make or break a relationship? Could be, according to Rachel Donadio, whose essay, “It’s Not You, It’s Your Books,” was published in the New York Times Book Review in March.

Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught with peril. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony.

While it’s not always a question of being too literary (or not enough), sometimes it just comes down to personal taste. I’m not sure that my husband’s love of Hemingway would have driven me away in the first week of dating, but I do think if he didn’t enjoy reading at all we might have a more serious conflict.

To hear more of Donadio’s thoughts on the topic, listen to the NPR interview “Books: A Canary in the Relationship Coal Mine?.”

And let us know–what are your deal-breaker books?


American_greenWhen I saw the title, American Green: The Quest for the Perfect Lawn I was immediately intrigued. I have
always been fascinated in lawns and yards. I have taken particular interest in the subject lately, as I have been in the process of buying a new home while selling an old one.  In American Green, author Ted Steinberg details the history of lawn and lawn care, and describes how the idea of the “perfect lawn” has evolved over time. He also goes into detail describing the effect that it has had on American culture, its environmental impact, and the lengths that lawn care companies such as Scotts go to keep people buying their products throughout the entire year.

This book is not only very informative, but is also a very fun read. I recommend this book to anyone who is fascinated in lawns, history, the environment, or American consumer culture.

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