BOOK REVIEW: Those dangerous rubber ducks, revisited

IT WAS one of the best book titles of recent times: Slow Death by Rubber Duck. I confess I haven't read it, but I did hear a long ABC interview with the authors, Canadian environmentalists Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith, when they visited Australia in 2010.

The message of Rubber Duck was that chemical pollution is all around us, in the most innocent of places, and it is doing us no good at all. After reading the book, people are reported to have purged their homes of non-stick pans, plastic wrappings, perfumes and deodorants - and rubber ducks.

Smith and Lourie's new book Toxin Toxout takes off from that point. An audience member at the Sydney Writers' Festival asked: "how do I get this stuff out of me?" If we are all awash with potentially toxic chemicals, what should we do about it? How to get rid of the chemicals which are already in our bodies? And how scientific is the analysis which the authors quote?

In the USA and Canada, recent testing of newborn babies has revealed frightening numbers of synthetic chemicals in the umbilical cord. "The startling results demonstrated that Canadian children are born pre-polluted" the authors say, and make the reasonable assumption that children in developing countries are being exposed to the same chemicals, with similar results.

If we think, comfortably, that we in Australia are more environmentally aware than the commercialised citizens of North America, a visit to the supermarket should change that view. In fact, before speaking at the Writers' Festival, the authors went shopping for "the products we'd written about: baby bottles containing the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA), toothpaste with the thyroid toxin triclosan and numerous kitchen implements slathered with noxious non-stick coatings." (This also gives an idea of their writing style.)

To those of us with a scientific bent, there's an encouraging forty pages of references and notes on the text. Much of this points to scientific literature, but Smith and Lourie are cheerfully eclectic, referring to learned journals of immunology, an Amy Winehouse youtube video, and a whole library of contemporary diet and environmental books.

In Rubber Duck, the authors obtained some astonishingly quick results by doing experiments on their own bodies. Just three days of eating tuna led to a massive and measured increase in dissolved mercury, for example. In Toxin Toxout, the authors wonder whether the reverse is true: "Will I actually be able to measure the toxic chemicals leaving my body if I undergo specific detox treatments?"

A long chapter details author Bruce Lourie's experiments with a sauna, and whether it is possible to simply sweat out toxic chemicals in the system. The results are inconclusive, with certain chemicals being transported outwards by sweat, some by urine, and mostly being accompanied by non-toxic chemicals which the body needs. The take-home message from the chapter is to drink lots of filtered water, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and exercise. Every day.

And then the "new car smell" experiment: eight hours in a warm new vehicle, smelling that way, knowing that the result would be measurable increases in chemicals in the body, especially after reading an article with the punchy title "Enjoying the smell of a new car is like glue-sniffing". And the results of the experiment were stunning. The levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, used in car interiors) shot up. And these are the very chemicals implicated in breast cancer, male and female, most especially in female workers in the automotive industry.

A compelling and sobering account, which contains much practical advice, especially to parents. Toxin Toxout, Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith (University of Queensland Press, 2013) is available in Cooma from Pages of Life, Sharp Street.

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