Household chemicals
Photo: Nola Lopez

Slow Death by Rubber Duck
By Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
336 pages; Counterpoint

It's been a bad few years for bisphenol A , the chemical commonly known as BPA. You can hardly pick up a newspaper these days without reading about the dangers of this man-made compound. Research has linked it to obesity, breast cancer, and heart disease, among other serious ailments. But what makes BPA especially frightening is that it's found in so many everyday items: everything from cash register receipts to water bottles. The chemical industry maintains that BPA is harmless, but last fall the Obama administration announced that BPA and five other common chemicals, including flame retardants and nonstick coatings, would be reviewed for safety.

So are BPA and related chemicals serious bad news, or are they relatively benign by-products of modern life? While the United States debates this question, Canada has already banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, and Walmart has pulled BPA bottles from its shelves. Meanwhile, to call attention to the effects of common chemicals , including BPA, on all of us, two Canadian environmentalists conducted their own extreme experiment using themselves as guinea pigs (think Super Size Me, with a laboratory twist). Rick Smith, executive director of Canada's Environmental Defence, and Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, a Canadian conservation group, holed themselves up in a condo for two days and exposed themselves to a handful of household chemicals. Before and after the test, they sent blood samples to labs that specialize in trace detection of pollutants in humans.

Though the results detailed in their new book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck (Counterpoint), don't qualify as rigorous science, they are frightening—clearly the authors' intention. But the book isn't just alarmist environmental shock and awe. It's a thoughtful look at how pollution has shifted over the years from something tangible and transparent (industrial pollutants as the cause of acid rain) to something abstract and nuanced (BPA's links to breast cancer). The challenges this change presents, as many of the world's top scientists explain in these pages, should be of serious concern to us all.

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