Seven killer chemicals

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

Are you a toxic time bomb? The authors of Slow Death By Rubber Duck investigate

I have to admit: when I picked up Slow Death By Rubber Duck, the new offering by Canadian environmental activists, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, I was at once hopeful and sceptical that this book would stand out from the growing list of titles issuing dire warnings about the state of our health and planet Earth.

I love a good industry-bashing as much as the next person, but something I can't abide is holier-than-thou, statistically-saturated, fear-mongering warnings about the end of the world from earnest environmentalists. So, in cracking the spine to inhale that fresh-off-the-presses ink smell (should I worry about phthalates, lead or bromine?) I knew I was going to be a tough audience.

If you haven't already heard, Smith and Lourie made themselves into test subjects to determine how seven different common chemicals -- all of which are suspected to pose long-term health risks -- would impact their own bodies' pollution loads. The actual experiment only lasted a few days and forms a nice structure on which they base their book. But in my mind, the high concentration of several chemicals that the authors exposed themselves to over a long weekend is the least interesting part of the story, since the results, for the most part, were predictable.

What grabbed my attention and held it through all 300 pages was the way Smith and Lourie wove compelling evidence of the negative health impacts of common chemicals with concrete ways to learn to avoid them. For instance, the bubble bath our boys soak in and the scented Epson salts that I prefer, increase our bodies' phthalate load, which is not a good thing and is entirely avoidable. Their advice is to stop buying personal care products that contain "fragrance" or "parfum," which are industry's code words for phthalates.

Another eye-opener for me was Smith and Lourie's heads-up about the "special treat" food we sometimes enjoy, like microwave popcorn, and fast food burgers and chicken fingers. Who knew that a great deal of take-out food is wrapped in PFC-containing packages? PFCs are what make Teflon-coated pans so controversial and knowing that this chemical is used to keep grease from disintegrating the box my fries come in, changes my thinking about how "special" these treats are. The way to reduce our PFC exposure is simple: dust off our hot-air, popcorn-maker and figure out which restaurants will allow me to provide my own take-out containers.

Speaking of food containers, plastics have confounded me for years. I've never been able to remember which of the recycling numbers were okay for storing food and which ones I should avoid. Smith and Lourie helped solve that problem with this catchy mantra: "4, 5, 1 and 2: all the rest are bad for you." I've already caught myself standing in the dairy section at the grocery store, looking at the bottom of yoghurt containers repeating this ditty out loud.

Using narrative, humour and real life scenarios, Slow Death By Rubber Duck has restored my faith in the environmental movement's ability to make compelling points about toxins in our world, without beating us to death with a wagging finger. By the end of the fourth experiment (the authors write alternating chapters), I felt like I had gotten to know Rick and Bruce personally -- and I wanted to spend a weekend with them, to hear their stories again, in-person.

One of the things that makes this book such an easy and enjoyable to read is that I could see myself in every single story they tell, from the personal (Rick's struggle to decide if he should buy organic ketchup in a plastic container or non-organic ketchup in a glass container) to the universal (Bruce's exploration of the health impacts caused by DDT used in pesticides in communities across North America).

Part history lesson, part science class, part Heloise's Helpful Hints for creating a safer home, Slow Death By Rubber Duck is an engaging and empowering read with dozens of easy-to-implement, action items to help you reduce your consumption of toxins.--Donna Barker

Donna Barker is a freelance writer and former health columnist with Shared Vision magazine. She is currently working on her first book, about how to live a joyful life -- and that would have to include not inadvertently poisoning oneself.

related items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.