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Death By Rubber Ducks and the Dangers of Baby Bottles

March 4, 2010
A modern rubber duck.
Image via Wikipedia

In an experiment designed to gauge the danger of many peoples’ everyday modern living, authors used themselves as guinea pigs to find out how modern living affects the chemical make-up of our bodies:

Inspired by Morgan Spurlock’s fast-food gluttony in the movie Super Size Me, two environmental activists from Canada devised their own experiment. Instead of fast food, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie absorbed themselves in everyday products like shampoos, soaps and cleaners to find out what kind of damage might be done to their health.

Their book about the adventure is called Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. (this NPR link has an audio story about the book included.)

Yes, rubber duckies seem innocuous, but according to the Environmental Working Group and other groups studying the chemical make-up of our everyday products, the products used in baths and showers alone contain an alarming number of chemicals.  The experiments done with microwaved foods were especially troubling, considering probably millions of babies have been fed from microwave-heated bottles:

“Our experiments had to mimic everyday life,” Smith says. “Obviously it would be very easy to dramatically increase your Teflon levels if you were willing to drink some Teflon, but nobody does that, so it wouldn’t have any applicability to daily life.”

But Smith and Lourie didn’t need to take baths in mercury or eat tuna for a whole year to see the chemical levels in their bodies skyrocket. After just two days of eating only canned food microwaved in plastic containers and drinking from one of his son’s old baby bottles, Smith saw a major rise in the levels of BPA in his body.

“My levels increased over eight times,” he says. “You can only imagine what the levels in an infant would look like if after two or three years of their sole source of nutrition being a BPA baby bottle. Their levels would just be through the roof.”

Smith says children are especially vulnerable to chemicals such as BPA.

“As the bodies of children are developing, their cells are dividing. Their brains and their organs are growing. All of these processes in childhood and development are hormonally driven, and so the introduction of even a very small amount of a hormonally active chemical into the body of a child can have very large effects, disproportionate to the actual amount of chemical we’re talking about,” he says.

Obviously babies are more sensitive to chemical onslaughts.  The book’s authors say they were inspired by Super Size Me, but perhaps their real goals were to determine which risks their children faced from everyday products:

To take stock of the chemical threat for his kids, Smith looked at a typical day at home to see what types of chemicals they were exposed to. In just about every room he came across phthalates, which is a chemical usually used in flame retardants, but also one Smith found in his kid’s pajamas, shampoos, soaps and even their rubber duck.

Smith admits it is pretty much impossible to avoid all the chemicals mentioned in his book — but that doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand.

“The positive story of what we saw during our experimentation is that levels of pollution in our bodies responded to predictable things. So when we used a brand of shampoo that contained phthalates, there was a measurable increase in phthalates. But when we used a brand that didn’t contain phthalates, those levels came down,” he says.

“The good news here is that in a relatively short period of time, if people are a little bit careful about what they buy, if they are a little bit better about reading labels, accessing some of the amazing information that’s on the Web these days, they can dramatically lower their levels of these pollutants -– even in the absence, at the moment, of adequate government regulation.”

It’s true; there is no good regulation of everyday products.  Seems the best regulation of baby products includes the parents themselves.

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