Ways to lighten our chemical burden
Toxic chemicals used to be easy to identify. We recognized them when they belched from smokestacks or polluted lakes and streams, killing fish and contaminating drinking water. What we failed to realize then was that toxic chemicals were also accumulating in our bodies' and in our children's bodies.
Toxic chemicals used to be easy to identify. We recognized them when they belched from smokestacks or polluted lakes and streams, killing fish and contaminating drinking water. What we failed to realize then was that toxic chemicals were also accumulating in our bodies—and in our children’s bodies.
In 2005 Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based environmental group, conducted the Toxic Nation study, the first study to measure toxic chemical levels in Canadians across the country. All of the Canadians tested bore a toxic chemical burden.
Seemed like a good idea
Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, and Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, both well-respected Canadian environmentalists, decided to test their own blood to see what toxic chemicals they were carrying around. The results of their experiment are documented in their best-selling book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health (Knopf Canada, 2009).
Smith suggested taking their experiment a step further. Why not try to crank up the levels of the chemicals in their bodies and compare the before and after results? They set only one rule: they would only allow themselves to elevate their toxic chemical levels by performing everyday, real-life activities. They could eat lots of mercury-laden tuna, for instance, but they couldn’t down a bottle of mercury.
Smith and Lourie deliberately reduced the levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies before beginning their experiment, then holed up in Lourie’s condo to breathe in air fresheners and stain-repellent chemicals. Smith spruced himself up with phthalate-laden shampoo, shave gel, cologne, and deodorant. Lourie pigged out (in the name of science) on tuna sandwiches, steaks, and sushi to try to bump up the mercury levels in his body.
Spoiler alert: Smith and Lourie proved that it is possible to raise your toxic chemical burden simply by using everyday products we all consider harmless. Seven deadly chemicals
The seven chemicals
Smith and Lourie discuss in their book are endocrine disruptors, which can cross a pregnant woman’s placenta and affect her fetus.
“These chemicals mimic hormones in our bodies,” Lourie explained to alive. “As the body is developing and hormones are being sent to trigger different things happening in the body, if toxic chemicals mimic these hormones, they will actually alter what genes get turned off or on at different times, and that can affect neurological development, reproductive development, and organ development.”
“Something that might be present in parts per million that would actually have no effect on someone like me, could have an effect on the development of the fetus,” he says.
Lourie says there are many studies linking the chemicals they’ve looked at to what he calls “the modern child epidemic" autism, obesity, and attention deficit disorder, conditions whose exponential growth rates are medically unexplainable. These conditions have all been connected to toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Despite the prevalence of thousands of chemicals in consumer products, Lourie says their intent was not to overwhelm people. A lot of positive things happened while they were writing the book, including Canada’s ban on bisphenol A in baby bottles.
The Canadian government has also been reviewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the legislation which either restricts or sets standards for chemicals. It is now easier for the federal government to restrict or ban chemicals, and better testing procedures are being implemented.
In the past a chemical had to be proven toxic; if it wasn’t proven toxic, it was deemed safe to be used in products. New legislation will reverse the onus—until a chemical can be proven safe, it won’t be allowed in products.
Another victory for environmentalists and Canadian families is the federal government’s recent ban on phthalates in soft vinyl toys, child care items, and school supplies.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are primarily used to make plastics soft and flexible. Sixty percent of phthalates are used as plasticizers in the manufacturing of vinyl. Phthalates are found in shower curtains, medical supplies such as IV bags and tubes, a plethora of cosmetics and personal care products, and children’s toys including the infamous phthalate poster toy, the rubber duck.
Canada’s ban includes six phthalate compounds but does not apply to diethyl phthalate (DEP), which is ubiquitous in personal care products. If a product lists fragrance or parfum as one of its ingredients, it contains phthalates.
The bad news
The bad news about phthalates is that studies show over 80 percent of children have detectable levels of phthalates in their bodies. Children are more affected by chemicals than adults because they lack the detoxification mechanisms adults have. Children also put toys (and whatever they can get their hands on) into their mouths, further increasing their exposure.
Studies show that if scented shampoo, conditioner, bubble bath, lotion, and powder are used simultaneously during one bath time, this multiple exposure increases a child’s phthalate levels which may create health problems.
Researchers also believe that the greater the mother’s exposure to phthalates, the greater the chance that male children will develop testicular dysgenesis syndrome (TDS). The symptoms include hypospadias (the urethra opens along the length of the penis rather than at the tip), impaired sperm quality, testicular cancer, and cryptorchidism (one or more testes missing from the scrotum). TDS has been linked to endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates.
The good news
The good news is that phthalates break down relatively quickly, so by limiting our exposure to them, we can decrease our phthalate levels. They don’t persist in our bodies or the environment.
So what’s a concerned parent to do? Lourie advises parents to rely on their instinct and intuition. If something doesn’t seem right about a product, ask questions. If the person in the store doesn’t know, try the company’s 1-800 number. Never feel you don’t know enough to ask questions.
“Go with your gut and your intuition,” says Lourie. “At the end of the day, it’s all about little actions of lots of people that ultimately will hold governments and businesses accountable for making sure they’re not putting nasty things in kids’ products and food.”
Reduce Your Chemical Exposure
Toxic chemical Source
• avoid soft, rubbery plastics
|food||• buy organic foods|
|shower curtains||• replace your old PVC shower curtain with one made of natural fibres|
|air fresheners||• unplug or stop spraying air fresheners |
• use baking soda or potpourri to eliminate odours
|Phthalates (DEP)||personal care products||• avoid fragrance and parfum in ingredient list |
• buy unscented products
|Triclosan||antibacterial agent||• choose antibacterial products that contain alcohol; avoid those that contain triclosan |
• clean your home with natural products (e.g. baking soda, vinegar, lemon)
|PFCs||nonstick coatings||• avoid non-stick cookware |
• use cast iron, aluminum, or ceramic-coated cookware
|fast food wrappings||• limit fast food consumption |
• avoid pizza boxes, hamburger wrappers, and microwavable popcorn bags
|stain repellents||• avoid products that are coated in stain repellents (e.g. clothing, furniture, carpets)|
|Mercury||large fish||• don’t eat large, predatory fish |
• pregnant women should avoid tuna altogether
• avoid white albacore tuna; it has the highest mercury level of canned tunas
|Pesticides/herbicides||lawn fertilizers and weed-and-feed products||• go natural; don’t use chemicals |
• use an eco-friendly lawn care company
• replace grass with native plants pesticides
|fruits and vegetables||• wash produce well|