Perils In Plastics?

by Steve Heilig, March 17, 2010

Poor Marge Simpson. In a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” the insecure cartoon housewife made the mistake of using nonstick cookware and offering plas­tic cups with No. 7 stamped on them. The other mothers at her party grabbed their children and ran as if a bomb had gone off. Another party ruined, and Bart was not even to blame this time.

Was that parental panic justified? Does the threat­ening appearance of chemicals like PFCs (in nonstick pans) and BPA (in plastics) on America's most renowned TV series mean concern about toxics has finally gone mainstream?

Panic, no, but concern and action, yes, argue Cana­dian environmentalists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie in “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” for “there is no separation between environmental issues and health issues.” Marge's guests got it right that “children are most at risk to the many serious ailments linked to toxic chemicals,” they argue, including “asthma, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, and reproductive disorders, among others.” Add in serious diseases arising later in life such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, plus some can­cers, and it's a frightening scenario. So what to do?

Self-education is an essential first step, and this book is a very good resource for that. But while researchers have made strides in showing how many of the roughly 80,000 industrial chemicals in use can affect animals and humans, showing proof is a com­plex scientific process.

The political dynamic is even more difficult. The powerful chemical industry maintains what the authors term a “don't worry, be happy” position simi­lar to that taken by the tobacco industry for decades. Every step of the way, lobbyists and their “front groups” tend to fight restrictions on the use of their products.

The bulk of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” is seven case studies regarding phthalates, PCBs, mer­cury, antibacterial products, pesticides and, yes, Tef­lon on pans and BPA in plastics. Most of these stories have been told in detail before, but the summaries here are clear and compelling. This is a “popularizing” type of book, which can be a good thing, even if sometimes derided by experts and purists.

In a nice twist, the authors conducted mini-"toxic experiments” on themselves. Smith did all he could to first avoid and then expose himself to “normal” phthalate-containing products for 24 hours each, and has his urine monitored for the chemicals in question: “My little experiment showed how amazingly easy it is to dramatically crank up levels of MEP [one problem­atic phthalate] after a simple change in toiletries for two days. Who knew that conditioning your hair could be hazardous to your health?”

Much of the research in this arena has been on ani­mals, with debate over the implications for human health. However, more scientists than ever

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