Beware the smiling creature in your bathtub: it's yellow, it squeaks, your kids love it, and it gets into your bloodstream—literally. The average rubber duck is covered in phthalates, industrial chemicals that make plastics more flexible. While that's good for the rubber bounciness of bath toys, some phthalates have proven to be endocrine disruptors that mess with human hormones. Two Western states (Washington and California) have even banned phthalates from children's toys.
Photo credit: Muu-harku
So researchers Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie set out to find just how much phthalate the average person absorbs. In a caper reminiscent of the documentary Super Size Me, they spent four days exposing themselves to everyday chemicals, then wrote up the results in Slow Death by Rubber Duck: the Secret Danger of Everyday Things (published Jan. 2010). After washing with brand-name soaps and shampoos containing phthalates (used to add scents to beauty products), phthalate levels in their bodies multiplied by as much as 22 times.
Aside from phthalates, they experimented with Teflon, mercury (from tuna), anti-bacterials, and bisphenol-A (BPA), a canned-food liner and plastic hardener. They were careful to keep their chemical exposure at realistic levels, the better to mimic typical daily experiences. However, as NPR recently reported,
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."
BPA has been linked to asthma, cancer and heart disease. Two years ago, Canada became the first country to ban BPA from baby products. Minnesota and Connecticut followed suit in 2009, and eleven more states (plus Washington, D.C.) are considering a ban in 2010. But the fight hasn't gone smoothly in all states. Oregon State Senators recently voted down a bill to ban BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. Opponents said it would begin a slippery slope that could harm Oregon's food-processing industry.
On a national level, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeled BPA as a chemical of "some concern," citing worries about its effects on the brains of fetuses, babies and small children. However, as written on the official FDA website, the agency stopped short of encouraging consumers to change their buying habits:
FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure.
And the EPA has downgraded its concern over BPA, just days after a Dec. 2009 meeting between government officials and lobbyists from the chemical industry. But regardless of regulation, foodmakers are having trouble finding replacements for BPA. Even more alarming, traces of the chemical have been found in food products labeled as BPA-free; the culprit might be the cutting boards, or gloves, or anything used in the preparation of that food.
While it's impossible to eliminate these chemicals from your environment, Slow Death offers tips for reducing your intake. The alternatives are out there: BPA-free bottles, unscented (phthalate-free) personal care products, natural cleaning agents like vinegar or baking soda. As Smith told NPR,
"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."