Belching smokestacks. Sewer outfalls. Car exhaust. For most people these are the first images that come to mind when the word "pollution" is mentioned. It’s still seen as an external concern. Something floating around in the air or in the nearest lake. Out there. Something that can still be avoided.
The reality, however, is quite different. Pollution is now so pervasive that it’s become a marinade in which we all bathe every day. Pollution is actually inside us all. It’s seeped into our bodies. And in many cases, once in, it’s impossible to get out.
Baby bottles. Deodorants. A favourite overstuffed sofa. These items, so familiar and apparently harmless, are now sources of pollution at least as serious as the more industrial-grade varieties described above.
Deodorants — and nearly every other common product in the bathroom — can contain phthalates (pronounced "tha-lates"), which have been linked to a number of serious reproductive problems. Phthalates are also a common ingredient of vinyl children’s toys. Sofas and other upholstered products contain brominated flame retardants and are coated with stain-repellent chemicals, both of which increase the risk of cancer and are absorbed by anyone sitting on a sofa or chair to watch Friday night TV. And the market-leading baby bottles in North America are made of polycarbonate plastic — they leach bisphenol A (known as BPA), a known hormone disruptor, into their contents.
It was with this latter fact in mind that we — the authors of Slow Death By Rubber Duck — decided to conduct an experiment on BPA exposure and its effect on the level of BPA in the bloodstream.
Our BPA experiment was, truth be told, a bit of a pioneering venture. Sure, there’s been testing for BPA in the bloodstreams of people around the world. But no one has actually been dumb enough to try to seek out higher BPA levels through a variety of deliberate actions. With BPA — unlike phthalates, triclosan and mercury, where we had at least some scientific experiments to guide us — we were breaking completely new ground.
In designing the experiment I’d first called up the BPA guru himself, Dr Fred vom Saal, a distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri, to pick his brain. After laughing out loud when I told him my intentions, he started musing with me about how it could be done. I filled him in on what we already had in mind for a similar phthalates experiment that we were conducting: an initial period of "detox" to depress my phthalates levels, urine collection of this lowered level 24 hours later and then a second collection 24 hours after that, to see the effect of my phthalates exposure.
"Sounds okay," vom Saal responded. "The BPA experiment will be similar, and you can probably do it at the same time. Because the half-life of a BPA molecule in the human body is relatively short, give yourself 18 to 24 hours to try to flush it from your system. The other thing you should do to get rid of the BPA in your system is to avoid showering. It’s in surface waters and you want to avoid inhaling the steam."
No shower for two days? No problem, I thought. That’s more common on busy, kid-filled weekends than I care to admit. "Then you should move into the deliberate exposure phase of the experiment. You’re going to want to eat foods that are as rich in BPA as possible. Canned foods are ideal." Vom Saal told me he could help prepare a shopping list based on the relative levels of BPA in different canned goods that he has measured. The makings for a Meal from Hell (as I came to call it).
In a nutshell, I ate nothing for a day and a half but canned foods heated in a polycarbonate Rubbermaid container in the microwave. Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, canned pineapple, Heinz spaghetti and leftover tuna casserole made with a variety of canned ingredients were the highlights. I drank a few Cokes (the cans are lined with BPA), and made my coffee in a polycarbonate French press coffeemaker purchased at Starbucks. I then drank my coffee from an old Avent polycarbonate baby bottle that my partner Jen and I had used with our eldest son, Zack.
"Aha!" I can hear the supporters of bisphenol A crowing. "He drank his coffee out of an old baby bottle. Who does that? Smith broke his own cardinal rule of experimentation by doing something abnormal."
Not true. Most parents I know who use polycarbonate baby bottles heat them in the microwave. The hot coffee drunk from the bottle mimics the warm milk that babies receive. Also, until recently, the Starbucks near me sold a wide variety of polycarbonate travel mugs. Drinking coffee from a polycarbonate bottle is well within the bounds of normal.
So what was the outcome of this strange diet? I increased my BPA levels more than sevenfold from before exposure to after exposure. In addition to the 24-hour samples, I took three "spot" samples throughout the two-day test period. These show my BPA levels at a moment in time and, as you might expect, show a dramatic spike in BPA levels and then a decrease as my body gradually rid itself of the toxin.
"Holy mackerel!" were Fred vom Saal’s first words when I sent him the numbers. He zeroed right in on the implications for babies. "This is really scary … The implications of you eating canned products and drinking out of polycarbonate the way a baby would do, and as an adult increasing the amount of BPA in your body by more than sevenfold through this procedure, are very concerning … Babies are essentially doing all day, every day, what you did for one day."
Vom Saal explained that babies have a very different metabolism than adults and that the rate at which they are able to flush the BPA out of their systems and into their urine is much slower. This means that in addition to receiving high levels of BPA in 100 per cent of their food (formula from BPA-leaching cans delivered in polycarbonate bottles warmed in the microwave), any given hormone-mimicking BPA molecule is bound to stick around in a little baby body much longer than in my six-foot-six frame.
"Remarkable," said Pete Myers, co-author of Our Stolen Future, when I showed him the results. "You managed to pull yourself from just below the median BPA level for the US to way on top of the curve by these manipulations. But interestingly, the low levels are still reflecting some exposure and the question is: Where is that coming from?"
It turns out that since the last time Myers and I had chatted, some new potential sources of BPA exposure in everyday life had surfaced — sources that I hadn’t been aware of during my attempted experimental "detox". So-called "carbonless" paper — the very white, glossy, coated paper that most cash register receipts are printed on these days — has very high levels of BPA. High enough levels that absorption of BPA through the skin on the fingers is likely an increasing source in daily life.
Printers ink used in newspapers also contains BPA. Because these high-BPA-content papers end up in the recycling bin in many places, levels of BPA in recycled paper are generally extremely high. When I asked vom Saal about this, he agreed that contact with recycled paper could be a significant source of BPA: "When you buy a pizza, for instance, it comes in a recycled cardboard box." I didn’t eat pizza during my testing period, but I certainly handled a few newspapers and cash register receipts while I was running weekend errands.
So, although I showed it’s possible to reduce BPA levels in the body, it’s just not possible (unfortunately!) at the moment to eliminate BPA completely and carry on a normal life without it.
The truth of the matter is that toxic chemicals are now found at low levels in countless applications, in everything from personal care products and cooking pots and pans to electronics, furniture, clothing, building materials and children’s toys. They make their way into our bodies through our food, air and water. From the moment we get up from a good night’s sleep under wrinkle resistant sheets (which are treated with the known carcinogen formaldehyde) to the time we go to bed at night after a snack of microwave popcorn (the interior of the bag being coated with an indestructible chemical that builds up in our bodies), pollution surrounds us.
Far from escaping it when we shut our front door at night, we’ve unwittingly welcomed these toxins into our homes in countless ways. In a particularly graphic example, it’s been estimated that by the time the average woman grabs her morning coffee, she has applied 126 different chemicals in 12 different products to her face, body and hair.
And the result? Not surprisingly, a large and growing body of scientific research links exposure to toxic chemicals to many ailments that plague people, including several forms of cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
We have all become guinea pigs in a vast and uncontrolled experiment. At this moment in history, the image conjured up by the word "pollution" is just as properly an innocent rubber duck as it is a giant smoke stack.
This is an edited extract from Slow Death By Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health by co-authors Bruce Lourie & Rick Smith (c) UQP (2009).
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