Last week, I finished reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which claims to be a hopeful book rather than a traumatizing one, despite the fact that it has “death” in the title. Surprisingly, it wasn’t unpleasant reading. The authors set out to inform, not use hype or scare tactics, and I'd say they were successful. It doesn’t mean that the information itself isn’t scary. It is. The chemical pollution that is so prevalent in everyday life, in our own bodies, on every space of this planet…it is not good news. The “hopeful” the authors were going for lies in the fact that this can change. Consumers can change it by demanding something better, by demanding products that do not contain known and/or potential toxins. The "hope" is that information will help lead to better choices and direct action.
I, myself, would call this an “expensive” book. It’s going to cost me a small fortune to replace almost all of my cookware to eliminate Teflon and related products to the extent possible (the book tells us that many ovens and stove surfaces are treated with Teflon, so there's little I can do there as a renter). Anything non-stick has to go and be replaced with stainless steel and cast iron, enameled or not. I’ve always wanted superior cookware anyway, but the hefty pricetag has held me back (for good reason). No longer. The price is worth it. Even though it will take me a while to replace everything, I am done with non-stick. Why?
I was already aware that the non-stick coating breaks down over time and ends up in your food, which is why it’s important not to use metal in the pots and pans and to clean it without heavy abrasion (check). But I knew for certain that it’s time to do a serious upgrade when I read in the book that the toxic fumes released by Teflon while heating on a stove have been enough to cause pet canaries' lungs to hemorrhage. When we bought our canary, Figaro, I was advised not to place the bird near the kitchen “because they don’t like the heat or the cooking smells.” I'm not blaming the pet shop; they probably didn't know. Folks, it’s not the smells that are the problem; it's the toxins. Remember that miners used to send canaries down the shaft to check if it was ok for humans? If it’s bad for Figaro, it’s bad for us too. I have two small children, and I’m not exposing them (or any of us) to that anymore.
In recent years, I have been slowly reducing the use of plastic in my kitchen, but this book will speed that process along too. Although many plastics are fairly innocuous at room temperature (particularly those with recycling symbols 4, 5, 1 and 2), all plastic releases chemicals into food every single time it is heated. Every time. Plastic also releases chemicals into water when it is heated in a hot dishwasher, leading to increased chemicals in the water supply, not all of which are removed by waste treatment. Some plastics (those containing BPA) leach hideously toxic, hormone-emulating chemicals into food, which studies have shown to have zero safe exposure levels. The smallest possible testing dose yielded significant hormonal changes in mice when exposed at the fetal level (highly likely for pregnant women and their babies, including me with mine). Yikes. Hello, glass. In those instances where plastic is unavoidable, the jingle to remember is "4, 5, 1 and 2; all the rest are bad for you."
The book has also made me reexamine what is in our toiletries cabinet even more thoroughly than I have been doing. It made me aware of the extent to which hazardous chemicals invade products that people use and rely upon every day in modern, Western life. Long ago, I took command of smarter choices in shampoo, conditioner, soap and lotion. Last year, I changed from face wash to the OCM. We use Aveda shampoo and Dr. Bronner’s soap. This weekend, I tossed out my husband’s shaving cream since it was on the naughty list and replaced it with some fancy-pants shaving oil that he says works just as well. But toothpaste and deodorant remain big offenders. Since I’ve run out of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, I haven’t found a good substitute. The Weleda natural ones don’t seem to work as well (my teeth look stained and don’t feel as clean), and the commercial ones taste like chemicals to me (which they are). The biggest example I can give of awareness from this book was when I caved and bought Colgate Total. I brushed my teeth with it twice, and both times, it made my mouth bleed (I exaggerate not). After that second time, I threw it away. Later in the book, I read it was a huge offender for triclosan, a big antibacterial chemical no-no.
I don’t intentionally buy anything “antibacterial” as it is. Isn’t eliminating bacteria the whole point of soap and proper washing? Why are we so terrified of germs? Antibacterial agents sound like they will eliminate germs, but many products don't contain high enough concentrations to be effective. Without overcomplicating the debate, do you really need those extra chemicals in your toothpaste and shaving cream?
And while we're on the anti-bacterial subject, I'm going to avoid anything with nano-silver until more testing is done. Silver is a naturally-occurring, naturally antibacterial product, and it is making for a sexy ad campaign roll-out when worked into things like athletic socks and washing machines (I spotted and avoided it while buying rubber gloves just yesterday)...but it can be devastating for the environment in high concentrations. Nano-silver is so tiny that it is missed by waste treatment and ends up in the water supply with no breakdown in sight. Manufacturers insist that the amounts are so small as to be inconsequential, but small amounts do build up to big amounts over time. What that build-up will mean for the natural environment and all that depend on it (including us!) remains to be seen, and I don't want to buy into it while that is still such an unknown.
I'm not saying this book is going to make me hypersensitive, paranoid or over-reactive. I am not taking the words of the text as solid gold wisdom. But I am taking it in as information. Any sound information about unnecessary sources of toxins and pollution is going to make me think and evaluate. Even if the potential is there but unproven, my view is it's best to know about it and make your own decisions accordingly. Most of the "safer" choices are a lot more expensive, placing them out of reach for many (most?) people and small businesses, but I think it's still important to make choices from a place of knowledge. If you have the money to buy one enameled cast iron pot or three Teflon pots in a pack, what will you decide to purchase and why? In the past, I opted for the three-pack and the feel of a deal. After all, the brand was very good and the pots were still quite expensive. In the future, I will go for the cast iron. An informed choice is always better, and I feel this book has given me more tools in my personal evaluation kit for future investments, big and small.