Leif Reads: "You're Soaking in it!"

Friday, March 18, 2011


Leif Reads
Every month, Ash and I are going to focus on one eco-related book for Leif Reads. To see what this feature is all about, visit this page. This month, we are reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck talks about seven toxins that we unwittingly come in contact with - many times a day - as we go through our regular daily routine. Last week, Ash highlighted how the toy industry has been introducing our kids to toxins - through plastics in toys. In this week's post, there are two toxins I wanted to mention - PFCs and mercury, mainly because we come so easily in contact with them in our kitchens.

This is the town that Teflon built
Years ago, when Teflon arrived in the kitchen market, it was a big hit. I still remember hearing all the buzz around it at home, when dad bought our first non-stick frying pan. At the time, I had a vision of cooking something, without it sticking at all on the pan. Of course, when I finally started cooking, I didn't see that "magic". It took me a bit of time to understand all the related nuances about right temperature, time, etc. Something that useful, how can it even have a negative side. Wait, does any useful invention come through without a black mark?

There's a town called Parkersburg in West Virginia, US, where DuPont set up a large plant to manufacture Teflon. At one point, they bought land from a family nearby, the Tennants, whose main livelihood is farming, and who have thus thrived so for years. Until, one day, their cattle began mysteriously wasting away and dying. New born cattle had strange deformities. Even the members of the Tennant family were not spared - many of them began to suffer from respiratory illnesses and various cancers. But no one had a clue as to what was happening. Later many in the town were also similarly afflicted, and thanks to efforts by many residents, they were able to narrow down the cause - Dupont was emptying hazardous waste into the land they bought from the Tennants. Even the drinking water was unsafe.
The river in Parkersburg, West Virginia
(Picture source)

"It's Everywhere" - DuPont's tagline for Teflon
And sure enough, Teflon and its constituents are everywhere. That hazardous waste in the Tennants' land and in the Parkersburg's water well was a PFC (perfluorinated compounds), which composes Teflon. DuPont was actually well-aware of its health risks -- of the eight women employees it did tests on, birth defects were found in the children of two women. (You can read a related article here)

PFCs are so durable and resistant that it's nearly impossible to get rid of them. And unfortunately, we have a hell load of it in our environment - starting with those frying pans in our own kitchens. If you still have a Teflon non-stick frying pans in your kitchen, maybe it's time to dispose of them. If you're looking for an alternative, the authors suggest cast iron, stainless steel and enamel-coated cast iron pots/pans.

Dancing Cats
One strange day in Minamata, Japan, cats began exhibiting weird behavior. Throughout the town, cats were jumping, twisting, and doing backflips. Seabirds were dropping from the sky, unable to fly. People soon began to show symptoms such as trembling, numbness, irritability and tunnel vision. It took a while before anyone could narrow down the causes, and that is in spite of it being caused by the longest-known toxin to mankind, the only toxin not made by man - Mercury. As a result of this tragedy, stillbirths, serious deformities and plenty of deaths have happened. The government put the number of poisoned at 2265. University researchers put the number at 35000.
The river in Minamata, where dead fish started appearing at the mouth of the river
(Picture source)

By now, many of you would be aware that tuna has mercury. In fact, a lot of fish have mercury in them. When I first started eating tuna, I was advised not to have too much of it - to limit my intake. The NRDC has a table on its website which serves as a guideline as to how much tuna you can eat safely, without being at risk of mercury poisoning. Based on the research of these authors (and their consultation with environment/health experts), it seems there's no such thing as a safe level. Even at low levels, you can get affected by the mercury - particularly neuro symptoms like twitching, and irritation.

What's even disappointing is that mercury is present everywhere. In fluorescent lamps. Classic round thermostats (I had this one in my apartment until two months ago). Tilt switches (in icecream freezers). Thermometers. Dental cavities (I shuddered just thinking about those mercury cavities in direct contact with our mouth). Medicines. Paint. Pesticides and Fungicides. Something this prevalent is going to take ages to get rid off. That is, if we do plan to. At the moment, there's really not much happening on that front. Mercury also happens to be so useful that many people are willing to side-step the dangers and continue using them.

What have you heard about these or any other toxins commonly found in the household?

14 comments:

Marce said...

:-0. Some things I just don't want to know. Great informative reading though.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Great post! I did know about the dangers of mercury, but not about Teflon. Yikes!

Medeia Sharif said...

This was very informative.

I remember the wildlife deaths earlier this year regarding fish being washed ashore and birds dropping out of the sky. I wonder if they were reacting to pollutants.

Nina Happyendings said...

Interesting. I never knew about those toxins. :(

What Book Today? said...

Thanks for the rec. Good thought to focus on eco-related books; I'll be stopping by to check out the next ones featured.

Vasilly said...

I had no idea! Ugh! That is so horrible. Thanks for writing about this.

hcmurdoch said...

I remember being told to limit tuna when I was pregnant because of the mercury. I do feel a bit like we should all just live in caves and eat roots and berries to avoid all the nastiness we've created in the world. But, that's not realistic. I do my best to avoid the obvious stuff and, I guess, I choose to not worry about ALL the bad stuff out there.

Athira / Aths said...

Ever since I started doing this series last month, I've been feeling that way. I wish I didn't know half these things. I wish things were really rosier. I'm glad however that I do know now - maybe I can take better decisions later?

Athira / Aths said...

I knew about Mercury too. But Teflon frightened me. I am literally averse to pans now!

Athira / Aths said...

I remember reading that news too. I need to follow up to know if they found out the cost. I'm thinking it could be pollutants, too.

Athira / Aths said...

I know. :( I wish half these stuff were not true.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks! I hope you "enjoy" these posts and find something to take away each time.

Athira / Aths said...

I know. I wish it was not true. It was shocking reading half the stuff in this book.

Athira / Aths said...

Sometimes I think living in caves is what we should do. But this would have happened at some point. I think the best approach now is to be more aware and take good decisions. It helps to start small movements at the grassroots level and press for action at the higher levels.