Five years ago, when Bruce Lourie and I started work on our first book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, it wasn’t immediately obvious to some why two environmentalists would concern themselves with toxins in the human body. The topic didn’t fit neatly into the “environmental issue” pigeon hole. “Isn’t that the domain of yoga enthusiasts and nutrition nuts?” we were occasionally asked.
Today, public awareness of the changing nature of pollution, largely due to the hard work of my former employer, Environmental Defence, is much higher. Many people now understand that the most dangerous toxins are not the product of old-school belching industrial smokestacks, but rather more invisible and insidious ingredients in the consumer products we buy every day: hormone-disrupting toxins like BPA in baby bottles; chemicals like parabens and phthalates common in cosmetics; and nasty flame retardants in the foam of the comfy sofa we recline on to watch Saturdaynight hockey.
All these and more are easily absorbed by the human body. None were adequately safety tested before being used as ubiquitous ingredients in consumer products around the world. And all are the focus of increasingly worrisome scientific and medical research linking them to serious human disease, including various cancers.
This week, as Bruce and I launch our second book, Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals out of Our Bodies and Our World, we’ve noticed that people are ready for a different conversation than they were just a few years ago. They don’t need convincing that toxic chemicals in shoddily made consumer products are a health issue for them and their families. What they want to know is what to do about it. “How do I get these chemicals out of me?” is the most common question we hear. Toxin Toxout is our best shot at an answer.
The answer has two parts.
First, Canadians need to become more careful consumers. As we demonstrate in the book through direct experiments, doing things like eating more organic food, buying greener, less toxic personal care products, and being careful about indoor air quality will dramatically and rapidly reduce toxic chemical levels in the body. Though these are effective, they are clearly stopgap measures that don’t address the larger issue: the fact that these poisonous ingredients continue to surround us in the first place.
This brings me to the second part of the answer — and the one that’s particularly relevant to the Broadbent Institute, where I now work. The think tank is interested in shining a light on economic and governance concerns as environmental ones. Canadians shouldn’t have to worry about toxic chemicals in the stuff they buy. It’s just that simple. The fact that they do is an outrageous failure of government oversight and regulation. We need to demand better from our elected representatives. Surely, the protection of the physical health and safety of its citizens is a basic responsibility of government — one whose lack of fulfillment can be measured in elevated rates of breast and prostate cancers, childhood asthma and diabetes.
The economy of the future needs to both create good jobs and reduce the health-damaging pollution that surrounds us. Unlike the oft-repeated claim of polluting corporations and their political enablers, environmental regulation is not an obstacle to economic growth. Rather, it’s an opportunity to accelerate growth. As we detail in Toxin Toxout, sales of organic food are going through the roof. Even post-recession, “green” products remain hot prospects in many market segments. And yearly installation of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, now regularly outpaces the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
As we contemplate the New Year and our personal resolutions, it’s the perfect time for people to get healthy and detox their bodies. Ultimately, though, the most important detox therapy is the really big one we need to perform on the economy itself to spur growth that is green and defined by shared prosperity.