February 11, 2007

Toxic Rubber Duckies, And Other Horrors

By Eric Gershon, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Feb. 11--A Connecticut woman once found she could not vanquish an infestation of bed fleas by washing the sheets. So she resorted to other means -- an old bottle of pesticide, which she applied to the bed, the sheets and the pillows, too.

It turned out that the pesticide was banned in 1988 due to its extreme toxicity, and people in her household fell ill. Cleaning the house also cost thousands of dollars.

"She basically threw the atom bomb at it," said Dr. Gary Ginsberg, a toxicologist with the state Department of Public health and co-author of the new book, "What's Toxic, What's Not," a guide to everyday substances that people should and shouldn't worry about.

Ginsberg and co-author Brian Toal, supervisor of the health department's Environmental and Occupational Health Assessment Program, use the bed fleas story to illustrate the importance of mindfulness among countless consumer products containing potentially dangerous substances.

As they write in the book's introduction, "Toxic chemicals in the home are accidents waiting to happen." Published in December, the book grew out of the authors' experience fielding questions from worried members of the public.

"We've answered the same questions over and over," said Ginsberg, of Avon. "You realize there needs to be one place to find that information."

The authors are not alarmists. When they tell horror stories, they do so in measured tones. They also take pains to explain that some substances widely believed to be highly toxic are not -- mold, for example. It can be harmful, especially to people with allergies, but as commonly found in homes it is rarely a toxic threat and generally easy to remove, they write.

The book also addresses some substances and devices that are supposedly healthful -- bottled water and air purifiers -- but that offer minimal benefit and can even introduce harms. Electronic air purifiers can generate ozone, which ages the lungs prematurely, according to the authors. Bottled water is often no less contaminated than tap water, and is subject to less stringent regulation, they write.

Lately, Ginsberg and Toal, of West Hartford, have been promoting their new book at bookstores and on television.

At a Saturday appearance at a Border's bookstore in Simsbury, they were armed with a rubber ducky and an assortment of household cleaners, among other things. The duck was made of a soft rubber containing phthalates, chemicals that can interfere with male hormones.

"They make boys less masculine," Ginsberg said, and baby boys probably shouldn't gnaw, suck or chew duckies like it. Find a duck made of other, harder plastics, he said.

Also, obvious as it may seem, reading the labels of household surface cleaners is important. Even if you don't know anything about chemicals, other warnings in non-technical language may suggest a product's relative toxicity. A label on one of Ginsberg's props, a surface cleaner in a spray bottle, advised that it could etch porcelain.

"If it's going to etch porcelain," he said, "it's not going to be good for your skin or your lungs."

Contact Eric Gershon at [email protected]