Having worked as a leading environmental lawyer for the past 20 years, David R. Boyd is all too familiar with the countless toxic chemicals that exist in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the products we use to clean everything from our teeth to our countertops. But it was four years ago that the damage those substances can inflict on people and the planet really hit home for Boyd, cochair of Vancouver’s Greenest City Team and a Trudeau scholar at UBC. That’s when he became a dad.
“I think all parents have a heightened awareness and concern about toxic chemicals,” Boyd says in a phone interview from his Pender Island home. “But one thing that really struck me was reading a harrowing report by an American group that found that the umbilical-cord blood of infants contained on average more than 200 industrial chemicals. As a parent, that just makes your stomach turn.”
According to that 2005 report, conducted by the Washington, D.C.–based Environmental Working Group, organochlorine pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (pollutants that arise from burning gasoline and garbage), and mercury were among the substances detected in umbilical-cord blood samples.
Boyd went on to complete his doctoral degree at UBC, where he studied alongside toxicologists, epidemiologists, and environmental-health experts. He was stunned to discover how poorly understood the link between environmental hazards and human health really is and how ineffectually Canadian policy protects people’s well-being.
To help people get a better sense of the polluted world we live in—and ways they can make it better—Boyd wrote the just-published Dodging the Toxic Bullet: How to Protect Yourself From Everyday Environmental Health Hazards (Greystone, $21.95). The book is filled with fascinating, if alarming, facts but never gets bogged down in technical jargon. Best of all, it’s loaded with practical, simple steps people can take to make their homes and their surroundings healthier and safer for everyone.
If knowledge is power, then getting more people to understand how omnipresent potentially damaging toxins are is a vital first step.
Several reasons help explain why environmental/health connections aren’t more widely accepted, Boyd explains. Information overload is one. Then there is the problem of perception.
“Take pesticides in food,” Boyd says. “If people can’t see, taste, or touch them, they don’t seem real.”
Another argument he hears frequently is that even if harmful ingredients exist in everyday products, they tend to be measured in parts per billion. “People think, ”˜How can that possibly harm a big, robust human being?’.”¦Well, people do understand that Viagra, Cialis, and the birth-control pill are quite effective in parts per billion.”
Perhaps the most disconcerting factor contributing to a false sense of security is people’s trust in the government.
“There is a view that if any particular chemical or pesticide were actually harmful, the government would have regulated it,” Boyd notes. “When I started in this field, it was really exciting. In the 1990s, Canada was a global leader both at home and abroad when it came to environmental health. There’s been a steady erosion of that, and now it’s almost completely the opposite, whether it has impeded progress on climate change or on the restriction of fishing of bluefin tuna. It’s very disheartening.”
Another example of Canada’s backward practices concerns asbestos. We are one of the world’s largest asbestos exporters, with 95 percent of the substance mined here going to developing nations that have few environmental, health, and safety regulations.
A potent carcinogen, asbestos is used as a binder in cement, as insulation, and in firewalls. If its small fibres are inhaled, they can result in cancerous growths in the lungs and lead to other serious illnesses.
“It’s shocking,” says Boyd, who also wrote 2003’s Unnatural Law: Rethinking Canadian Environmental Law and Policy (UBC Press). “Every single person I tell that to is shocked and appalled. There’s a disconnect between what we believe and what the government is doing on our behalf.”
Another staggering statistic that Boyd has encountered during his research? As many as 25,000 deaths due to respiratory disease, cardiovascular illness, cancer, and congenital problems associated with adverse environmental exposure occur in Canada alone each year.
Given so many heaps of related research, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by pessimism and anxiety about our future, but Boyd’s book provides hope as well as concrete information on how to lead a greener, cleaner life.
Take his suggestions on improving indoor air quality: Don’t smoke. Have your home tested for radon. If you use a fireplace, don’t burn painted or treated wood, coloured paper, or plywood, which can release harmful chemicals into the air. Wash bedding and stuffed toys in hot water regularly to minimize exposure to dust mites. Determine whether your home contains asbestos and hire professional help to remove it if necessary. Avoid purchasing products containing volatile organic compounds, which are found in certain paints, varnishes, cleaning supplies, furnishings, hair spray, and fabric softeners. (In the spirit of Earth Day, Whole Foods is offering to replace every bottle of conventional household cleaning product brought into its stores with a nontoxic one tomorrow [April 23].)
There’s no denying that Dodging the Toxic Bullet is unsettling, but it’s also inspiring. The things Boyd suggests people do to make positive changes are beautifully straightforward. The book also provides contact information for government officials, Web-site addresses for reputable nongovernmental organizations working for a greener world (such as the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and the Environment and Toxic Free Canada), and other resources.
It also points to Sweden as a compelling role model. It ranks first in the world in environmental performance. As its greenhouse-gas emissions have fallen, so have its health-care costs. Coincidence? Boyd argues otherwise. And he’s hoping Canada—with policymakers and the public on the same page—will follow suit.