Photo: Dodging the Toxic Bullet

David R. Boyd, author of Dodging the Toxic Bullet

David to David: David Suzuki interviews David R. Boyd on his latest book, Dodging the Toxic Bullet

We've heard it all before: what we do to our environment we do to ourselves. Now, environmental lawyer and professor David R. Boyd uncovers the world of environmental health and provides the practical information we need to protect ourselves and our families from harm.

To coincide with the David Suzuki Foundation launch of a new campaign focused on revealing the hidden chemicals in our beauty products, Dr. Suzuki interviews Mr. Boyd about his latest book, Dodging the Toxic Bullet. Find out what inspired Mr. Boyd to write his book, what are the greatest environmental health threats we face, and how we can live a longer, healthier life by breathing clean air, eating healthful food, drinking safe water, and using nontoxic products.

Sign up for our newsletter

Read the interview, buy the book and take the survey. Your health depends on it.

Suzuki: Why did you write this book?
Boyd: Three events gave me the necessary inspiration and the education. First, four-years ago I became a father for the first time. As every parent can attest, a new baby's arrival provokes not only joy but newfound fears about all kinds of potential threats, including environmental risks. Second, I've been chasing a lifelong dream—completing a doctoral degree at the University of British Columbia and learning from experts in toxicology, epidemiology, and environmental health. Third, I visited Canada's Chemical Valley — the heavily polluted area around Sarnia, Ontario — and was deeply disturbed by what I witnessed.

Suzuki: What kinds of different threats to health did you cover?
Boyd: All of the big threats — poor air quality (both outdoors and indoors), contaminants in our food and drinking water, toxic substances in consumer products, and physical hazards such as UV radiation and noise. According to the World Health Organization, these environmental hazards contribute to an estimated 36,800 premature deaths and millions of illnesses annually in Canada. The good news is that almost all of these premature deaths and illnesses could be prevented through stronger laws, better labeling, and informed choices.

Suzuki: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Boyd: I learned so many surprising things that I felt compelled to write a book! Among the negative surprises are newfound links between exposure to persistent organic pollutants and both obesity and diabetes; our ubiquitous exposure to toxic chemicals that mimic natural hormones; the impact of air pollution on our cardiovascular system; and the fact that after years of striving to clean up the environment there are still so many toxic substances found in our air, food, water, and consumer products.

It seems crazy to me that we permit the use of toxic substances such as toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in personal care products, especially when other jurisdictions have already prohibited them. Despite the vaunted intellectual capacity of homo sapiens, there are times when we appear to be slow learners.

On the positive side, it is inspiring to learn that Europe has successfully gone far further than Canada and the U.S. in protecting human health from toxic substances. Europe's experience demonstrates that stronger laws to protect human health and the environment save money, promote innovation, and boost quality of life.

Suzuki: Why would industry/government allow chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and birth defects as ingredients in the personal care products we use each day?
Boyd: As for industry, the essential fact to remember is that their over-riding purpose is to make as much money as quickly as possible. Over and over again, industries have disregarded and denied the detrimental health effects of their manufacturing processes and products—including tobacco, lead paint, gasoline, asbestos, benzene, vinyl chloride, beryllium, and chromium.

This dark history is the reason why governments need to shoulder the responsibility of enacting and enforcing tough laws to protect human health and the environment. Unfortunately, our governments often ignore the lessons of history, leading them to make the same mistakes over and over again in favoring corporate profits over people.

Suzuki: How do you respond to someone who says "But Canadians are living longer than ever. Doesn't that mean environmental hazards are not as big a threat as you suggest?"
Boyd: According to the Conference Board of Canada, today's children are likely the first in many generations who will live shorter lives than their parents. This is a profoundly disturbing development, linked largely to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes. New research indicates that there is a link between exposure to toxic substances and these two devastating epidemics, yet few people are aware of the connection. Children whose mothers are exposed to specific chemicals are more likely to become obese.

Suzuki: What toxic health hazards concern you the most?
Boyd: The feeble government response to air pollution is scandalous, in light of studies showing that thousands of premature deaths each year are caused by air pollution. I'm also deeply concerned by contaminants in our food supply. Meat, fish, and high fat dairy products can be major sources of persistent organic pollutants, which is why my family eats a vegetarian, predominantly organic diet.

The unfair distribution of environmental risks also troubles me. Evidence demonstrates that Aboriginal people and low income Canadians are likely to be exposed to disproportionately high levels of pollution. And we need to stop paying lip service to the importance of children and pass strong laws to protect our kids from toxic substances.

When it comes to personal care products, what concerns me the most is the widespread use of ingredients that are known or suspected hormone disruptors, including triclosan (found in many anti-bacterial soaps) and phthalates (often disguised as 'fragrance' on labels).

Suzuki: What advice would you give to others to minimize exposure to hazardous chemicals in personal care products?
Boyd: One excellent simple and practical approach is to read labels and reject products with ingredients you are unfamiliar with or unable to pronounce. For example, we recently bought shampoo and conditioner made entirely from a handful of natural ingredients, and it works like a charm.

Women who are pregnant or anticipate becoming pregnant should take extra precautions, in order to avoid exposing their developing fetus to toxic substances. Parents also need to be extra careful, as children are more vulnerable to environmental contaminants than adults.
However, in addition to becoming informed consumers, it's also vital that we use our power as citizens to demand that our governments fulfill our right to live in a healthy environment. Smart choices will protect your family but stronger laws should protect everyone.

For more detailed advice, please read my book!

David R. Boyd's new book, Dodging the Toxic Bullet: How to Protect Yourself from Everyday Environmental Health Hazards, is available in stores through Greystone Books.

Read more