Book Review

Raising Elijah, by Sandra Steingraber

Reviewed by Marie Lorenzo

RaisingElijahLargeI now think of Raising Elijah as the ultimate parenting book. Taking a parenting perspective, in her latest book, Sandra Steingraber takes us through another engrossing account of environmental challenges to our children’s, and ultimately our own, health. With her beautiful prose, she steadfastly and skillfully uncovers the ugly underside of so much of modern consumerism, and challenges us to come up with better alternatives. And that has to start with parents, mothers and also fathers, the gatekeepers of consumption in the average North American family.

But interestingly, to the relief of many, she manages to take a completely supportive role of parents’ growing hopelessness and despair in the face of these modern-day threats. What is a parent to do when offered a more lucrative and prestigious job in another city when that will mean more polluted air for an asthmatic child to contend with? How is a parent on a tight budget to choose between saving money and buying the fresh fruits and vegetables with pesticides vs the organic ones? What is a parent to do when financially desperate neighbour sells their land to a fracking company, with all the poisoning of underground waterways that will entail?

These are questions which take us to where Steingraber really wants to go: why are these terrible choices even options? How, as a society, did we let this happen?

So in the end, this is not a parenting book about what you are personally going to do about protecting your family, that is, do your own research, tread carefully through drugstore aisles, or even, sell your home and pack up your bags to find a better place to live. No, this is about the fact that we cannot do this alone. We need those government bodies that we elected, and we pay taxes to, to actually do their job – we don’t want to have to choose between poison and no poison in a so-called “free” market. Parents don’t want the poisons as an option at all. And government regulators, work for us, not for the developers or the corporations profiting from these ventures. And that means that they need to hear from us, from communities coming together, from parents organizing around their children’s health. And this is the ultimate, hopeful message of this book, that is, yes, this is what parenting is really about: getting out there and joining in community action, taking back our communities so that they are healthy places to bring up our kids.


There's Lead in Your Lipstick. Toxins in Our Everyday Body Care and How to Avoid Them, by Gillian Deacon


Reviewed by Subha Ramanathan On a daily basis, it seems that every man, woman, and even child and baby is exposed to a range of toxic chemicals in our efforts to clean, moisturize and groom. While it has become common knowledge that there are potentially harmful pesticides in our foods, few are aware of the toxics that may be present in shampoo, face cream, makeup, deodorant and even toothpaste. Deacon focuses on the poorly regulated aspects of the body care industry, identifies the “Top Twenty Toxics,” and provides practical strategies to avoid them, which includes reading ingredient lists before making purchases and concocting your own body products using common items in your pantry.

Deacon discloses that she is a breast cancer survivor and her perspectives on body care toxics and her motive for writing There’s Lead in Your Lipstick relate to her health experiences. Although the direct causes of her tumour remain unknown, she suspects that exposure to dangerous toxics through body care played a role. Her three goals with this book are to raise awareness about greenwashing in product marketing (e.g., liberal/unsupported use of terms like “natural”, “organic,” “green” and “hypoallergenic”); to present information about common toxic ingredients; and to provide a guide for choosing products that are safer to put in, on and around our bodies.

The first chapter “Label reading 101 provides a brief summary of effects for each of the top twenty toxics, lists alternate names, and also the types of products that it is found in. For example, the final offender on the list (in alphabetical order) is triclosan, an antibacterial chemical found in soaps, lotions, and facial cleansers. Deacon explains that triclosan has been linked to endocrine disruption in lab studies and environmental harm, though specific details and scientific references are not included (see EWG's Skin Deep for more information). This chapter also explains that there isn’t strong scientific evidence to ban the toxics in the amounts that they are present in any one product. However, the total “chemical body burden” that comes from using multiple products over time likely causes the greatest harm. Furthermore, the combination and cumulative effects of body products may even affect gene expression and be passed down from generation to generation. Deacon writes, “almost certainly, the untold combinations of chemicals building up in our bloodstream and organs, based on generations of synthetic exposure, have an impact on our bodies’ ability to function in top form” (p.19-20). She also raises the issue that research, development, and market release of new body care products happens so quickly that Health Canada and other regulating bodies could not possibly study their long-term impacts on humans or our environments.

So what are we to do??? Until policies and regulations catch up, unfortunately the onus is on us to be our own advocates, educate ourselves, and choose our products wisely. Deacon’s chapters are divided by major body parts (hair, face, eyes, lips, etc.) with reviews of products free of the toxic offenders, information on where to buy them, and average retail costs. Whenever available, online retailers and Canadian manufacturers (e.g., Green Beaver and The Soap Works) are featured, making the product suggestions accessible to those that live in rural areas and helpful for people who endeavour to buy local. There are recipes in each chapter, some on the more complicated side, and some simple homemade solutions, like an apple cider vinegar and water rinse for dandruff control. In essence, Deacon sounds the alarm on toxic body care, but empowers us with easy to understand information and plenty of options for minimizing our exposure.

Overall, a drawback of Deacon’s book is the lack of reference to research supporting the selection of the top twenty toxics and some of the claims made about harm. For example, how was the “Top Twenty” list compiled? What made the cut and what did not? Some offenders, like lead and formaldehyde, are backed by a series of longitudinal studies showing adverse impacts (though none of these are cited). Others, like polyethylene glycol (PEG) aren’t necessarily toxic on their own, but may be contaminated by carcinogens like 1,4-dioxane. It would be helpful to know when contamination is most likely, and the level of harm, maybe on a Health Hazard Scale like that used by the Environmental Working Group ( Also missing is a discussion of how much is absorbed and some indication of priority on what to avoid. Is it worse to have toxics in body lotion because of the large area of application, or is it worse in toothpaste because it goes directly into our mouth? If beyond the scope of the book, an appendix with references and links specific to each toxic would suffice for people (like me) who want to weigh the best available evidence to draw my own conclusions.

As a final note, it would be helpful to know what to do with your old products when you purchase alternatives. This summer, I switched to a vegetable glycerine bar of soap and stopped using body washes with parabens, sodium lauryl sulphate and artificial fragrance. But what do I do with my half-used and brand new bottles? It’s probably not a good idea to dump them into the toilet, and doesn’t feel right to gift them to a friend or donate to a shelter. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

A Few Notes from the WHEN Office:  Definitely don't dump them in the toilet!  Try taking your partially used, toxic filled products to your local community's "environment day(s)".  If they are collecting old paint, and other hazards they usually will accept and properly dispose of  these products, just as they would other  household hazardous waste.

The word "toxin" in the original review was changed to "toxic" during editing to acknowledge that the definition of toxin is of a poison created inside a living organism. WHEN refers to industrially manufactured toxicants as toxics instead.

Not Just a Pretty Face – The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, by Stacy Malkan


Reviewed By Fran Maclure The Compact for Safe Cosmetics has been around for a few years now, writes author Stacy Malkan. This voluntary Compact simply asks cosmetic and personal care product companies to sign a pledge to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives within a span of three years. Yet unknown to many consumers, the multinationals L’Oreal, Revlon, Estee Lauder and Avon whose products contain carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers and surfactants refuse to do the right thing and sign the Compact.

There are hundreds of studies showing that the epidemic of breast cancer in North America is linked to these toxins by their very presence in our everyday lives. What does this mean for consumers and how can we fight back? One way is through the power of purchasing – read labels, choose safer products by going to and becoming an informed consumer.

In August this year, Stacy Malkan also hosted a coast-to-coast webinar on the issues she writes about in her book. She stressed that the $250 billion dollar cosmetic industry should own up to their responsibility to consumers. In the meantime, there are many things we can do differently. Stacy urged activist groups to connect the dots using the power of politics and activism. In other words, push our elected representatives to do the right thing! As she put it so aptly, we deserve safe products in every store, in every salon, and in every community. “Cosmetics should be safe enough to eat,” says Horst Rechelbacher, creator of a company called Intelligent Nutrients. His motto? If you wouldn’t put it in your body, why would you put it on your body.  Amen!

Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie


Reviewed by Naomi Higenbottam Do you ever wonder how the toxic chemicals found in products we use in our daily lives affect our health? In this eye opening book, authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie spend 4 days ingesting and inhaling countless chemicals to help answer that question.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck takes a look at the toxic chemicals that we allow into our environment and how they are polluting people from all walks of life. Many people think of pollution as car exhaust or factory smoke but this book demonstrates that a whole world of toxic chemicals are hiding out in seemingly harmless places. Baby bottles. Furniture. Deodorants. Children’s clothing. Cooking pots. T.V.s. It’s a never ending and scary list. These toxins make their way into our bodies through our food, air and water.

Rick and Bruce spend four days in a room testing their body’s levels before and after exposure for toxic chemicals and hormone disruptors such as mercury, bisphenol A, phalathes, triclosan, PCBs and PBDEs. Many of these chemicals are derivatives of Benzene, a toxic chemical found in coal, natural gas and crude oil. It was startling to learn that so many products contain ingredients made from oil. The natural gas and oil we rely on to run our cars and heat our homes is destroying our health and our environment. There are no laws to protect us from the wealthy oil companies that have always put profit before public health. There is a lack of regulation which allows these companies to use these chemicals for more and more products, without proper labelling and without proper testing for health risks. Throughout the book, the authors discuss the long list of health effects linked to toxic chemical exposure including cancer, birth defects, respiratory illness and neurodevelopment disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It is not all bad news. There is positive change happening. The authors give the readers hope that we can do something! People are becoming more aware of these toxic chemicals that are residing in our bodies and becoming more concerned with their long term effects on their health. This increased public awareness is quickly bringing the issue of toxic chemicals up the public’s priority list. Efforts have been made to ban the sale of children’s products that contain toxic chemicals. The book concludes with examples of how simple changes in consumer’s choices can detox their lives and how the average citizen can help to advocate for public policy change so that there will be laws that protect us from these chemicals and protect out environment.

Organic Housekeeping, by Ellen Sandbeck


Reviewed by Marcia Wallace This is the book that got me to throw out all the household toxins in my home. For years I was getting increasingly concerned about the environmental causes of health problems, but felt paralyzed to act. I decided to do something within my own home - surely I could make a few modest changes that would make a difference? And it started by changing the definition of clean I had grown up with. As Ellen writes: “There is no such thing as cleaner than clean. A clean surface is just the surface, with nothing else on it; a lingering fragrance, no matter how sweet and pleasant, signals that a chemical has been left behind.”

The main structure of the book is based on different rooms of the house - the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen - with tips and advice on what works best for the types of housekeeping you'll need in each area of the house. And her advice goes way beyond cleaners. She writes about everything from avoiding toxic materials in the products we buy, to how to prevent stains and address odours, to fire prevention and much more.

Ellen calls herself the “nontoxic avenger” and her message is simple. Change starts at home, and you can learn to live in a cleaner, healthier, economical way. Her book isn’t what I expected. Although she’s motivated by removing the toxins around us, she starts the book with advice on how to de-clutter your life and be more organized. It’s an accessible start to the kind of book best suited for that person that has been moved by the issues, but can’t respond to being told that everything they do wrong, everything they use is toxic. Reading Organic Housekeeping is like be held by the hand by a big sister - “see, its not that hard!”