Book Review: The Non-Toxic Avenger (by Deanna Duke)

Deanna Duke is the mind behind the brilliant blog The Crunchy Chicken. I highly recommend her blog for posts on sustainable living, urban homesteading, raising chickens and the like. So when I realised she was writing a book, I ordered an advance copy; it arrived about a week ago and I’ve finished it already. So far so good! I’m not entirely sure if the fact I couldn’t put it down was due to the content or just because I hate having unfinished books lying around. But I still mostly enjoyed this book and it was an easy read.

The main idea

“Most of us turn a blind eye to the startling array of chemicals lurking in everything from shampoo to baby bottles to the money in our wallets, choosing to believe that government agencies ensure the safety of the products we wear, use, ingest, and breathe in daily. Yet the standards for product safety in North America lag far behind those of other countries. We frequently hear that a substance we’ve relied on for years turns out to have serious effects on our health, the environment, or both.

After coming to terms with the fact that the autism and cancer which had impacted her family were most likely the result of environmental toxins, author Deanna Duke undertook a mission to dramatically reduce her family’s chemical exposure. She committed to drastically reducing the levels of all known chemicals in both her home and work environments, using the help of body burden testing to see what effect, if any, she was able to have on the level of toxins in her body.”

What I liked

Great book idea! I have often wondered how much lifestyle changes actually impact my exposure to toxins, and if changes I make are actually making a difference to my body. Now that this book details a rigorous “before and after” of toxin levels, that’s no longer such a mystery.

Deanna has an easy way with words. It’s easy to mentally get along with her, and her personal story is also compelling. I am also a sucker for reading about everyday toxins, so the topic of her book was my kind of read. Throughout most of the book, Deanna analyses all of her personal consumer products very thoroughly. I liked that she went through her research process – what companies she emailed and what they came back with. And if she couldn’t find any data, she said so, rather than left it out of the book. I felt like I was reading something honest.

Most of the book consists of Deanna researching everything she comes into contact with in everyday life: from her food and clothes to sunglasses, bedding, sunscreen, perfume, deodorant, tap water, house paint, alcohol, non-stick cookware and other non-stick items (more than you might expect), pharmaceutical drugs and electronics. Basically, if she used it she researched it. There were a lot of interesting tidbits to be gleaned. I never realised that laptops usually contain a lot of BpA and that there are actually alternatives out there. Bamboo laptop anyone?

The body-burden testing was pretty unusual and I enjoyed reading about the process. I would love to go through the process myself, but until I have a book contract I’ll enjoy living vicariously through Duke. And aside from the testing itself, Deanna kept the entire process very doable. She stuck to a budget of $5,000 (Canadian dollars) and avoided anything that was too unrealistic, like four-hour-long sweat sessions recommended to her as part of her detox.

What I didn’t like so much

Hardly Deanna’s fault, but many of the brands she analysed were not common names in New Zealand and so the book was not as relevant to New Zealand as I would have liked.

Early in the book, Deanna and her kids have flu shots. I felt like she blithely skipped over all the toxins in vaccines. She did investigate Thiomersal, which is a mercury-based preservative used in many vaccines. Her conclusion was that the amount of mercury was equivalent to that in a tin of tuna and therefore not worth worrying about. I would argue that when you eat tuna, you aren’t injecting its mercury content directly into your bloodstream and might therefore expect it to have vastly different effects. And mercury is hardly the only toxin in vaccines; what about the effects of formaldehyde, aluminium, MSG, artificial sweeteners, benzene derivatives and other ingredients being injected into the bloodstream? (Full disclosure: we began as pro-vaccination parents but stopped after Mila’s 5 month vaccinations; by that stage I’d done enough research to deeply regret ever starting.)

I was also amazed and a bit horrified to see her recommending a DIY recipe that contained palm oil as one ingredient. Palm oil is a huge reason for the deforestation of virgin rainforest: rainforest is destroyed in order to grow palms to support large companies’ desire for cheap oil at any cost. Here in New Zealand, a backlash against Cadbury’s recipe reformulation to make chocolates with palm oil led to the multinational reverting back to the original cocoa butter recipe. Palm oil in consumer products is still an insidious problemGreenpeace is one of several organisations on the oil case. Given Deanna is an environmental blogger, I was disappointed to see the palm oil recipe.

Finally, I’d have liked to have read more about the research into the effects different substances have on our health. While Deanna investigated endless consumer products, she left a lot less room to write about the chemicals she found in them. The end result was an interesting run-down, but a little light on the research and studies I would have liked to read about.

In summary

I enjoyed reading Nontoxic Avenger. It was interesting and funny and honest. I’m naturally a pretty slow reader and I sailed through it and learned a bit along the way. I wouldn’t recommend it to people as a go-to guide for learning about toxins (I think Healthy Child, Healthy World does a better job of that); but then, I don’t think that was the author’s intention either. I also had a couple of issues with it, as outlined above. But if you want to read about what environmental toxins might be in your system (even if you lead a relatively “green” life), this might be the book for you.

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1 Comment

  1. Hey there, thanks for reviewing my book! I just wanted to state, for the record that, while I did not mention the issues with using palm oil in the book, I’m well aware of the problems with it.

    When I developed the shampoo recipe a while back, I used what oils I had on-hand which included some old stock that I bought before I knew about the problems with palm oil (yeah, it was really old :). I just didn’t redevelop the recipe for the book and didn’t go into details about using palm oil. Just one of those decisions…

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