“The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You” — A Review

by Katy on January 19, 2012 · 15 comments

To say that Deanna Duke feels strongly about toxic chemicals in our everyday environment could almost be called an understatement. With an autistic son and a husband dealing with Multiple Myeloma, it’s a subject near and dear to her heart. You probably already know Duke as the author of the popular blog The Crunchy Chicken, which addresses environmental issues with a refreshingly frank style that tells it like it is. In a good way.

Duke’s first book The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You is a natural outgrowth of her blog. Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Duke takes on the role of guinea pig to test her toxic body burden before and after eliminating every single source of toxic chemical exposure. As a person who was already choosing organic, avoiding BPA and reading the small print on her beauty products, it was surprising how much change she still needed to make.

I think of myself as a chemical minimalist. I make my own laundry detergent, rarely wear makeup; (mostly from sheer laziness and complete lack of self-interest) and choose environmentally friendly dishwasher detergent, dish soap and cleaning products. On the other hand, I buy the cheapest shampoo, (White Rain) apply Blistex to my lips dozens of times per day, color my hair, enjoy spray painting Goodwill finds and choose organic maybe 20% of the time. So there is definitely an opportunity to learn a thing or two.

One of the most interesting areas that Duke delved into was the issue of indoor air quality. I know this is more of an issue for people who live in airtight new construction, (as opposed to my 98-year-old colander of a house) but this asthmatic was still fascinated. It turns out that filling a house with indoor plants makes a huge difference in air quality, which of course makes sense, although I had never given it much thought. I used to always have lots of plants, but a cat I owned in nursing school munched away at everything, and eventually I just gave up on my indoor jungle. Battling mildew in her bathroom, Seattle-ite Duke was able to bring in enough plants to bring the mildew level down.

I know it doesn’t compare to Multiple Myeloma, but I’ve had Malignant Melanoma twice in my life. (The first time so deep that it required a skin graft.) So minimizing my exposure to toxins is a priority for me. But you don’t have to be asthmatic or have a history of cancer to want to decrease your toxic exposure.

I really liked this book, motoring through it over a three day period, as it was very much a gripping read. Duke’s writing style is open and non-alarmist, and her five month journey to eliminate and investigate the household toxic substances we all take for granted was both educational and entertaining.

I don’t want to summarize too much of the book, as I don’t want to minimize your enjoyment of a fresh read. Let’s just say that I highly recommend The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, and suggest you add it to your reading list.

Happy reading!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Elaine in Ark January 19, 2012 at 11:06 am

I was always terrified of bugs, and I used to joke about being killed from Raid poisoning because I’d use so much to kill them. Not so funny any more. I’m still afraid of bugs, but I use a lot less poison now (and I get as many as I can with my vacuum cleaner instead).

I colored my hair for years, took hormone replacement therapy, and breathed vapors of all kinds. I’m leaning towards a more natural life now, and I’m appalled at how casual I was about all these things.


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary January 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Hmm… I just looked at both the library networks to which I have access (a total of about 50 libraries, including the Boston Public Library), and this book is not in the collections. Boo!

I’ve been very serious about not purchasing books and using the library instead, but this one might be an exception…


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary January 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm

PS: I did submit a request to my library to purchase it. Who knows? Maybe they will. 🙂


Katy January 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm

My friend who is a librarian says the library system here really looks at those requests.



G in Boston suburbs January 20, 2012 at 4:18 am

I’m in Newton and will submit a request in the Minuteman network.


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary January 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm

G, I’m in Newton too. And I just got a notice that the library is going to buy the book. Woot!

Diedra B January 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm

hurray plants!
Something has been bothering me but I don’t know what it is. Maybe if I can get in more houseplants I can attack it back in some way.


Karen January 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm

This sounds like essential reading. I found out my library has ordered it, just requested it, and am only hold #2, so I hope to get it soon after they buy it.

I too make a lot of my own cleaning products out of vinegar, baking soda etc, but I know I could use improvement in other toxic areas. I would like to get more houseplants, if only I could keep them alive ; (


Tina January 19, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for the review… just put a hold on it @ our local library 🙂


Laure January 19, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Thanks so much. In addition to the chemical aspects, I have been losing the battle with mildew in my bathroom (and running out of natural ideas to fight it) and am thrilled to learn of a possible solution. I currently have one small plant in there, and would gladly shower in a tropical jungle if it eliminated the mildew – thanks!


Amber January 20, 2012 at 4:59 am

Here is a recipe from The Simple Dollar:
Tilex: Mix two teaspoons of tea tree oil and two cups of water in a spray bottle, shake it up, and spray it on anything that has mold or mildew on it. Don’t rinse it, just leave it. It will smell strongly at first, but the smell will dissipate, as will the mold and mildew.


Amber January 20, 2012 at 5:01 am

Here is a recipe from The Simple Dollar
Tilex: Mix two teaspoons of tea tree oil and two cups of water in a spray bottle, shake it up, and spray it on anything that has mold or mildew on it. Don’t rinse it, just leave it. It will smell strongly at first, but the smell will dissipate, as will the mold and mildew.


Laura January 19, 2012 at 8:50 pm

What about steam cleaning? Of course this is only good if you can see the mildew.


Shelley January 20, 2012 at 6:53 am

I’m all for having less exposure to hazardous substances, however, I also know there is an awful lot of foolishness passed around as gospel and people have lost the ability to discern what constitutes a reliable source of information. I worked for several years with toxicologists and the two main messages I took away are that our skin provides an amazing layer of protection for our bodies. Also that virtually anything in sufficient quantity can harm you – even drinking too much water. I can’t claim any expertise and I’ve not read this book, but I can suggest another book: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. It’s not an easy read, but it does open one’s eyes. I try to remember to ask myself, ‘What’s in it for them?’ The media sell newspapers by keeping us afraid, environmental charities who rely on donations may tell us all sorts of half-truths, and of course big business makes a lot of money through the use of chemicals and environmental destruction. It’s a complicated world we live in! More houseplants, though? I can go with that!


Ellie January 23, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I am going to get my hands on a copy of this book, and I am going to present it as evidence to a husband who complains that we have “too many plants”! Clearly, we do not have “too many plants” – we have a virtually cost-free indoor air filtration system! So there! 🙂


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