Protecting Kids from Environmental Hazards
Expectant mothers are notorious worriers. As the nesting instinct kicks in, they will lower their bellies down to the floor to scrub every corner with a toothbrush. This craziness makes them climb tall ladders to organize a messy closet shelf. In some cases, it makes them ban all solvents, bleached paper products and imported grapes from the premises.
Considering all of the health threats children face today, clearing away environmental hazards should be a parental priority. Studies show a strong connection between common chemical exposures and rising rates of childhood cancer, asthma, learning disorders and autism. New research, for example, shows tuna sandwiches aren’t so safe because of mercury contamination. Other scientists are trying to figure out if low-level chemical exposures might be causing one in five American kids to struggle with learning and behavioral disorders.
Parents who bring a newborn home for the first time usually feel a mixture of panic and a fierce urge to protect. And while it may seem overwhelming, many of the environmental factors that affect young children are easy to control with a few basic changes.
Baby-Proofing your Body
Some of the hottest research in the field of children’s environmental health focuses on the unborn child. Scientists believe many of the most devastating health problems, such as cancer and birth defects, are caused by something the mother has been carrying in her body. For example, one study showed women who ate a steady diet of Great Lakes fish (polluted with PCBs) gave birth to children with lower IQ levels.
Newer research suggests maternal mercury contamination may make a baby more likely to develop autism or autoimmune disease. Currently, about one in eight American children is born with unsafe levels of mercury, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
e2,H?e, government officials recently warned pregnant women to cut back on their canned tuna consumption. Public health activists say six ounces of albacore tuna (or 12 ounces of chunk lite) once a month is probably safe, though the Mercury Policy Project (MPP) thinks even that is too much. For a guide to safe fish consumption, see the "Brain Food" report at www.ewg.org.
It’s important to take in a lot of protein and calcium when eating for two, but conventional beef, poultry and milk products may not be the best choice. According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, president of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, these foods may contain synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics that could cause breast or prostate cancer. Opt for organic dairy brands and free-range meats instead. Prenatal exposure to hot dogs colored with nitrites has been linked to childhood leukemia, Epstein adds. Organic produce also is a smarter choice.
Next, check the tap and consider installing a carbon filter. Older homes may have pipes that leach lead. New research shows lead causes fetal brain delays and lower IQs at much lower levels than previously known. Another study shows prenatal exposure to high lead levels may lead to schizophrenia.
Besides taking folic acid and prenatal vitamins, pregnant moms may need to make some sacrifices in the beauty department. Dark-colored hair dyes may cause cancer. Nail polish, shampoo, perfume, hair gel and body lotion all may contain phthalates. These "probable carcinogens" have been associated with reproductive birth defects in male babies (see www.nottoopretty.org). Luckily, companies such as Aveda and Urban Decay offer alternatives.
Baby-Proof your Home
Even new dads have been known to develop the nesting instinct as the due date looms. So why not focus that nervous energy on turning every part of your home into a toxic-free zone?
Start with bugs. Toss those cans of Raid, ant traps and the dog’s flea collar. Many of these common home pesticides are linked to childhood cancer—particularly brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia.
Overall, childhood cancer increases about one-percent per year, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is survival rates are getting better. But certain types of childhood cancer are rising faster than others. In the past 15 years, acute lymphocytic leukemia has increased 10 percent and brain tumors are up more than 30 percent, according to the Children’s Environmental Health Network.
Groups such as the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition offer plenty of tips on safer integrated pest management techniques to rid your home of pests (see www.checnet.org). Herbal flea collars are available at stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market. As for the garden, a few more dandelions don’t seem so bad when a baby’s health is at stake.
Since babies spend so much time on the floor, avoid commercial carpet cleaners that may use harmful chemicals. Better yet, pull up the carpet and use washable throw rugs. For more information on safer household cleaning products, see www.checnet.org.
Babies may be messy, but think twice about water and stain repellents. Those products may contain perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which research suggests may interfere with the reproductive system.
Babies and Toddlers
Feeding a child is just as tricky as eating responsibly when pregnant. Information is key to making safe choices. Of course, breast milk is the best option for infants. For mothers who are unable to breast feed, formula is still a nutritious option. While some children must rely on soy formula because of milk allergies, scientists are concerned about its high estrogen content.
When bottle feeding, avoid rigid, clear-plastic bottles made of polycarbonate. Studies show these bottles leach an endocrine-disrupting chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Tempered glass or colored plastic bottles made of polyethylene or polypropylene are safer.
Since kids drink more apple juice and eat more grapes, bananas and broccoli than most adults, they ingest more pesticides. At the same time, their developing organs and immune systems are less equipped to handle them.
"Most of the food your child is eating is still based on what is "considered" safe for a full-grown adult male," says Dr. Phillip Landrigan, a pediatric environmental health expert at New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center and director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment. "That is why the best thing is to serve as much organic food as you can fit into your budget. And, of course, be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly."
A 2002 Environmental Health Perspectives study showed that a group of Seattle children who ate a conventional diet had significantly higher levels of pesticides in their blood than children who ate mostly organic foods.
MELISSA KNOPPER is a freelance writer specializing in health and science issues.