Week of 6/1/2004

Dear EarthTalk: How can I reduce the number and amount of toxins my new baby is exposed to?

—Beth Stevenson, Leesburg, VA

Since babies are so much smaller and their metabolism rates are so much higher than those of adults, proportionately they are exposed to higher doses of toxins from everyday foods and consumer products. And because babies’ organs and immune systems aren’t fully developed, those toxins can have a profound impact on them, effecting their growth and future health, according to the Princeton, New Jersey-based Children"s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC). "Since World War II," warns CHEC, "we have developed more than 80,000 chemicals for use in cleaners, pesticides, plastics, personal care products, industrial products and other conveniences. We know very little about the effect of these chemicals on a child"s development." Fortunately for new parents, there is an expanding universe of organic and all-natural products, so you can minimize baby"s exposure to potentially damaging chemicals.

Feeding your baby organic food means they will avoid the heavy-duty pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are sprayed onto or absorbed into conventionally grown foods. Companies like Earth"s Best Baby Food provide parents with a variety of pre-packaged organic baby foods. Parents interested in an even more back-to-basics approach can get assistance in the form of books, supplies and tips from Fresh Baby. The company"s Fresh Start Kit ($34.95) includes everything a parent needs—instructions, recipes and materials—to produce fresh, healthy, homemade baby food. Another eco-benefit: "By feeding children with all-natural alternatives, families don’t use and toss scores of baby food jars," says company spokesperson Christina Kerley.

Since babies spend so much time sleeping, toxins in their cribs, mattresses and bedding are also a concern. Lifekind makes crib mattresses ($279.99 to $379.99) that combine organic cotton with wool (which acts as a natural flame retardant) to prevent tender lungs from inhaling plastic and chemical fumes. For even sweeter dreams, bedding made from 100 percent cotton—without permanent press and flame retardant substances—is the least-toxic alternative.

Last, parents should shun soft plastic and vinyl baby toys. Manufacturers often add chemicals, called phthalates, to plastic toys as a softener. This chemical can leach from the plastic and—since toddlers tend to put objects in their mouths—expose young children to a substance that has been linked to cancer and reproductive harm. For this reason, the use of phthalates in baby and children"s toys is outlawed in 15 European countries and Japan. Hard plastic toys or, better yet, wooden playthings coated with water-based lacquer are smarter purchases, and can be found at Natural Play and your local toy store.

CONTACTS: Earth"s Best Baby Food, (800) 434-4246, www.earthsbest.com; Fresh Baby, (866) 403-7374, www.myfreshbaby.com; Children"s Health Environmental Coalition, (609) 252-1915, www.checnet.org; Lifekind, (800) 284.4983, www.lifekind.com; Natural Play, (608) 637-3989, www.naturalplay.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What are those container ships and oil tankers I see passing by every day doing to my city"s air quality?

—via email

Large marine vessels such as container ships and oil tankers are among the least-regulated sources of air pollution in the United States. Though they are more fuel-efficient than other forms of commercial transportation, most burn the cheapest diesel, called bunker oil, which is generally prohibited from being used by other industrial applications due to the high levels of extremely toxic compounds it releases when burned. In addition, commercial ships release 30 percent of the globe"s nitrogen oxide emissions and 16 percent of sulfur emissions.

And those numbers will only increase, says the San Francisco-based Blue Water Network, a non-profit clean-water advocacy group: "As more consumer goods are imported from Asia, cargo shipping is expected to double or even triple by 2020—especially in high-traffic ports such as Oakland, Los Angeles and New York. As marine traffic increases, so does the threat to our oceans, marine life and public health. Air pollution from all ocean-going vessels in U.S. waters is expected to grow by 150 percent over the next three decades."

Currently, more than 60,000 ships sail in and out of U.S. ports every year, and for cities trying to clear their smoggy air, cargo ship pollution can actually negate clean air gains. The Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District found that even without a port in the county, air-quality gains from reducing car and truck emissions would be wiped out by passing ships commuting to the nearby ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. "Just one container ship traveling one mile produces nitrogen oxide emissions equaling 25,000 cars traveling the same distance," explains Anthony Fournier of the District.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started to regulate pollution from American ships, but since a vast majority of the ships that come into port are foreign, international standards are needed, says Bluewater, which is suing the EPA to institute stronger rules governing pollution from ships. "These ships run on the dirtiest fuel available," says Martin Wagner, an attorney with the non-profit public interest law firm, Earthjustice, which is representing Bluewater. "The EPA"s failure to regulate their emissions undermines the efforts of coastal communities from Los Angeles to Boston to protect public health and meet federal clean air standards.

CONTACTS: Bluewater Network, (415) 544-0790, www.bluewaternetwork.org; Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, (805) 961-8800, www.sbcapcd.org; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov; Earthjustice, (415) 627-6700, www.earthjustice.org.