Safe and Sound
Protecting Kids from Environmental Hazards
By Melissa Knopper
Published October 31st, 2004
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
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,
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
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.