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DECEMBER 2010: You take special pains to protect your children from germs. How about toxic chemicals in their everyday environment?

Raising Healthy Children
Hidden dangers & what to do about them

Two decades ago, when I was a new mother, we parents knew next to nothing about the health risks to children from toxins in their everyday environment. Indeed, scientists themselves knew relatively little—and what they did know was not well publicized.

Today, scientists understand much more, thanks to ongoing research. But the public still seems mostly in the dark.

That's not good. Knowledge is power, as they say—in this case, the all-important power to protect your children's health. I only wish I had more of it when I was approaching parenthood.

If you are a new parent or a parent-to-be or a person who might become a parent one day, read on and start empowering yourself now. Here are the main things to know, followed by a list of dos and don'ts.

Lesson #1: Toxins to which you, yourself, are exposed in advance of pregnancy may impact the health of children to come. Guys, this applies to you, too. Your sperm may develop improperly and the DNA you pass on may be affected.

Lesson #2: During pregnancy, toxins to which you are exposed may alter the way the fetus's organs and systems develop or contribute to cancer later.

Lesson #3: Babies and young children remain highly vulnerable to toxic substances, as their organs and systems are still in development.

Where are toxic chemicals encountered? In food, water, paint, soap, lawn care products, baby bottles, lunch boxes, furniture—the list goes on and on. Basically, they have infiltrated all areas of our lives, not as part of some nefarious scheme by corporations to endanger our health, but as a way of tapping into our desire for greater safety (for example, with flame-retardant pajamas), convenience (plastic sippy cups) and attractiveness (scented shampoo). Yet these chemicals do bring with them serious health risks, intended or not, especially to the very young.

By the way, I am not talking about the risk of acute problems that occur shortly after exposure, such as dizziness, rashes or poisoning. When these risks are present, there is usually a warning on the label alerting you to them. No, I am referring to long-term harm that shows up later in life—for instance, as infertility, reduced cognitive function or, as mentioned above, cancer. The long time lag between exposure and outcome makes it hard for people to see the relationship (and easy for companies to deny the problem), which hampers regulation, but a large body of scientific evidence shows clear links.

Following is a compendium of steps you can take to reduce exposure to these invisible dangers and protect the health of your child. Please don't approach it with an "all or nothing" mentality. "All" is for superhumans only. Instead, pick a few steps that are achievable for you. Remember, any step you do take will keep your child safer than he or she otherwise would be.

What to do prior to pregnancy (applies to men and women)
  1. Use safer cosmetics, shampoos, soaps and other personal care items. To reduce exposure to phthalates, choose unscented or naturally scented products and avoid nail polish or get phthalate-free brands. You may also want to get paraben-free products, as parabens are suspected endocrine disruptors. And make sure your lipstick is lead-free. Find the safest brands in the Cosmetic Safety Database.
  2. Don't use pesticides in your home. Old-fashioned cleanliness helps prevent pests and there are other safe pest control methods. If you do need insecticides, use baits or traps.
  3. Don't use pesticides on your pets. To keep fleas and ticks at bay, regularly comb and bathe your pets, wash their bedding, vacuum and keep grass and bushes around the house clipped. If you need a pest treatment product, use flea control pills.
  4. Don't use pesticides in your yard. Try organic techniques and planting native plants, which are more resistant to native pests.
  5. Use natural cleaning products, such as white vinegar and baking soda or non-toxic brands.
  6. Do not use scented air fresheners, which can expose you to phthalates.
  7. Eat organic food as much as possible, especially organic animal products (milk, cheese and eggs as well as meat).
  8. Eat less meat and, in particular, less fatty meat. (Many toxins are stored in animal fat, including our own.)
  9. Steer clear of fish high in mercury. Use NRDC's Guide to Mercury in Fish to see which fish are safe.
  10. Avoid eating canned food or canned soda, as cans are lined with BPA.
  11. Have your tap water tested for lead. Here is info on water testing. Also get the latest water quality report from your water supplier. If the lead level is above the safety threshold or there are other serious safety issues, use bottled water. Otherwise, stick with tap, which is better regulated. You may also want to filter your water. When you first use water in the morning or after several hours, run it till it turns cold to reduce lead exposure.
  12. Have your house tested for lead if you notice peeling or flaking paint and the house was built before 1978 when paint became lead-free. Learn more from the EPA lead page.
  13. Don't drink alcohol if you're trying to have a baby or might be trying soon. And don't smoke or take "recreational" drugs. Check with your doctor about the safety of over-the-counter and prescribed drugs.
What to do after the baby is born
  1. ALL OF THE ABOVE, as applied to your child, plus...
  2. Breastfeed your baby if you can. Breast milk provides better nutrition than formula and helps to protect children from disease and infection.
  3. Avoid hard, transparent plastic baby bottles and sippy cups, which may be made with BPA. Do not warm up milk in a plastic baby bottle. Heat may cause chemicals to leach from the plastic into the milk. You can warm up glass bottles, however.
  4. Only microwave food in glass containers.
  5. Prepare your child's meals from scratch to limit sweeteners, salt, fat and additives—and to include healthy ingredients. Buy organic foods as much as possible, especially when it comes to foods your child consumes a lot of, such as milk and apples (or apple juice) and foods with high levels of pesticide residues.
  6. Get your child all the recommended vaccinations. Today's vaccines are mercury-free and there is no evidence they are dangerous, while it is a fact that they protect kids (yours and others they come in contact with) from life-threatening illnesses.
  7. Only give your child antibiotics for bacterial illnesses or infections. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics—e.g., to combat viruses—can lead to antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
  8. Don't use antibacterial soaps and cleansers made with triclosan or triclocarban. Instead wash hands well with regular soap and hot water for 20-30 seconds or use alcohol-based sanitizers.
  9. Instead of buying furniture and other products made with chlorinated flame retardants, use good fire prevention practices.
Additional things to pay attention to as your child grows
  1. ALL OF THE ABOVE as applied to your older child, plus...
  2. Avoid school supplies made with vinyl (PVC plastic), such as plastic lunch boxes and notebooks with plastic-coated spiral bindings. Get more information from the PVC-Free Schools Campaign Fact-Sheets.
  3. Teach your child about the health risks in cosmetics and other personal care products so he or she will make good choices.
  4. When you buy your child a cell phone, buy a wired headset, too. A link between cell phone use and brain cancer is a distinct possibility so the phone should not be pressed against the head—or, in fact, any part of the body.
—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic


Conception
START BEFORE THIS. Exposure to toxins by men and women before they conceive can affect the child's health and development. So if you want to protect your baby-to-be from environmental hazards—and who doesn't?—begin by protecting yourself.




Woman shampooing Child in tub with shampoo
AVOID SCENTED PRODUCTS, from air fresheners to shampoo, for yourself, beginning prior to pregnancy, and your child. The synthetic fragrances that are used contain phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems. Even products called "unscented" on the label may contain fragrances. Learn more on how to avoid scented products.




Child with PVC umbrella
SAY NO TO VINYL in products for kids. Though phthalates, an ingredient in vinyl, were recently banned in toys for children under 12, they still can be—and are—used in other kid stuff such as PVC (vinyl) umbrellas, purses, lunch boxes and organizers as well as notebooks with plastic-coated spiral bindings and plastic-coated paper clips. They are also used in modeling clay. Learn more from the Guide to PVC-free School Supplies.




Lead on the periodic chart
LEAD IS STILL A PROBLEM. The dangers to children from lead have long been known, leading to a ban on lead-based paint in 1978. Nevertheless, children continue to be exposed to lead in homes built before 1978. They may also be exposed to lead in tap water if the water travels into, or through, the home in lead pipes. Also vinyl products, such as vinyl lunch boxes, generally contain lead, as do many lipsticks. The mother's exposure to lead prior to or during pregnancy can also affect the child's development.




Some of the other dangerous materials found in everyday products include bisphenol A (BPA), organophosphates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), cadmium and mercury.





Resources


Times Higher Education
You've Got Your Father's Toxins

NRDC's Simple Steps
Nine Steps to a Safer Pregnancy

NRDC
Benefits of Breastfeeding
Hidden Hazards in Air Fresheners

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The Story of Cosmetics (video)

HealthyStuff.org
Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Products

Lead Safe Illinois
Reducing Lead Hazards in the Home

Also see resources embedded in the text.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.