Parents want their kids to be safe, especially from threats close to home such as environmental toxins. These toxins – including pesticides on food and phthalates in plastic toys – can be ingested directly by infants, children and women who are pregnant.
Young children, infants and fetuses are more vulnerable to harm from environmental toxins than adults, says Dr. Robin Walker, professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax. But reducing risks may be easier than you think.
Here’s a hit list of environmental culprits, with tips from experts on how to avoid them.
The issue: Lead in paint and other materials. If ingested, lead can affect brain and nervous system development in fetuses, causing developmental delays and learning disabilities in young children.
• Vacuum at least twice a week in homes that are 30 years or older to remove the fine lead particles that build up in dust from old paint; don't let children ingest small paint chips. If you can afford it, get the paint professionally removed to decrease your risk of exposure.
• Watch for imported toys containing lead (see Health Canada's recall list), and look for a toy's source on the packaging. "Be aware that other countries may not be as strict as we are," adds Dr. Gideon Koren, director of the Motherisk Program at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. In particular, avoid inexpensive jewelry and trinkets that seem heavy for their size.
• Discard vinyl mini-blinds (metal blinds are OK), which produce high levels of lead dust when exposed to UV rays.
• Don't use candles with metallic cores in the wicks; they may contain lead. When such wicks are burned, the resulting vapours and dust are a significant health risk.
• Avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic toys, backpacks and lunchboxes that are brightly coloured (the bright colour may mean lead is present). PVC plastic is sometimes labelled with the number 3 recycling symbol.
• Don't serve food in leaded crystal dishes or heirloom or handcrafted china you think might contain lead. Certainty comes only from testing or contacting manufacturers, who may have test records for the patterns they make.
• If the water pipes in your home were installed before 1990, let cold water run for two minutes before use, if it hasn't been used for more than five hours.
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The issue: Mercury in fish. Consumption of mercury can affect the nervous system of the fetus, eventually resulting in delayed walking and speech.
• Children, and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, should avoid eating large predatory fish, including tuna steak (canned is safe in limited quantities) and swordfish. An excellent guide to mercury-contaminated fish is available from Toronto Public Health.
The issue: Plasticizers, including phthalates – a group of chemicals used to soften plastics, in particular PVCs in toys (such as some inflatable toys and rattles) and in a variety of personal-care products (such as nail polish, shampoo and soap) – and bisphenol A (BPA) – a chemical used to make hard clear plastic, such as the polycarbonate used in baby bottles and in the lining of tins used for canned foods. Animal studies of both phthalates and BPA suggest a range of damaging effects to developing reproductive systems, especially in males, as a result of ingestion.
• Use safe alternatives to baby bottles and other food storage containers, such as glass or polyethylene plastic (recycling symbol #1). Health Canada has recently banned the sale of baby bottles containing BPA.
• Use only plastic containers labelled as microwave safe – there is some concern plastic wrap may leak plasticizers into high-fat foods, such as meats and cheeses, at high temperatures.
• Shop for PVC-, phthalate- and BPA-free baby products and toys, especially when buying something a baby is likely to put in his or her mouth. Or look for numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom of plastic products – those are safe. Do not use products labelled with a 3, 6 or 7. If you're unsure, write the manufacturer to ask what its products contain. Health Canada is currently investigating the use of phthalates in toys for children under three.
• Avoid drinking water from plastic bottles, especially if you're pregnant, since the bottles may contain BPA. Where possible, drink tap water; most experts contend that Canada's drinking water is among the safest in the world.
• Limit consumption of canned foods if you are pregnant or feeding a young child, since the lining in the cans contains BPA.
• Avoid using personal-care products (such as baby lotions, shampoos and diaper-rash treatments) on babies because such products contain phthalates; use them sparingly on children. It’s not unreasonable to use a product to treat diaper rash, says Walker, but it's not necessary to slather lotions and creams on babies all the time. Instead, use warm water and mild soap for babies under six months. You can also use mild soap in lieu of baby shampoo. Avoid talcum powder, which can be inhaled and cause respiratory problems due to perfumes and silicates.
• Be cautious about using products labelled "natural" or "organic"; the labels are meaningless since use of such terms is unregulated.
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The issue: Chemicals (other than phthalates) such as parabens in personal care products; these chemicals are potential endocrine disrupters.
• Don't dye your hair within the first three months of pregnancy. Though a recent review of medical literature showed that hair-dye products do not cause birth defects, anxious moms-to-be may want to be extra cautious, says Koren.
• Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may want to minimize use of personal-care products, since animal studies suggest there is some risk to using certain chemicals, such as parabens (often found in cosmetics and lotions), and toluene, phthalates and formaldehyde (found in nail polish).
There is also some concern about the health effects of nanoparticles, but they are so new, it's hard to know for sure if they pose a risk, says Dr. Riina Bray, a family physician who specializes in environmental health. Besides, it's not always possible to know which products contain them. Nanoparticles are molecules that have been forced into unnatural forms to meet manufacturing goals, for example, to make zinc oxide sunscreen appear clear instead of white, or for a lotion to penetrate the skin better to deliver an anti-aging agent.
• Sunscreen is not recommended for use on infants under six months. Keep babies out of the sun for prolonged periods.
• Look for a sunscreen made with zinc oxide that doesn't go on perfectly clear, often found at health food stores, says Bray.
The issue: Pesticides. These may be associated with long-term health effects, including such cancers as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Fetuses and children exposed to pesticides may develop reproductive problems later in life.
• Never use pesticides or herbicides.
• Avoid any areas sprayed with pesticide.
• Remove outdoor shoes when you come indoors, to avoid bringing outside contaminants into your house.
• Buy organic produce whenever possible. "Foods are the largest source of pesticide exposure we have in our everyday lives," says Bray. Try to buy organic alternatives of the fruits and vegetables that are especially high in toxins, including peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, cherries, strawberries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. (For more information, visit The Shopper's Guide to Pesticides.)
• Pesticide residue in cotton bedding and clothing is minimal, says Walker. But consider buying items made from pesticide-free textiles for babies, who are likely to put those items in their mouths.
• For tips on how to use insect repellents safely on children, check Health Canada site and look under Your Role. Opting for natural bug repellent is strictly a precautionary measure. There is no proof that DEET-based repellents are a danger, and repellents are certainly recommended in regions where mosquitoes can carry diseases such as West Nile virus, says Koren.
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The issue: Indoor air contaminants. Exposure can result in increased health risks – for everything from asthma to some cancers.
• Don't smoke.
• Don't renovate when pregnant or breast-feeding. If you must renovate, avoid exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in particular solvents such as toluene (in oil paints), varnishes, paint thinner, paint strippers, stains, and many glues and adhesives.
• Avoid all of the above in adult and children's craft supplies.
• Use latex-based paints and look for ones that do not contain VOCs. Experts disagree over the danger that pregnant women face from painting. If you're pregnant, to be on the safe side, get someone else to paint the nursery for you, says Koren.
• When choosing carpets, select natural fibres such as wool and avoid using adhesives in installation. If you can afford to replace carpets, do so in rooms where children spend the most time.
• Dust with a damp cloth. "Dust is one of the major routes of exposure [to indoor air contaminants] in children," explains Erica Phipps, partnership director for The Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment, an association of concerned organizations including Toronto Public Health and the Canadian Child Care Federation.
• Use homemade cleaners, such as a 50-50 water-to-white-vinegar solution to clean mirrors, and baking soda to scrub toilets, sinks, floors and other surfaces. Many common household cleaners and air fresheners give off VOCs.
Household Chemicals and Pregnant Women: A Lethal Mix
Exposure to chemicals found in common household items during pregnancy may affect fetal brain development and contribute to childhood autism and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At least that's what a study being carried out by Glenys Webster at the University of British Columbia could help determine. The study, the most in-depth of its kind in Canada, is looking at two groups of environmental chemicals:
• flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are added to the foam in mattresses, couches and upholstery and to plastic parts in home electronics; and
• stain, water and grease repellents called perfluorocarbons, which are found in nonstick pans, Gortex clothing and inside fast-food packaging.
The concern is that these chemicals may mimic or interfere with thyroid hormones that control fetal brain development, says Webster, who is carrying out the study while completing her PhD at UBC's school of environmental health. "We all have these chemicals in our bodies and we all have them in our homes, and there's almost nothing known about whether the levels that we're already exposed to might be contributing to learning problems, for example, ADHD and autism."
Page 4 of 5The chemicals are a concern because they accumulate in the environment, in animals and in people, which raises "red flags" about their health implications, says Webster, who enrolled in her own study when she was pregnant. "Once these chemicals get out into the environment, they stay there and move up the food chain, and the higher up the food chain, the greater the concentrations get. At high enough concentrations, they are also potentially toxic."
Animal studies have already shown that exposure to these chemicals while pregnant can have effects on learning, memory and hyperactivity in offspring. For this current study, Webster recruited 152 women from the Vancouver area who were fewer than 15 weeks pregnant. The women donated blood samples (which provide information on chemical exposure and thyroid hormone levels). She and her colleagues also collected a sample of umbilical cord blood after each baby was born to check the infant's thyroid levels. "We're trying to see if the mom's chemical levels have any relationship to her thyroid levels or her baby's thyroid levels," says Webster.
Investigators also collected samples of dust, dryer lint and water from subjects' homes, tested their indoor air (using a non-flame retardant foam that soaks up airborne chemicals), and gathered information on the number of couches, televisions and other relevant items in each home.
Early results indicate that the levels of flame retardants found in the dryer lint were very high, says Webster. "Clothing might be acting like a sampler of dust in the home. When you wash clothes, most of the particulate ends up in the lint." Other results continue to be analyzed.
In the meantime, Webster, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy in late November, says that in addition to avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, unhealthy foods and excess stress, pregnant women can do a number of small things to minimize their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Houshold tips if you're pregnant:
• Avoid fast foods wrapped in greaserepellent packaging and refrain from eating microwave popcorn.
• Wash your hands before eating. Dust accumulates on your hands when you touch your TV, computer, furniture, etc. Make sure your kids wash their hands, too. Children often play or crawl on the floor and constantly put their hands in their mouths, so they have a higher exposure to dust compared to adults.
• PBDE levels can be high indoors (and inside cars when they sit in the sun), so open your windows and get lots of fresh air.
• Purchase computers and TVs that are PBDE-free. More info can be found on the Environmental Working Group website.
• Inspect your furniture and car seats for rips and tears. Replace or repair items with exposed crumbling foam.
• Ditch the carpets. The foam underlay of carpets contains flame retardants and many also contain stain-repellent chemicals. Carpets also accumulate dust. When renovating, consider replacing carpets with hardwood or other flooring, or at least with carpeting that doesn't contain flame retardant underlay. Wool is a naturally flame-resistant option.
• When buying furniture, ask if the foam contains PBDE flame retardants, and if the furniture has been sprayed with a stain repellent. Look for stores that avoid using these chemicals in their products. Foam products purchased after 2005 may not contain PBDEs.
Webster hopes to have the study results published by the end of 2009.
– Pauline Anderson
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• 6 ways to foster a love of nature in your kids
• 10 ways to freshen up the air, naturally
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