Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Raising Children Toxic Free

I found a used book called Raising Children Toxic Free. It was published in 1994 by HarperCollins. The authors, Drs. Herbert L. Needleman and Philip J. Landrigan, are both pediatricians. Both of them devoted their careers to public health research and campaigns for the regulation of toxins, especially lead poisoning. Their work back in the 1970s helped to show that even low levels of exposure to lead could harm a child's mental development. As more and more research was done by non-industry scientists, the "acceptable" level of lead in the environment and in children's blood was revised downwards several times. In Raising Children Toxic Free, Needleman and Landrigan bring their expertise as pediatric public health scientists, and their experience fighting for policies to reduce lead poisoning, to helping parents keep a whole range of toxins out of our children. They are rational. Their claims are based on evidence. At the same time, they do not believe – as we are often encouraged to believe by advertisements and corporate propaganda – that we should assume a chemical is safe until giant studies prove otherwise.

Needleman and Landrigan give five reasons for children's greater vulnerability to toxins:

1) Children absorb more through their intestines and lungs than adults.
2) Children stick their hands in their mouths after playing on the floor and in the dirt.
3) Children breath, eat, and drink more as a percentage of their total weight.
4) Children's immune and detoxifying systems are, in many cases, less strong.
5) Children's bodies are developing very quickly, so anything that alters cellular growth can have far more dramatic effects than in adults. This is also especially true with fetuses.

Given that children are more vulnerable than adults to toxins, you would think that regulations of toxins would be based on child health. Needleman and Landrigan explain that, unfortunately, this is rarely true. The chemical levels that are defined as acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency are based on what adults can tolerate.

After their basic introduction to pediatric toxicology, they discuss several major groups of toxins chapter by chapter. These are lead, mercury, asbestos, pesticides, radiation, tobacco, solvents and PCBs, and air pollution. In the back of the books, there is a household inventory, which is basically a questionnaire you can go through to determine if your child is exposed to any of these toxins and what actions you can take to reduce their exposure.

The specific sources of toxins that they cover are leaded paint, lead pipes, asbestos-insulated pipes. basement living areas where radon can accumulate, inadequately ventilated fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, storm windows that seal pollutants indoors, termite treatments, gas stoves with pilot burners, kerosene space heaters, gas clothes dryers, electronic air precipitators, furnace humidifiers, lawn pesticides, flea repellant for pets, pesticides stored in the house, old prescription drugs, motor oil, alcohol, toluene, dry-cleaning, gasoline, home insulation, cigarette smoke, glues, toilet-bowl cleaners, room deodorizers, polishes, varnishes, and paint thinners.

I highly recommend the book to parents. For that matter, I think people without kids should be interested as well. The only problem with the book is that it hasn't been revised since its initial publication in 1994. It seems to be out of print, but used copies are widely available on the internet. Their more recent book, with its decidedly less optimistic title Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World, was published in 2002 but is very hard to find. I'll try to find a copy soon and write about it.


Lou said...

It always amazes me how apathetic we have become to potentially hazardous things in our environment. Unless the government or company intervenes directly by banning, recalling, or simply issuing a warning, we act shocked and look for someone else to blame when something happens. And it's not only chemicals in the products we use--it's global warming, it's the global water crisis, it's world poverty, hunger, etc, etc, etc. We keep waiting for someone else to make the big changes. As Americans with almost unlimited resources to information, we have no excuse for our ignorance. We need to wake up and stop waiting for an intervention from someone else whose interests lay far from ours--it may never come.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks for the comment Lou. I feel overwhelmed by the global picture too.

One thing that Needleman and Landrigan point out is that when they started off as doctors, the Environmental Protection Agency didn't even exist in the US. Instead of liberal doom and gloom, we could tell a story of environmental victories like the establishment of the EPA, the passage of the Clean Air Act, and the meteoric growth of organic foods. That might make us feel better, more empowered andl less defeated. I guess the problem is that the doom and gloom still seems to be the closest thing to truth.

cake said...

i really hate to write this, but i feel compelled.
i have a lot of plastic in my house. i have a baby. my baby puts everything into his mouth. my baby drinks from a plastic bottle (when he is not breastfeeding), and often eats from a plastic spoon. i think it would be better not to have so much plastic in the house, or in cosmo's mouth. but i can't allow myself to stress about it. i am a thoughtful parent, and a critical thinker and i go through each day making decisions about what is best for cosmo. i try to choose toys that are stimulating and developmentally appropriate, and that i can afford. sometimes (often) they are plastic. further more, some of them have batteries in them (lets not even get into that territory!).

if i got rid of all of his plastic toys, and other
utensils/containers...i would be spending much of the precious moments i have with my child (when i am not at work) shopping, comparing prices, researching toxins and freaking out about what i may or may not have exposed him too. i choose not to do that. i choose to focus my attention on giving cosmo loving guidance, and giving him the best of me--a happy me.
and, i try to use common sense.

ok, this is not going so well. i don't know exactly how to put it. i will try again.
i decided a long time ago that it was actually counter-productive for me to obsess about things like recycling, and my use of potentially harmful products, my intake of pesticides, and my personal impact on the environment. yes, i could, and should CONSIDER these things, but i was actually doing more harm to my health by STRESSING about this stuff than the actual toxins would have done. the guilt i felt about animal testing, and pollution was making me a rather miserable person. so i try to use some moderation in my approach to "being green" now. i don't eat meat for the most part, because i don't like it. plus, it is expensive, and i just don't know enough about it to prepare it properly, and i like my diet just fine without it. if i adored eating steak, i probably still would. while i am appalled by the meat inustry, i am equally disturbed by ALL factory farming, but growing all my own food is not practical, and it is very important for me to nourish myself in the best way possible within my means. sometimes i get organic food, but most of the time i don't.
i try to remind myself that, while it is important for me to do my part, and to consider the consequences of my lifestyle, i did not create this mess, i should not carry a disproportionate amount of the guilt for it, and let it run my life. i was trained to feel guilty and resposnsible for things that are not my fault. i do myself, and the rest of the world a lot more good by learning to shake that sense of shame, than i ever would by cleaning with vinegar. being a happy person is the best i can do for me, my child and the planet. if i find myself stressing out about things i can't control, i remind myself of what is most important. it is a major accomplishment for me to be in the present moment, appreciating the joy of my child's sense of wonder and discovery. if he happens to be discovering the texture of a bumpy plastic water bottle...so be it.

P.S.i hope this does not come across as too defensive, accusatory or scattered. i am pretty sure i could express these thoughts more clearly if i gave it more time...

P.S. i don't mind the smell of vinegar, but i like lemon better, and there is nothing like a little lemon juice and baking soda to get the stink out of...you guessed it...PLASTIC.