5 Ways to Get Harmful Chemicals Out of Your Child's Life
Since having kids, it seems like the amount of toxic chemicals in my world has increased exponentially.
Every week, there's a new and terrible danger to children's health being trumpeted in the media, from plastics to preservatives. At times I wonder, as I suspect many parents do, whether everyone's just being a tad too paranoid: Can all this stuff really be so hazardous to our kids? A generation ago, no parent would have thought twice about such concerns. And keeping up with the latest news on these potential perils is next to impossible. Maybe it's better to just get on with our lives, cross our fingers and hope for the best.
But at the same time, there are so many unanswered questions about the worrisome rise of a host of children's health issues in North America: ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, asthma, allergies. At this point, we're all pretty much in the dark about why more and more children seem to be afflicted, so it seems to me that any kind of knowledge is power. If I can limit my child's exposure to possibly damaging products, I should. Better safe than sorry, right?By now, most Canadian parents are aware of the benefits of feeding our kids organic foods, and that bisphenol-A is a nasty chemical that was banned from plastic baby bottles a couple years ago. But Adria Vasil says there is more a parent can, and should, do to limit the exposure of our children to toxic chemicals. Toronto-based Vasil writes a column called Ecoholic ("when you're addicted to the planet") for NOW, Toronto's weekly alternative newspaper. She's also the author of Ecoholic: Your Guide To The Most Environmentally Friendly Information, Products and Services in Canada, (as well as a U.S. version), and she recently released a sequel called Ecoholic Home. ParentDish caught up with Vasil to get her tips for making your children's lives more chemical-free.
1. Say No to Phthalates
This family of chemicals with the hard-to-spell name should absolutely be avoided, says Vasil. But unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Phthalates are used as plasticizers and solvents in the manufacturing of a massive amount of consumer goods, including soft vinyl (like PVC) and a host of personal care products like perfumes, cosmetics, shampoos and lotions. Because of their hormone-disrupting qualities, studies have suggested phthalates could be linked to a wide range of problems: Low sperm production and undescended testes in males, liver and kidney damage, asthma, attention and behavioural problems in children and more. A 2008 study at the University of Washington tested the urine of 163 infants, and every baby tested had at least one type of phthalates in their system. Even more disturbing, the more baby lotion, shampoo or baby powder the parents had used on the babies recently, the higher their level of phthalates.
"When it comes to baby-care products, the one thing you should do immediately is switch over to all-natural brands that are free of synthetic scents," says Vasil. "You won't see phthalates on the label, because they are hidden behind fragrance. Pretty much anything with synthetic fragrance will have phthalates. Look for something at the very least that is scent-free, or better yet, all-natural." The added benefit of all-natural products is that they should also be free of parabens (a widely-used preservative that has been linked to breast cancer).
Vasil recommends Canadian brands like Druide's baby line, All Things Jill, Matter Company's Substance baby and mom line, Tawna Hill Baby's Apricot and Hemp Cradle Cap Care, and UK line Weleda (I am a huge fan of their Calendula Baby Shampoo and Body Wash).
On a related note, there are ongoing concerns about phthalates in children's toys as well. These chemicals have been banned from infant toys like teethers, rattles and pacifiers since 1998, and in June 2009, Health Canada proposed a further ban of six phthalates that would extend to all children's soft vinyl toys and child-care items. However, the ban has not yet come into effect.
2. Bisphenol-A: Not Quite Good Riddance
Most Canadian parents know that the government banned the sale of polycarbonate baby bottles containing bisphenol-A in 2008 -- The story was covered by a storm of media at the time. BPA, like phthalates, is a hormone disrupter, and linked to everything from low sperm count and early puberty to neurobehavioural problems and cancer. And now that we have "safe" plastic alternatives, most parents might think it's a worry we can cross of the list. But not so fast, says Vasil. BPA still resides in the linings of tin cans (including those containing formula) and in the plastic coating underneath the lids of glass food jars. A study by Health Canada found BPA in commercial baby food jars, and although they said the amounts were too low to be of concern, the readings were similar to those recorded from leaching baby bottles.
Vasil says the chemical should be banned outright in the manufacturing and sale of items containing food. "We've got to take that precautionary stance and say listen, we can ban BPA from baby bottles, but what about the kids eating canned peas or soup or canned ravioli?," she says. "The companies always cry about the fact that alternatives don't exist, but I think that's untrue because Eden foods has bisphenol-A free linings in their cans. So it exists. It might be more expensive now, but that's because almost no one is using them. If more companies used it and made the switch, the price would come down. There's always an answer."
On top of all that,Health Canada recently did a study and found bisphenol-A in baby bottles that were supposed to be BPA-free. "They wouldn't release the names of the brands, because they said they didn't want to create a backlash against them. So that just shows you how in bed Health Canada still is with these companies," says Vasil.
With a full-blown ban on bisphenol-A unlikely anytime soon, what's a concerned consumer to do? Vasil advocates choosing the plastic-free alternative whenever possible, and when it comes to baby bottles, go glass. I, for one, exclusively used glass Evenflo bottles for my twins, and can honestly say I only ended up with one broken bottle after thousands of feedings over the course of a year and a half. The bottles are surprisingly sturdy. And for those who are nervous of using glass, there are attractive silicone sleeves you can get for added protection.
And never microwave plastic, says Vasil, even microwave-safe plastics. A study conducted by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found BPA leaching from"microwave-safe" frozen food trays and soup containers after they had been in the microwave. And these were in the so-called "safe" plastics (the recycling numbers 1,2 and 5 stamped on the bottom) as well as in polycarbonate (number 7) plastic items.
"In the last 30 years we've moved to giving our kids some kind of petroleum-based product to eat off of because it was shatter-proof, but there are alternatives like good old-fashioned ceramics," she says.
3. Don't Add a Coat Of VOCs
As a culture, we're renovation-mad. One of our first priorities when a new baby is on the way is to redo the nursery, and a fresh coat of paint seems practically mandatory. But Vasil says that while we are contemplating the perfect shade for junior's room, we should also consider the fumes coming off the paint itself. Volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) are chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene that are found in commercial paint, and can find their way into the home environment through off-gassing.
"These chemicals are neurotoxins and carcinogens, and they can make the air quality in you home easily 100 times worse than outdoor air," says Vasil. "And that can cause respiratory problems in kids."
There is low-VOC paint available commercially, but Vasil says there's a catch: When you add pigment, the VOC levels go up. For most brands, she says, it's only the pure white that will remain low-VOC. She says that the Benjamin Moore Natura brand is an exception, because they have developed a "colour-lock" technique that allows them to add colour to the paint and still stay low-VOC.
"You can go really natural and look for completely green paints that are pigmented with minerals, beeswax, tree resins," says Vasil. For consumers looking to go totally green, she recommends Bioshield and Green Planet paints. As well, old-fashioned milk paint is an option, made by Canadian company Homestead House Paint. You can even make milk paint yourself, and there's a recipe for it in her book Ecoholic Home. "And no, your walls won't smell like rotting milk," she adds.
No matter what kind of alternative you choose, Vasil notes that it's important to remember that if you are in a pre-1960s home, scraping and sanding can release lead particles from decades-old layers of paint, another hazard for young children.
4. Keep Your Cribs Fume-Free
An essential element of any nursery is the crib, and it's the last place we would think to find a noxious chemical like formaldehyde. But Vasil points to a 2008 study by Environment California that tested popular cribs brands and found that six of the 21 tested were emitting formaldehyde at levels linked to asthma or respiratory problems in children (including a crib made by Canadian company Storkcraft).
Vasil recommends green crib manufacturers like Argington, Oeuf and Nurseryworks, and most afforably, IKEA. "You should be staying away from pressed wood products," says Vasil, "unless you know the company makes a point of ensuring the products are ultra-low in formaldehyde and conform to European standards, like IKEA. European standards are much tougher than ours."
5. Et Tu, Car Seat?
If worrying about baby lotion and cribs isn't enough, Vasil says the two of the most ubiquitous children's items, the car seat and the stroller, could be coated with toxic and carcinogenic flame retardants. Ecology Center is a Michigan-based environmental non-profit organization that tests kid's products, from car seats to strollers to children's apparel. Over half of the car seats they've tested contained hazardous chemicals and flame retardants. California-made children's products can often be the worst, says Vasil, because government standards require high levels of flame retardants.
"Canadian-made products should be safer because they don't have to meet California standards, but you can't guarantee that," says Vasil. "You can ask company if they use brominated flame retardants, because they are the worst. And if they do, go elsewhere."
The Ecology Center has established a website, www.healthystuff.org, where they display their findings for a host of children's products, including popular car seat brands like Graco, Baby Trend and Eddie Bauer. Consumers can check the site to find out which models did better or worse.
There's an argument I'm sure the skeptics would be itching to fling my way: If Health Canada says a particular level of these toxic chemicals is fine, then why are we concerned about it? Wouldn't they know better than us? Well, once upon a time, gasoline was leaded, thalidomide was considered a great way to counter nausea in pregnant women and asbestos was standard in home insulation. Vasil says just because the medical establishment hasn't yet banned something doesn't mean we should blindly accept it into our children's lives.
"We're definitely human guinea pigs, which isn't a good thing, and we're testing on our babies without knowing it," she says. "Parents, once they are aware, do want to make the change."