PROTECTING YOUR CHILD
FROM TOXIC THREATS
Please note that this overview addresses personal actions only, and not the community and political actions that are necessary to institute health-protective public policies.
1) Reducing Risks from Pesticides.
- Nearly all pest problems can be solved without the use of toxic pesticides. Alternatives include the use of nontoxic products and substances to kill or repel pests, and also the use of techniques that prevent pest problems. These range from companion planting in the garden, to sealing cracks and crevices in the home where pests may enter. Many of these can be found in a variety of books that detail specific nontoxic products, remedies and methods. Do not use pesticides in your home or garden unless all other alternatives have been exhausted. Then try to use least toxic pesticides.
- Make sure your child's school has policies in place that emphasize the least use of toxic chemicals, including pesticides. Many communities have adopted Integrated Pest Management techniques to minimize pesticide use. Parent involvement has often been the catalyst to reassess the need for using toxic chemicals in the school environment. See if such a group exists in your area as part of the national Healthy Schools Network. In order to protect your child from exposure when pesticides are used, inform the school that you, as a parent, want to be notified if and when pesticides need to be applied.
- Give your kids a varied diet, buying organic fruits and vegetables and other foods whenever possible. Peeling and/or washing can in some instances remove surface residues of contaminants. Buying organic also helps support the growers and distributors of organic foods, who are contributing to the creation of an overall healthier and cleaner environment.
2) Reducing Risks from Lead.
- Have your child screened by your pediatrician or family physician for lead.
- If you live in a home built and painted prior to 1978, it is likely to have leaded interior paint. The paint should be tested by a professional, especially if it is peeling. When possible, lead paint should be removed, but only by trained personnel, since removal can create even more problems when not done properly. When lead paint cannot be removed, surfaces and floors should be wiped regularly with a damp cloth, and children's hands and toys should be frequently washed. It may also be possible to cover lead-painted surfaces with wallpaper, tiles, paneling or other materials.
- Check product labels for the presence of lead, and avoid the use of products such as hair dyes and lipsticks that may contain lead.
- Run tap water for a minute or two in the morning to discharge water that may be contaminated from leaded solder (used for sealing joints until 1986, and still commonly used in taps and water coolers2).
3) Reducing Risks from Chemicals that Accumulate in Food.
- Eating low on the food chain (more fruits and vegetables; less meat, dairy, fish and poultry) is an effective way to reduce your intake of the persistent chemicals that accumulate in animals that are high on the food chain or long-lived. These chemicals also accumulate over many years in humans, and are passed from mother to fetus during the most sensitive period of brain development. Fetal exposures are therefore best prevented by lifelong dietary habits that minimize your intake of these pollutants.
- Since these "bioaccumulating" chemicals are found mainly in animal fat, reducing your intake of animal fat reduces toxic threats as well as risks for heart disease. Animal fats are found in dairy products (especially cheese), processed foods, meat, fish, and chicken.3 You can lower your fat intake by consuming only low fat animal products, such as nonfat milk, and lean meat, poultry and fish, and by cutting away any fat that can be trimmed before cooking.
- Mercury, unlike other bioaccumulating chemicals, resides in the muscle of the fish, not the fat. Therefore, high-mercury fish should be avoided. Fish of concern include swordfish, shark, and freshwater fish in contaminated regions (commonly found throughout the US).4 Tuna, which is moderately high in mercury, should be limited to about 6 oz/wk5 (for a woman of average weight). Before and during pregnancy and lactation, high and moderately-high-mercury fish should be avoided6 in favor of fish which are lower in mercury and other bioaccumulating pollutants, such as cod.7 8
4) Reducing Risks from Household Products.
- Use less toxic or nontoxic cleaning products. Commercial brands are available, or you can make simple cleaning solutions with substances such as baking soda, soap, and vinegar. The use of scrubbing pads and brushes can also eliminate the need for chemical cleaning agents. Modern household and bathroom deodorant products (e.g., toilet bowl deodorizers, air fresheners, surface disinfectants) and some cleaning products may contain solvents, suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and sometimes pesticides.
5) Reducing Risks from Building Materials, Construction and Furnishings.
- Toxic fumes and dust are commonly present during demolition and new construction. Pregnant women and young children should avoid exposure to home renovations and construction areas.
- Bonded wood products (plywood, chipboard), carpeting and furniture may contain and off-gas volatile organic chemicals and other toxic fumes. Purchase nontoxic or less toxic furnishings and building materials when possible, such as solid woods.
- Installed carpets may be reservoirs for toxic pollutants (including lead, pesticides and dust). They should be vacuumed frequently with a rotary brush, fine-filter vacuum, or eliminated when possible. Removing shoes when entering the house can reduce carpet contamination by chemicals brought in from outdoors (e.g. lead, pesticides). Natural fiber area rugs are constructed without chemicals, and, in contrast to installed rugs, do not require gluing with solvents. Like installed carpets, area rugs may also be reservoirs for pollutants and should be vacuumed or shaken outdoors frequently.
6) Avoiding Solvents.
- Numerous hobbies (e.g. painting, model building, furniture refinishing) and any activity using degreasers (e.g. automobile repair) or non-water-based glues are likely to involve exposure to solvents. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should completely avoid such exposures. Others should minimize solvent exposure by using these products only in very well ventilated areas, and avoiding skin contact.
- Avoid chemical dry cleaning whenever possible. Air out freshly dry cleaned clothes outdoors before wearing or storing them indoors. Leave windows open in the car when transporting newly-cleaned clothes. If you live above or near a dry cleaner, have your home tested for perchloroethylene contamination. Women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing should avoid any exposure to dry cleaning, including recently dry-cleaned clothes.
- Alternatives to traditional solvent-based dry cleaning are available. Wet cleaning processes using soaps and controlled application of water have been found to be extremely effective, and well received by consumers. Urge your local dry cleaner to switch to safer cleaning methods.
Breast-feeding is recommended for a period of at least one year, since it provides a broad spectrum of important, proven health benefits to the infant.9 These benefits include reduced risks for life threatening diseases as well as mild illnesses. For examplebreast-fed infants have less pneumonia, ear infections, diarrhea, and meningitis in infancy, and later in life, appear less likely to develop asthma, obesity and diabetes. Mothers who breast-feed return to their pre-pregnant weight more quickly, and have improved bone remineralization and reduced risk of hip fractures in later life.
- While breast milk is contaminated by environmental chemicals, these exposures, unlike those of the fetus, have not been shown to cause harmful effects. Since the chemicals in breast milk, however, do increase the chemical body burdens in infants, it is prudent to decrease breast milk contamination. This can be accomplished by reducing consumption of animal fats, which are high in cheese, processed foods, and non-lean meat and fish. Since persistent chemicals build up in the body over decades, these dietary habits should extend from infancy through the reproductive years. A diet low in animal fat prevents not only breast milk contamination, but more importantly prevents the fetal exposures that have been shown to cause adverse effects.
- Breast milk contamination should be prevented at its source. The margin of safety in breast feeding, and in fetal development, should be protected by reducing or eliminating the production of these contaminants.
8) Alcohol and Tobacco
- Children whose mothers smoked in pregnancy, or who were exposed to second hand smoke, are at risk for impairments in learning and intelligence. Pregnant women should not smoke or be near others who are smoking.
- Pregnant women should forego all alcohol throughout pregnancy.
"Protecting Your Child From Toxic Threats to Brain Development" has been written as a companion to the report In Harmís Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development issued by Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.
1 Parts 1,2,4,5,6 adapted from Schettler T, Solomon G, Valenti M et al. Generations at Risk. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1999.
2 Physicians for Social Responsibility. Drinking Water and Disease. 3/2000.
3 Patandin S, Dagnelie P, Mulder P et al. Dietary exposure to PCBs and dioxins from infancy until adulthood: A comparison between breast-feeding, toddler, and long-term exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives 107:45-51, 1999.
4 EPA. Mercury Report to Congress, vol. 4, p.155-160.http://www.epa.gov/ttnuatw1/112nmerc/volume4.pdf.
5 EPA. Mercury Update: Impact on Fish Advisories. www.epa.gov/ostwater/fish/mercury.html.
6 Schettler T et al. Ibid.
7 EPA. Mercury concentrations in the top ten types of fish/shellfish consumed by US residents. Table 3-6, Mercury Report to Congress, 1997. Http://www.epa.gov/ttnuatw1/112nmerc/volume1.pdf.
8 ATSDR. Dioxins, Dibenzofurans, and Dioxin Toxicity Equivalencies (TEQs) in US Foods. Toxicological Profile for Dioxin, draft, 1997. P. 385. Adapted from A. Schecter et al, Congener-specific levels of dioxins and dibenzofurans in US food and estimated daily dioxin toxic equivalent intake.
9 American Academy of Pediatrics. Breast-feeding and the Use of Human Milk. Pediatrics vol. 100 (6):1035-1037, 1997.
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