Thinking About Toxins and Relative Risks
It's one thing to make decisions about organic vs non-organic fruit for yourself. It's a whole different thing when you're thinking about the accumulation of chemicals in your child's little body.
This leads us to one of the unique challenges of modern parenting. You will be hit by a barrage of information regarding the endless chemicals to which your children are exposed. And, it will be your job to try and figure out which if any to worry about and what to then DO about them.
I’m going to help you with that as best I can.
I’ve compiled information on some (not all!) of the most concerning chemicals we are dealing with today. I’ve also gathered good science based references to support this information and I’ll give you links to additional data.
AND…I’m going to give you a blow-by-blow outline, with photos, of what changes I felt compelled to make in order to limit my family’s exposure to these chemicals.
Remember lead? It was in gasoline, paint, keys, venetian blinds…all kinds of stuff. It lingers in our surroundings and continues to cause more poisonings than you might expect. In many countries leaded gas is still used and lead remains in many products. So be careful when you travel or purchase foreign products. (details in the review of toxins)
Remember DDT? In WW2 we sprayed it to control malaria and bubonic plague. After the war, we used it extensively in the USA for both agricultural and home insect control.
It’s half-life in soil can be more than 30 years! It accumulates in fat cells. It caused weak eggshells in some bird species and nearly decimated bald eagles.
But remember that half-life…30 years if not sun exposed. It’s still very much with us. It’s moving up the food chain and accumulating in our fat cells. It’s an endocrine disrupter and classified as a probable carcinogen.
The good news is that lead and DDT are now prohibited or controlled in most US products. Did that happen because the chemical companies said “Gosh, golly. We should stop using these things!” No.
Well, there are many chemicals in our foods and packaging and home products today that we have better and more damning evidence against than we had against lead and DDT. So, if we could get those two banned then we can do better for our kids and get some of these newer chemical bad actors out of our human food chain.
Let’s go over a few things that are important to understand when evaluating concerning substances.
- What does endocrine disrupter mean for a parent?
- Endocrine disrupters (ED’s) are substances that either mimic the normal hormones of the human body or bind to human hormone receptors and thus have various effects on human health. ED’s that effect estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone are easy to understand as potentially problematic. Less obvious are those that effect thyroid hormones and receptors. Proper levels and function of thyroid hormone is absolutely critical to fetal brain development. Furthermore, it remains critical in the developing brain for some time after birth. Some ED’s may affect levels and activity of more than one hormone.
- Why lower dose exposures can cause BIGGER effects in the human body.
- Common understanding of poisoning is that the higher the dose the greater the toxicity. A little mercury is bad and a lot of mercury is really bad. Right? Well for mercury, yes, that’s right. But for many other issues within the human body it is actually far, far more complex. Let’s say you are a cell with receptors for thyroid hormone. So, thyroid hormone (we’ll call it TH) comes along and binds at your receptor and it makes the cell do something. Right? Well, maybe and maybe not. Your cell probably has a bunch of different kindsof TH receptors. Let’s say one receptor is sensitive to low levels of TH. It gets triggered and immediately sends a signal to another receptor to block binding at other receptor sites. Now that second site will only bind TH if the levels get extremely, extremely high. You wind up with great sensitivityto TH at very, very low doses. Then a mid range with no sensitivity. And then again a sensitivity at very, very high doses. Now let’s suppose that instead of TH we are talking about a non-native chemical that can bind at thyroid hormone receptors. If you test for effects at a mid-range dose, where you might expect a response, you will miss the powerful effect of LOWER doses. This is a common mistake in industry analysis of substances with potential human toxicity. It can lead to confusing reports for consumers. A report might say we tested at level 5 and level 10 without any effect. But if they did not also test at level 1 they may miss profound effects. Endocrinologists and biomedically trained scientists do understand that due to the complexity of the human body that some substances have their most profound effects at very low doses. So, they construct their studies accordingly and report very different results.
Here are some of the toxins that I go over in detail in my Review of Toxins:
- glyphosate vs RoundUp
- Bisphenols- A, and S, etc.
- PFC’s Polyflouro chemicals; also called PFAS’s for poly flouro alkyl substances
- Lavender and tea tree essential oils- big surprise here, these are estrogenic endocrine disrupters!
- Fire retardants or PBDES (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers)
If you live in a house with old paint or old venetian blinds then you DO want to have them tested for lead. In my area, a branch of the health department sends out paint, dirt, and surface lead testing kits upon request. You take the samples, mail them back, and they contact you with results. You can also now easily buy lead surface testing swabs on-line.
But, what about your water? Do you need to have it tested for anything? Do you want to filter it?
Some trace arsenic in rice is normal. But U.S. rice has been found to have rather high levels even in organic rice. What about your baby's rice cereal? Is it safe?
Balsamic vinegar from Italy has been found to have high lead levels. Are you only going to cook with U.S. balsamic vinegar? Are you going to research the latest findings before you buy? Do you use it so little it doesn't matter? How do you figure that out?
Albacore and other large fish are high in mercury. How much of what kind of tuna is safe at what age?
What about fire retardant chemicals? They can be on your kid’s mattresses, pajamas, sofas, and electronics. Are you going to have to pay a premium to find products without retardants? (answer: not necessarily)
What about glyphosate (aka Round-up)? Its in Cheerios and granola bars.
How much time do you have to do all this research?
There are phthalates in most room fresheners, shampoos, and a million other products. They are endocrine disrupters.
Did you know that most cash register receipts in the U.S. have bisphenol-a in the inkless paper?
Bisphenol-a was originally developed to be an estrogen in a birth control pill! It wasn't quite strong enough for birth control so other uses were found for the chemical. But it is still a synthetic estrogen! It binds to estrogen receptors. How much of that do you want your child absorbing? Don't let your kids play with register receipts!
Many canned foods now say “BPA-free lining.” But did you know they may have BPS…which is longer lasting and a stronger estrogenic substance! There’s a whole alphabet of bisphenols in food container linings and plastics. All aluminum cans as well as steel cans have to have linings per food regulations.
But the content of the linings is considered “proprietary” information and need not be disclosed by the chemical company that produces it.
All of this can be intensely anxiety provoking. It's also very, very time consuming to try to research the endless list of concerns. Even trying to figure out if you need to be concerned or not is often quite hard.
There are no easy answers here. You'll have to figure out for yourself how much time, energy, and money you want or can put into these issues. I have various levels of concern about all the issues I listed above.
And, there are many other substances about which people have concerns. I’ve compiled a detailed review of toxins with recommendations for you busy parents. (see Review of Toxins) I’ve also developed a separate blow by blow work sheet on how to reduce your family’s exposure. (Toxin Worksheet )
But remember, for all of this...it's much more important that your baby's carseat is properly installed!
A statistics teacher once told me that people are very poor at evaluating relative risk. We can obsess over scary things that have a very low chance of occurring while ignoring common and significant dangers.
Falls from the changing table, car crashes, drownings (even in older good swimmers!), poisonings, choking, these risks need serious attention and appropriate actions to reduce dangers.
Do your best on the more obscure and less defined hazards but try to keep them in perspective. I still take the kids in the car. I just mitigate the risk with a good car seat, and I try to drive safely.
So, I take the same approach with chemicals in the environment. Mitigate the risk and then let it go and live life as fully and with as much joy as possible.
Aside from the fact that chemical hyper-vigilance is one more "modern mom" responsibility, why does this issue shake us up so much?
For me the issue is twofold. The first is the heart stopping, soul shaking love that I feel for my kids. I now truly understand how a parent would give their life for their child. News stories of injured children that would have been disturbing before I had kids will now make me physically sick.
And this extraordinary deep love makes us want to protect our children from any harm and to protect ourselves from the fear of any harm coming to them.
The second issue for me is control. We want to believe that we can control our destiny. That we can protect ourselves from bad things happening if only we do the right thing. And we certainly have the ability to influence how our lives unfold.
But, healthy men with good cholesterol go out for their regular run and drop dead with a heart attack. Moms out riding their bike get hit and killed by cars. And meticulous health nuts still get cancer despite a life time of "living right."
In fact, when I've read biographies of people who lived into healthy old age, they generally emphasize living life with joy. (and studies show the main thing that confers longevity is having the genetics from parents who lived into old age!)
For me, parenting has been a lesson in…ok in MANY things, but mostly in learning to let go a bit on trying to control and shape the future. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a huge plan ahead, read ahead, wear the life vest, pack the safety gear kinda person. But I try to balance this with a bit of letting go.
Frankly, my husband is better at this than I am…though it may be easier for him not to worry since I take care of that job! But, I have learned, and relaxed some, by watching his more "go with the flow" style.
And after a while, I realized that if you give the kids the basics, they are really programed to learn and grow. But I don’t like not having control over all these chemicals attacking my children!
Ok there's a third issue here. The fact that all these chemical concerns are vague and often hidden makes them feel all the more nefarious.
So, we have these potentially harmful substances about which the science is suggestive but not conclusive. Then we have the "modern mom" who is charged with making sure her toddler is learning to use his scissors in time for kindergarten which will undoubtedly set the stage for all future success.
At the same time, she's confronted on a daily basis by how much is beyond her control. And all of this revolves around these little people we love beyond compare.
It's no wonder we're a bit wacko!
For much more info detailed information on the toxins mentioned above check out the “Toxin Review” from the menu bar.
For help with practical steps that will help reduce your families exposure to these toxins check out the "Toxin Worksheet" from the menu bar.
Remember: No Parent is an Island!