How polluted is your baby?
- Published: 12 June 2010
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Babies these days are born pre-polluted, having been exposed to waste by-products, heavy metals and toxic industrial chemicals among other things, writes Dr Sarah Lantz.
I work in research, and we slice and dice placentas and umbilical cords to examine the chemical compounds in them. In doing this, it tell us a great deal about what’s in our bodies – and what shouldn’t be there.
So what have we found in placentas and umbilical cords?
Lots of things: Waste by-products such as pollution from incinerators, dioxin, teflon, PCBs, formaldehyde, heavy metals including lead, methylmercury and cadmium. Consumer products: sulphates, parabens, phthalates, fragrances, artificial musks, brominated flame-retardants, preservatives, triclosan, bisphenol-A. And probably the most disturbing of all are the industrial chemicals banned over 30 years ago. Organophosphates (pesticides) make up a large proportion of these chemicals.
How do they get into our babies’ bodies?
Chemicals enter our children, both directly and indirectly, in three ways: via the skin (dermatologically); the digestive system (ingestion, orally – and via and our breastmilk); and the respiratory system (breathing, inhalation). They also enter our babies inutero via the placenta and the umbilical cord.
What are the health impacts of chemical exposures?
Exposures to environmental chemicals are directly related to the illnesses that our babies and children are now experiencing. These include immune diseases, asthma, allergies, and cancers. Exposure to toxic chemicals have also been linked with higher rates of learning and behavioural difficulties and intellectual impairment.
Research also reveals that toxic chemicals are associated with a host of reproductive problems: birth defects, altered to sexual maturation, low birth weight, delayed growth, developmental delay, decreased co-ordination, fetotoxicity (including miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth), Minamata disease, genitor-urinary malformations, skeletal malformations, neural tube defects, cardiac congenital defects, congenital malformations, pre-term delivery, reduced fertility—in both men and women – and infertility.
The most recent data from 1,139 children aged between eight and 15 found that children with higher residue levels of organophosphates were roughly twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
This evidence is not really surprising when you think about it. Organophosphates are designed to kill agricultural pests by disrupting (and destroying) specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Why would we think that they would do no harm to the human body, particularly a very small one?
Who’s responsible for this contamination?
Essentially, we, as parents, are initially the ones responsible for how pre-polluted our babies arrive in this world and how toxic (or not) our children become. We are the ones to prepare the setting in which our babies eat, play and grow. We make the choices about what personal care products we use on their skin and hair, what fabric they sleep in, what drugs, if any, we dose them with, and where they spend most of their time.
This responsibility is enormous. I remember feeling overwhelmed as my partner and I drove our newborn home from the birthing centre, unbundled her from the car, and laid her in our bed. We then sat nervously on the lounge. “Now what do we do?” he turned and asked me, “When are the grown-ups coming to tell us what to do?”
It was then, I realised, that our children’s health and wellbeing is intimately connected to us, as parents (and grown-ups) and it is our openness and willingness to learn, change habits, become conscious consumers and demand protective policies that will make a difference to our children.
Their health is also critically connected to the environment. Toxic environment equals a toxic body (with babies and children being more susceptible than adults). It’s as simple as that.
So the responsibility also lies in how we protect (or not) our children from toxic exposures.
Who decides what’s safe for our children?
Most synthetic chemicals found in babies and children these days did not exist in the environment when my grandma, was born in 1913. In her lifetime, she has witnessed some of the most dramatic developments in the world of chemical production which has escalated during her lifetime from around one million tonnes a year in 1930 to some 400 million tonnes being produced annually today.
At the time of World War II, when she was just married to my grandpa, little did she know that the government subsidies that spurred the production of petroleum and its by-products for the war would eventually become the building blocks for the post-war material economy.
Miracle makeup products, scented to personal care and cleaning products, flexibility to plastics, wrinkle free and fire resistant clothing and furnishings, stain-proof carpets, plastic toys, preservatives in foods and medications have all become central to the modern world and have added a certain amount of convenience, practicality, ease, and disposability to our modern, frenetic lifestyles.
The paradox that emerges, however, is that when these billions of tons of synthetic chemicals were released in to the environment, there was little understanding of their impacts on the health of people and the environment.
They were produced for ease and practicality, not health and wellbeing. Chemists gave little consideration for the wellbeing of people when developing these products; and governments did not legislate for the biological and environmental.
Most chemicals produced and released onto the market these days have had no safety testing to determine their health impacts. Current regulations still do not require manufacturers of commercial chemicals to supply any toxicity data before selling their products.
Over half of the chemicals produced for human consumption have never been tested for toxicity of the human body (EWG, 2001)
At the heart of this legislation is the principle which allows for certain amount of acceptable risk. And with this knowledge, industry, including the personal care, cosmetic, and food industry, has always taken the position that there is no reason to hold up production of ‘useful’ products if no danger has been proven.
Consider however, that a chemical enters the body, the body responds in one of two ways. The first type of reaction is acute. This means the reaction is immediate, usually following a 24–72 hour exposure to a chemical.
The second type of reaction is a chronic reaction, meaning that an individual is exposed to low level of a toxic substance over a period of time before toxicity appears. Thus, determining the cause and effect of toxic exposure and the impacts on the body in the form of chronic effects is often difficult because of the latency period (or delay) in which the body does not immediately register any effects.
This means that a person cannot see or feel the effects immediately. This does not mean, however, that toxicity poisoning is not taking place – as we can see with the health impacts today.
Would you be using your current personal care products if you knew they contained harmful and hazardous chemicals?
With this knowledge, why is it that we, as parents, continue to use products on our children that include carcinogens, suspected carcinogens, hormone and endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, allergens and other harmful substances?
As consumers, we still hold a number of beliefs about the products we buy and use, including:
- I can trust the safety of the products I use.
- My health is not affected by the products I use.
- Labels are accurate and consistent and list all the chemical ingredients in the products I use.
- The government accurately regulates products and in the process protects me from chemicals known to harm my health.
- I can trust the companies making the products I use because they put my health before dollars and cents.
Why do we make these assumptions? Usually because we assume that companies consider health before wealth, and that those manufacturing, marketing and regulating the products we buy and consume would not approve products that compromise our health.
Parenthood is also deeply embedded in consumerism. We rely heavily on commodity consumption—food, nappies, wipes, clothing, toys—not just for survival, but for participation and inclusion in social and friendship groups. Advertisers also promise a better life for one’s children through wise consumption decisions. And we believe this.
But consider that when we use the most popular consumer products on the shelves – wipes, nappies, bubble bath, shampoo, cleansers, toothpaste - we create toxic babies, children and teenagers.
Consider also that every time you hold your child, they inhale the chemicals in your moisturiser, foundation and perfume.
Consider that when you kiss your child, they are potentially ingesting the phthalates in your lipstick.
Consider that many of these toxic chemicals in your cosmetics are passed on to your baby through your breast milk and via the placenta when your baby is growing inutero and at its most vulnerable (babies do not have a blood brain barrier while in the womb or detoxifying enzymes).
What do we need to have our babies flourish in a toxic world?
Exposures in early life, including inutero, can have significant life-long health impacts. It is in these early years of life as they pass through critical developmental stages that establish the foundations for adult health and wellbeing. What happens in these early years matters for life.
We make choices everyday about the consumer products we purchase and use. Here are some immediate tips for living more healthy in a toxic world:
- Become a conscious consumer
Ask questions before buying: Is this product made in line with my values? Does it contain hazardous chemicals? What is the environmental impact of this product? Or on my health? Will it accumulate in my body? Can it be excreted?
- Become a chemical detective
Learning how to read labels, challenging our assumptions about consumer products, the companies that manufacture them and the government bodies that regulate them, and knowing some of the health implications of chemicals is a significant step towards living more healthy in a toxic world.
- Reduce toxic exposure and avoid products that contain harmful ingredients;
- Withdraw consent from companies that produce toxic products;
- Purchase ethical, organic, natural products;
- Look for products that are certified organic to food standards (and have the certified organic logo). Personal care and cosmetics should be as pure as the foods we eat.
- Read labels – marketing claims are limited by the law, and can mean anything or nothing at all;
- Familiarise yourself with a good chemical database such as:
- Create a toxic free home
The environment we provide our children has a profound effect on every facet of their development. The right to a clean, healthy and uncontaminated environment, so that they are able to achieve their maximum potential is the foundation for wellbeing. Consider what’s in your pantry, your shed, your cleaning products, your personal care products.
- Eating for wellness
Whenever you buy your food, whether that is at a supermarket, organic wholefood shop, health food shop, farmers’ market, cafe or restaurant, talk to the owners/farmers about your ethical concerns, needs and requirements. Ask them to stock the products you require and that they meet your ethical standards. Your request makes ethical products and foods more available to others and alerts them to customer needs and requirements.
- Demand protective policies
There is currently no specific policy on children’s environmental health in some countries such as Australia (Chemicals that are banned in other countries are still being consumed in Australia eg. BPA – Bisphenol A, Phthalates; some flame-retardants; food colourings; preservatives etc). Demand more rigorous laws for chemicals prior to release.
Dr Sarah Lantz (PhD) is a research fellow at the University of Queensland, mother, author of the bestselling book Chemical Free Kids: Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World and all round chemical conscious parenting nut. She blogs here.