Children and Environmental Concerns/Parents Going Green

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Children and Environmental Concerns

Environmental contaminants are chemicals, microbes and other substances that are potentially damaging to our health. According to the EPA, roughly 50,000 synthetic chemicals have been produced in the U.S. Many of them find their way into our homes - through the air or water and in the products we use.

Experts say kids are especially vulnerable to some toxic contaminants. Children are still growing, so there is more risk that exposure to a toxin will affect their development, or that their immature bodies will be unable to detoxify a substance. Size for size, children eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air, and thus take in a higher level of toxins compared to adults. In addition, children often play on the ground, where contaminants are more likely to be concentrated.

Here are some contaminants of concern: Bisphenol A (BPA) - BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic, a type of plastic used to make some baby bottles, food and drink containers, toys, plastic wrap and the lining of tin cans. Scientists are concerned exposure to the chemical may disrupt hormone production.

Formaldehyde - Formaldehyde is a chemical used to make certain building materials (such as pressed wood). It's also found in permanent press fabrics and some glues and paints. Inside the home, formaldehyde can be released into the air. Excessive exposure can cause burning of the eyes and throat, nausea and breathing difficulties. The EPA classifies formaldehyde as a known carcinogen (potentially capable of causing cancer).

Lead - Lead is a metal that was once added to paint (lead-based paint for homes was banned in 1978). Some hand-me-down furniture and toys may contain lead-based paint. The metal gets into the air when the paint chips and flakes, then settles on surrounding surfaces. A child may eat the contaminated paint chips or transfer lead dust into their mouth after touching a contaminated surface. Some water pipes are also made with lead or contain lead solder and the metal can leach into the home's drinking water. In children, exposure to lead is linked to behavior and learning problems, growth delays, hearing problems and damage to the brain and nervous system.

Mercury - Mercury is an element found naturally in the soil, water and air. It can also be found in coal. When the coal is burned, the mercury is released into the air. Airborne mercury eventually falls into the soil and water, where it's taken in by fish and shellfish. Inside the fish, the mercury is converted into another toxic chemical, called methyl mercury. Humans become exposed to the chemical when they eat the contaminated fish. High levels of methyl mercury can damage the nervous system of a developing fetus or child.

Polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) - PBDEs are a class of chemicals used as a flame retardant. They have been used in upholstery fabrics, draperies, consumer electronics, small appliances and wire insulation. Scientists have discovered that PBDEs don't readily break down and persist in the environment. They also accumulate in tissues and may be associated with damage to the liver, thyroid and nervous system.

Parents Going Green

Joyce Lewis, retired Community and Government Affairs Director, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), says she is seeing an increase in the number of new parents who want to "go green." Parents want to raise their babies in a safe non-toxic home and leave less of an impact on the environment. There are many different ways to go green. Some people eat only organic or locally produced foods. Cleaning products should be free of toxic chemicals, or they can be made with a few ingredients from home, like vinegar and baking soda. Lewis also recommends avoiding or limiting use of plastic food and beverage containers and personal care products with dyes or fragrances. It's important to read product labels for a list of ingredients rather than relying on the manufacturer's advertising.

Lewis says couples should start their "greening" before the pregnancy with an assessment of lifestyle and potential exposures to contaminants in the home and at work. Once the baby is born, the efforts to remain green are still important. Breastfeeding is the best way to provide nutrition for the baby. Moms who bottle-feed need to make sure the baby bottles are free of BPA. Baby furniture should be free of formaldehyde.

One of the big decisions for new parents is the use of diapers. According to the organization, Green Guide, a child will go through 5,000 to 8,000 diaper changes before being potty trained. Cloth diapers are less expensive to use, but must be washed, which takes time and uses water and energy for the washing machine and dryer. On the other hand, disposables don't degrade and end up in the waste stream, adding to landfill problems and potential groundwater contamination. Parents who choose cloth should look for diapers that are chlorine-free.

For those who choose disposables, Lewis recommends reading labels and choosing brands that are chlorine-free. The Green Guide experts also advise avoiding disposables containing polyacrylate crystals. These super-absorbent crystals absorb water (urine) and help keep a baby dry, reducing the risk for diaper rash. But if the diaper breaks open, the skin can be exposed to the gel crystals and cause irritation. Parents should also be sure to use diapers and wipes that are fragrance-free.

For general tips on green living:

# The Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute
# Environmental Working Group
# The Green Guide
# Healthy Child, Healthy World

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