Recently there has been a flurry of research and publications on the health risks from exposure to environmental toxins. This has alarmed many parents and has made them feel powerless. How could one person clean up smog and pollution from a local coal burning power plant? How could we fight the spraying of pesticides in nearby fields? This is of course not feasible quickly and by individuals and this fact is upsetting to those who understand how much these toxins can affect our children’s health.
The truth is that children are more likely to be affected by the air they breathe in their own home rather than outside air and that most of the pesticide exposure comes from the food they eat and insect sprays used around the house, rather than what is sprayed in the neighbourhood. Of course we need to fight for a cleaner environment, better air, less emissions from cars and overall lower use of pesticides. While we plan how to get friends and community involved in that noble and vital cause, we can start to protect our children (and ourselves) by cleaning up our home environment in a few simple steps.
The environment includes the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in, the creams and soaps we put on our skin and of course the food we eat.
Here are three simple steps you can take to protect your children by avoiding toxins around the home:
- Clean up the air inside your home by opening your windows and ventilating the house well. This will reduce the fumes from paint, glues, furniture (for example formaldehyde in pressed wood), mould and dust mites.
If there are any smokers in your home, the best way forward is to send them to a Quit Smoking programme, give them a voucher for a hypnotherapy session, or perhaps read Allen Carr’s book which has helped millions of people to stop smoking. This is particularly important if you have a child with asthma, as he or she is 85% more likely to end up in hospital if there is a smoker in the home compared to a non-smoking household. A recent study analysed data from 25 trials that included 430,000 children and found that asthmatic children who breathed air with cigarette smoke had triple the risk of poor lung function compared to other children with asthma. This study by Wang et al was published in the Annals of Asthma, Allergies and Immunology in October 2015 (1).
- Choose carefully what you put on your and your children’s skin, as it gets absorbed into the body and can affect the skin’s health as well as hormones and even the immune system. In particular shy away from anything that contains SLS (which makes soap foam), which can disrupt the skin barrier and phthalates, a group of chemicals that are used to make plastic soft and which are found in all kinds of body care products, from lotions to baby shampoo. They are often hidden on the label as “perfumes or fragrance”. It is not easy to avoid them, but possible if you follow a few simple bits of advice: first of all your young child does not need many body care products. I would keep it to clean water, a small amount of natural, organic soap for the really dirty parts; an organic lotion or coconut oil to dry skin or a nappy rash; avoid bubble bath; shampoo is not needed for young children; older ones only need to wash their hair when it is dirty – and that may only be every 1-2 weeks. EWG has lists of safe moisturizers, baby lotions, baby shampoos and other products. Go for brands that are organic and chemical free.
Another mistake we tend to make is to want to sterilize our environment. Humans can only live with and because of their microbiome – all the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in and on us. We carry 100 trillion bacteria in our guts, on our skin, in the lining of our mouths, lungs, etc – this is 10 times more than we have cells in our bodies. In a way we have evolved as containers for the microbes on earth! They have been around for billions of years, much longer than us humans. We have found out that it is not a great idea to kill all those bugs by disinfecting our houses, our hands and our bodies, as that increases the risk of allergies and asthma (and a long list of other health problems) (6). Triclosan is an especially nasty disinfectant and I recommend avoiding any product that contains it, as it can irritate the skin, eyes and in addition act as a hormone disruptor (interfering for example with thyroid hormone). And here is a tip for the fashion conscious: be careful with nail polish. It contains some of the highest amounts of toxins of all cosmetic products, in particular the toxic trio of cancer-causing formaldehyde, neurotoxic toluene (a solvent that can affect the brain and nervous system) and DBP (dibutyl phthalate) , which can cause reproductive problems, such as premature birth and small babies. It is much safer to choose one without these.Article written by Dr Leila Masson, Pediatrician.
- Wang, Z., May, S. M., Charoenlap, S., Pyle, R., Ott, N. L., Mohammed, K., & Joshi, A. Y. (2015). Effects of secondhand smoke exposure on asthma morbidity and health care utilization in children: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2015.08.005
- Guyton, K. Z., Loomis, D., Grosse, Y., El Ghissassi, F., Benbrahim-Tallaa, L., Guha, N., … Straif, K. (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. The Lancet. Oncology, 16(5), 490–491. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(15)70134-8
- Chen, M., Chang, C.-H., Tao, L., & Lu, C. (2015). Residential Exposure to Pesticide During Childhood and Childhood Cancers: A Meta-Analysis. PEDIATRICS, peds.2015–0006–. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-0006
- Bouchard, M. F., Bellinger, D. C., Wright, R. O., & Weisskopf, M. G. (2010). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides. Pediatrics, 125(6), e1270–7. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-3058
- Lu, C., Toepel, K., Irish, R., Fenske, R. A., Barr, D. B., & Bravo, R. (2006). Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(2), 260–3. Retrieved from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1367841&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract
- Arrieta, M.-C., Stiemsma, L. T., Dimitriu, P. A., Thorson, L., Russell, S., Yurist-Doutsch, S., … Brett Finlay, B. (2015). Early infancy microbial and metabolic alterations affect risk of childhood asthma. Science Translational Medicine, 7(307), 307ra152–307ra152. doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aab2271