By Jackie Lombardo, SafeMinds Board Member
I had my hands full with three kids in five years. My kids sucked on plastic toys as babies, we shamelessly swung through fast-food dives on the way to soccer practice and piano lessons, and they all played happily with my nail polish until they gagged from the smell. I thought nothing of feeding them Oreo O’s for breakfast, slathering them in conventional sunscreen, or buying plastic flip-flops. Why should I?
But when one of my kids got seriously ill, literally overnight, life as we knew it came to a screeching halt. At first the doctors had no idea what was wrong, what had triggered the illness, or how to help. When they finally diagnosed my child (with PANDAS—Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Strep), they suggested treatment and medication that did not seem right to me. I definitely trusted the medical profession. My kids had never missed a doctor’s appointment. I had never questioned a doctor’s advice before this crisis. But now I kicked into mama bear mode, realizing I had to do everything I could to help my child get well.
I researched the science from the National Institutes of Health on this new childhood disorder. I also found Safeminds (thank goodness) and an amazing doctor in Virginia. She was first to suggest to me that over exposure to toxic chemicals may have contributed to my child becoming ill. Finally, I found a supportive community of people I think of as “power” parents who sadly were going through similar journeys with their own children.
What I learned from my research and other parents shocked me.
I learned that learning disabilities, hyperactive behavior, emotional disturbances, and the inability to concentrate have skyrocketed, now afflicting at least 1 in every 6 children in America.
I learned that asthma, diabetes, and cancer are rising sharply among children, showing no signs of slowing.
I learned about autism, which then affected 1 in 250 children but now affects 1 in every 68 children.
I learned that my kids weren’t eating food. Not really. They were eating food-like substances in bright packaging that appealed to them, and to me. But these edible “convenience” foods were compromising our family’s health.
No generation has ever seen anything like this before. Worse, no one knows why so many children in America are so sick. Part of the explanation may be that health care professionals are better at diagnosing illnesses. But that’s not the whole story. There are more than 80,000 man-made chemicals in the United States used in our food, medicines, toys, pesticides, cleaners, beauty products, agricultural products, building materials, and elsewhere. These chemicals have been given a free pass as they’ve NEVER BEEN FULLY TESTED FOR THEIR TOXIC EFFECTS ON HUMAN HEALTH. Most health professionals and scientists agree these chemical environmental factors, are likely contributing to the rise in childhood illness.
The problem is not just exposure. The problem is that some of these chemicals can build up in our children’s little bodies.
We have also never studied what happens when you mix these toxic chemicals that children are exposed to throughout the day in combination. Every child is different. One could be exposed and be perfectly fine. Another may have a bad reaction. There’s really no way to tell. This concerns me.
BUT THE GOOD NEWS is, there is something we can do! Though we can’t change our genetics, we **can** limit our exposure and our children’s exposure to environmental factors that contribute to poor health. While thousands of chemicals (some extremely toxic like lead, mercury, PBDEs, pesticides, and even formaldehyde) are purposefully used in products intended for our children—including in plastic teething rings, personal care products, bug spray, medical products, and toys—we can CHOOSE not to buy them. Power to the people!
I just love that.
Please know, the goal here is NOT perfection. I’ll repeat that again for anyone reading this who is beating herself or himself up the way I did. “The goal is NOT perfection.” The goal is simply reduction. Just take in a little less, use a little less, to reduce your child’s exposure to harmful chemicals. While only you know what’s truly best for your family, here are a few suggestions.
7 Ways to Enjoy the Summer Without the Toxic Chemicals:
1) Read the ingredients in your sunscreen
Conventional sunscreens can contains harmful chemicals; some of which are suspected carcinogens and known to cause endocrine disruption. A good rule is to read the ingredients and if there are some you can’t pronounce or recognize, put it back on the shelf. The safest sunscreens are zinc oxide based. Even though spray-on sunscreen is so popular, it’s best to avoid them. These sunscreens actually get into your child’s nose and mouth and you don’t want them breathing in the fine mist particles (yuck!). The Environmental Working Group has an excellent, comprehensive guide on choosing healthier sunscreen.
2) Choose flip-flops and sandals without plastic
Shoes made from plastic contain chemicals that leach and can disrupt your child’s hormones and contribute to early-onset puberty. One study by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation showed 17 of 27 plastic shoes from seven countries contained phthalates, which are linked to reproductive disorders. The most toxic shoes? Flip-flops. Flip-flops contained the highest levels of phthalates than any other shoes tested. And we wear them next to our skin, without socks. Ugh. Canvas sandals are a good inexpensive option. How can you know if your shoes are toxic? Smell them. If they are off-gassing chemicals that smell bad, don’t buy them.
3) Avoid insect repellants that contain DEET and instead make your own!
Many conventional bug sprays contain the pesticide DEET. Remember, pesticides by definition are designed on purpose to kill. There are safer, effective alternatives like a neem-based product, or better yet get your DIY groove on and make your own bug spray (peppermint oil and water). It works well and it’s cheaper!
4) Swim in fresh water and avoid chlorine if you can
Studies have shown that swimming in indoor chlorine pools may make asthma symptoms worse and can even induce DNA damage that can cause cancer. If you have your own pool, eliminate algae with safer alternatives or switch to a saltwater treatment system. If you don’t have your own pool, go to the lake, swim in saltwater pools, or head to the ocean! If your kids have no choice but to swim in chlorinated pools, then shower and soap off. Remember the goal is NOT perfection, but reduction.
5) Hydrate, but don’t drink bottled water
When plastic heats up in the sun, chemicals leach into the water. Get in the habit of bringing filtered water from home in a steel water bottle.
6) Eat real food
Though I can still hear the cries for Oreo O’s cereal echo in my head, eating food—real whole fresh food—greatly improved my family’s health. It sounds so obvious but if you look in your pantry and your fridge, you may realize, like I did, that you are eating “edible food-like substances,” not real food. Instead, whenever possible, choose organic food to reduce ingesting pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. Choose whole foods: pears, apples, bananas, oranges, cherries, sugar snap peas, green beans, carrots, broccoli, almonds, pistachio nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and that summertime favorite, watermelon, for your summertime snacks. And while you’re at it, make your own popsicles instead of buying the ones full of sugar and chemical food dyes and additives.
7) Become an activist for children’s health
Ask your government officials what they are doing about harmful chemicals in consumer products that end up in our children’s bodies.Triclosan is a registered pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency, known to be harmful, but is an ingredient found in child’s toothpaste and soap. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate are the most popular ingredients in American shampoos, conditioners, and toothpastes even though we know they form nitrosamines—a deadly class of carcinogen— when combined with other chemicals. What’s summer for if not to awaken your inner activist? Ask your government officials to get harmful chemicals out of consumer products.
The power rests with us as consumers. Wishing you a happy and healthy summer with your kids!
And now for the best part of this post. We are giving away THIS $134.00 Martha Stewart picnic basket to celebrate summer to one lucky reader. Shipping included. U.S. residents only.
1) LIKE Safeminds on Facebook **AND**
2) Leave a comment telling us you’ve liked us on Facebook (or that you already like us) in the comment section below. We’d also love to hear your advice for avoiding toxic chemicals this summer. Or anything else you’d like to tell us. (Except hate. If you’ve been here before and tried to hate on us, you may have noticed that we don’t publish hateful comments that do not contribute to the conversation.)
We’ll randomly choose one lucky winner.
Martha Stewart Picnic Basket Giveaway ends next Thursday, June 17, 2014 at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard time. Good luck! Ready, set, go!
Jackie Lombardo is a SafeMinds board member and a mother of three with a keen interest in children’s environmental health. As a member of the Sierra Club National Toxics Committee, she has been involved in national projects stressing education, precaution and strong legislation for mercury, bisphenol A, pesticides, and lead in children’s products. With a strong belief that children’s health can be improved through public policy promoting a cleaner and safer environment, she remains confident proper legislation will reverse the tragic decline in children’s health.