CNN ran an interesting story this week on increased chemical levels in children and their potentially harmful health effects. Gradually, more information is becoming available on various chemicals (such as PBDEs and phthalates) present in our environment and their corresponding health risks. Several years ago marked the first large human study using a chemical burden ‘biomonitoring’ technology to test for chemical legacy in human bodies. The test was opened to infants and young children.
CNN highlights parents, Michelle Hammond and Jeremiah Holland, who agreed to test their children and have since become advocates for better chemical regulation and safety on consumer products. While initially intrigued with the study, Michelle and Jeremiah were later shocked to discover that their kids had 18 times more potentially harmful chemicals in their bodies than their parents generation (and at such a young age).
Key chemicals of focus include PBDE’s (flame retardants) and phthalates (used in plastics) among others. The issues around chemical exposure are heated to say the least. Industry representatives will be quick to point out that there is little evidence of harmful effects, while on the other hand, some consumer advocates and children’s health medical professionals sit on the other side of the pendulum.
For example, Dr. Leo Trasande, assistant director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, notes “we are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today.” He adds, “rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can’t be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we’re being exposed to.”
However not everyone agrees that we should be immediately alarmed. Some public health advocates caution that we not jump to conclusions. In some cases, no known harmful effects exist, and in other cases, we still need more research.
Nonetheless, shouldn’t we be safe rather than sorry? Who wants to expose their infants to potentially harmful chemicals through blankets, carpets, couches and clothes if they don’t need to? Shouldn’t we protect infants from exposure to these chemicals UNTIL we are certain they are not at all harmful?
Dr. Trasande reinforces the notion that children are more susceptible with his comment that “pound for pound, [kids] eat more food, they drink more water, they breathe in more air”. ” So [children] carry a higher body burden than we do.” In addition, ‘children up to six years old are most at risk because their vital organs and immune system are still developing and because they depend more heavily on their environments than adults do.’
One Solution: Organic fabrics and fibers for household items, especially those that interface with infants and young children, such as blankets, towels, couches, rugs and clothing are just a few of the ways we can reduce chemical exposure to children.
TOXIC CHEMICAL PRIMER
Primary sources: CNN‘s article on ‘tests reveal high chemical levels in kid’s bodies’ and wikipedia
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers. PBDEs are flame retardant chemicals. They can be readily found in foam products such as mattresses, couches, and carpets as well as plastics (including casings for TVs, computers and other electronics).
Health Concerns: Animal studies show that PBDEs can cause liver, thyroid and neurological damage in lab rats. Health experts worry particularly about the potential harmful effects to fetuses and young children (under 6). Toxicity studies on these chemicals have just begun however and more work needs to be done.
These are chemicals that make plastics soft and pliable. They are found in many different kinds of plastic bottles, containers, kitchen wraps, soft toys and medical devices. Phthalates are also used as solvents for fragrances. As a result, they are in numerous personal care products such as shampoos, conditioners, lotions, perfumes, nail polish and cosmetics.
According to Wikipedia, ‘as of 2004, manufacturers produce about 400,000 tons (800 million pounds or 363 million kilograms) of phthalates each year. They were first produced during the 1920s, and have been produced in large quantities since the 1950s, when PVC was introduced. ‘
Phthalates are typically found in solvents, perfumes and pesticides as well as nail polish, fishing lures, adhesives, caulk, paint pigments, and sex toys.
Animal studies indicate that phthalates disrupt hormone levels causing neurological dysfunction and reproductive defects in lab rats. Preliminary studies on humans should that phthalate exposure may be associated with genital birth defects in males as well as infertility in men.
Interestingly however, according to the Phthalates Information Center. They write on their website, ‘there is no solid evidence for the health claims. ‘There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate has ever caused a health problem for a human from its intended use.’ However, this website is maintained by industry representatives so it is to their benefit to minimize health risks and promote the benefits of the chemicals.
3. Bisphenol A
This is a chemical used to make plastics hard. It can be found in polycarbonate plastic products such as baby bottles as well as hard bottles, and food containers. It can also be found in the resin lining of aluminum cans and some dental sealants.
Health concerns: A study published in the journal of Reproductive Toxicology found a link between biphenyl A and female reproductive disorders such as cystic ovaries and cancers. ‘In August, an expert panel from the NIH expressed concern that bisphenol A may harm children and adults recommended more be done.
4. Perfluorooctanoic acids
These are chemicals used to make nonstick and stain resistant products such as nonstick frying pans and water resistant materials.
PFOAs have demonstrated associations with causing developmental problems and liver toxicity in lab rats. Animal studies have revealed concern among health experts about their toxicity to humans, primarily because they can stay in the body for years at a time between exposures. Some studies have also suggested that PFOAs may be human carcinogens.
Polychlorinated biphenyls have been around for a long time. They are chemicals used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment. They can also be found in older models of microwaves and refrigerators. Due to their toxicity, they were banned in the US in the 1970’s, but as they are long-lasting compounds, they persist in the environment.
The EPA calls PCBs a probable carcinogen, meaning that they may cause cancer. PCBs have been associated with immunological and neurobehavioral changes in children such as problems with motor skills and a decrease in short-term memory. In adults, PCBs are associated with rashes, acne and liver damage.
Important to note also is that even though PCBs were banned in the 70s in the US, they are not banned in many other parts of the world. Furthermore, many of the machines and equipment used in the US in the 70s and 80s ended up in places like India which house some of the largest quantities of e-waste in the world.
According to an article posted in the SF Chronicle, these chemicals and other byproducts from electronic equipment are not being disposed of properly and are actively contaminating waterways, soil and densely populated human environments. According to the International Resources Group based in Washington, D.C., ‘as the Indian economy…accelerated in recent years, consumers have been upgrading cell phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment, printers and refrigerators, annually churning out 146,180 tons of e-waste laden with chemicals.’
‘These machines contain more than a thousand toxins, including beryllium in computer motherboards, cadmium in semiconductors, chromium in floppy disks, lead in batteries and computer monitors, and mercury in alkaline batteries and fluorescent lamps, according to Greenpeace. India is expected to triple its e-waste production within the next five years.’
Check out CNN’s video on this topic here.
FINAL TIP: If you interested in checking out the chemical compositition and relative toxicity of various cosmetic products on the market, check out Skin Deep - the Cosmetic Safety Database. This site will provide you with detailed information on what is in your products and how safe they are.
Photo sources: Flickr