Healthy parenting involves being concerned about the safety of our home, its contents, and the products we use in it. Here are some ways to make sure your home is free of toxic chemicals when a baby joins your family.
By Wendy Priesnitz
Toxic chemicals are everywhere in our environment. And their negative impacts are greater for babies and small children because of their smaller size, still developing brains and metabolisms, and because they’re often on the floor and love to put things in their mouths. In addition, the residues of household chemicals remain on indoor and outdoor surfaces long after application and chemicals applied outside can be tracked into the house on shoes. While not all chemicals are bad, and not all levels of exposure are dangerous, there are real risks to your baby’s health.
Figuring out which products are safe and which ones aren’t can be overwhelming, and there are many things you can’t avoid unless you’re building and furnishing your home from scratch. However, there are many healthy parenting steps that you can take to protect your family. So here are some places to begin to create a green, healthy home.
Hand Sanitizers and Antibacterial Soaps
Experts agree that the use of antibacterial soap in the normal household is unnecessary for preventing infections and causes far more harm than good, but they acknowledge that these products are still very common, especially in homes with babies – ironically, by those interested in healthy parenting! Yale University pediatrician and one-time chair of the AMA Council on Scientific Affairs Dr. Myron Genel says, “There’s no evidence that [antibacterial soaps] do any good and there’s reason to suspect that they could contribute to a problem” by helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria called “superbugs.”
Your use of antibacterial cleaners may also help undermine your baby’s immune system. Microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University, who has worked with the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA), explains that exposure to bacteria is essential for development of an infant’s immune system. A baby, he says, must be exposed to germs during its first year in order to develop the antibodies needed to fight infection later in life. At any rate, most childhood illnesses are caused by viruses, not bacteria.
One of the chemicals often found in antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers is the pesticide triclosan. (It’s also used as an anti-fungal agent in clothing, kitchenware, furniture, toys, laundry detergents, antiperspirants and deodorants, toothpastes, and some cosmetics.) Although the FDA claims it’s safe, recent animal studies have shown that it alters hormone regulation. Other studies in bacteria have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It is a skin and eye irritant and, in the environment, it is potentially toxic to aquatic organisms, and is bioaccumulative and persistent.
A related chemical called triclocarban, is also used in antibacterial soaps. Researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have discovered that a mother’s prolonged use of antibacterial soaps containing triclocarban may seriously harm nursing babies. Both triclosan and triclocarban, along with 17 other antibacterial agents, are being phased out of use in hand and body washes in the U.S.
Pure, natural soap will get rid of most harmful bacteria without destroying your family’s natural immunity, so it’s your best healthy parenting choice.
One substance of concern is Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is an endocrine disruptor and has been linked to a wide range of other serious health problems. PVC is used in most plastic packaging, shower curtains, shrink wrap, piping, lunch boxes, outdoor furniture, clear plastic baby bottles, toys, sippy cups, eyeglass lenses, nail polish, dental sealants, and the lining of food cans.
The journal Toxicology Letters has reported that when polycarbonate bottles were exposed to boiling water, BPA was released fifty-five times more rapidly than when exposed to cold water. That finding had huge implications, given the widespread use of this plastic for baby bottles and cups, which are routinely boiled for sterilization purposes. In many places, BPA is being banned or phased out of products like baby bottles. However, it is being replaced with another equally toxic analog in the same chemical class, known as bisphenol S (BPS).
One way to avoid the problem if you are interested in healthy parenting is to replace plastic packaging and baby bottles (if you use them) with glass.
Plasticizers, which are commonly added to PVC as softeners to make the plastic flexible and durable, pose another concern. Phthalates are a common class of plasticizers, and used in everything from electrical cables, hoses, gaskets, and vinyl sheet flooring to toys, teething rings, and medical equipment. They have also been found in infant shampoos, and powders. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and their use is being restricted or phased out of some products – such as children’s toys – in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. A 2012 Swedish study of children found that phthalates from PVC flooring were migrating into their bodies.
To avoid plasticizers in toys, avoid secondhand plastics, and shop for cloth, wool, felt, and wooden toys. Be mindful of the paint used on wooden toys, which could include lead if the toys are old or from countries like China, and avoid pressed wood products which may be treated with formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. In the U.S., the EPA says it is a probable human carcinogen. It is a common indoor air pollutant emitted by building materials and furniture made of plywood, particleboard, and other pressed-wood products; carpet and carpet glue; paint and floor finishes; foam insulation; fiberglass; permanent press clothing and draperies; air fresheners; and most brands of nail polish.
Short-term exposures can cause allergic skin and mucous membrane reactions, flu-like symptoms, and asthma and other respiratory problems. Formaldehyde has also been linked to nose and throat cancers, and to leukemia.
Keeping formaldehyde out of your home and your children’s environment is largely a matter of avoiding products that emit it. That is, of course, easier when you’re building new, renovating, or redecorating. On the other hand, formaldehyde emissions from products diminish over time, and so are most problematic when the products are new. You can also seal new pressed wood items with formaldehyde-free paint or varnish. Ensure that new rugs and carpets are formaldehyde-free and insist that they are installed using tacks rather than glue. Good ventilation will reduce formaldehyde concentrations.
Many fragrances contain dozens of toxic chemicals, including the earlier mentioned phthalates. As an advocate of health parenting, you should avoid them, keeping in mind that they don’t just occur in personal care products and perfumes. Chemical-based fragrances are found in most household products. The Environmental Working Group’s research shows that approximately half of all products on the market contain added fragrance. They are complex mixtures of chemicals. They are persistent, neurotoxic, harmful to wildlife, and derived from petroleum.
Fragrance is increasingly cited as a trigger in health conditions such as asthma, allergies, and migraine headaches. In fact, an Institute of Medicine study sponsored by the EPA put fragrances in the same category as secondhand smoke as a trigger for asthma in school-age children.
Some fragrance materials have been found to accumulate in adipose tissue and are present in breast milk. Other materials are suspected of being hormone disruptors. At least one study has demonstrated links between heavy perfume exposure during pregnancy and learning disabilities and behavior disorders in children.
To clear the air, you might be tempted to use air fresheners. But that is a case of the cure being worse than the problem. Known toxic chemicals that can be found in air fresheners include formaldehyde, camphor, ethanol, phenol, artificial fragrances, and benzyl alcohol. These chemicals can cause symptoms like headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, mental confusion, coughing, and more. Some of the substances in air fresheners are also known carcinogens and others are hormone disruptors.
Aside from the fragrances, most household cleaning products contain other harmful chemicals, many used in untested combinations. Babies, children, older people, and those who are already sick are especially at risk from these chemicals.
One product category culprit to be avoided if you’re concerned about healthy parenting is fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Health problems can range from headache, lightheadedness, and fatigue to serious organ and central nervous system damage, and even cancer. The effects are more acute when heated in clothes dryers, making dryer sheets worse than liquid softeners. And, of course, dryers exhaust the toxic fumes into neighborhood air.
Because fabric softeners are made to stay in your laundry, the chemicals are slowly released, either into the air for you and your baby to inhale or onto your skin for you to absorb. You may have noticed that using fabric softener sheets results in less-absorbent towels; that’s because of the residue that is left in the towels.
Babies often react with rashes, frequent crying and/or diarrhea. Not to be alarmist, but some researchers have even suggested the need for research into a possible connection between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the use of these products. They say that in at least some cases of SIDS, an anaphylactic reaction is responsible, so fabric softener, with its many chemical components, shouldn’t be ruled out as a possible cause.
Safer, less toxic cleaning products are available. And you can find recipes online for making your own. As someone interested in healthy parenting, the easiest and safest way to clean your house is using vinegar, baking soda, and a little elbow grease.
The proliferation of flame retardant chemicals in both products and household dust is another barrier to healthy parenting.
The earliest flame retardants were PCBs, which were found to be highly toxic and banned in many countries in the 1970s. The chemical compounds that replaced them, such as brominated flame retardants like PBDEs, are now under increasing scrutiny as well. They are commonly found in foam furniture; baby products like crib bumpers and car seats; computers, televisions and other electronics; and carpet padding.
One common flame retardant, chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), is a carcinogen that was removed from children’s sleepwear in the 1970s. But it is still found in polyurethane foam used in other children’s products (and children’s sleepwear still includes flame retardants.) The Center for Environmental Health has found high levels of chlorinated Tris in nap mats that are sold to daycares and in other children’s products sold at chain stores. In fact, its use has increased following a 2006 ban in the U.S. on the flame retardant PentaPBDE.
One of the issues with flame retardant chemicals is that they accumulate in human fat cells after they’ve migrated into the environment. Studies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have found PBDEs in fish, meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and infant formula. Biomonitoring studies estimate that detectable levels of PBDEs can be found in up to ninety-seven percent of Americans and they have been found at high levels in human breast milk and umbilical cord blood. Laboratory tests in peer-reviewed studies have found that a dose of PBDEs administered to mice on a single day when the brain is growing rapidly can cause permanent changes to behavior, including hyperactivity.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims PBDEs in indoor and outdoor environments could expose children to concentrations exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended safe level, something that should alarm anyone interested in healthy parenting.
Because PBDEs are so prevalent in household dust, experts recommend that we take precautionary measures such as wet mopping when dusting and frequent hand washing, particularly before eating. Do not allow babies to put electronics products in their mouths. If you’re buying new electronics or bedding, check with the manufacturers to see which ones have stopped using PBDEs.
If you own furniture that you think contains retardants, cover and seal any rips in upholstery, and replace old items where foam is exposed and crumbling. Cover mattresses with allergen-barrier casings to reduce the amount of PBDE-laden dust released.
You should also try to avoid plastic toys made in China. In 2009, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicating that both hard plastic and foam toys manufactured in southern China were a major source of PBDEs. EWG says that between seventy and eighty percent of all plastic toys sold in the U. S. are manufactured in China.
In spite of all this alarming information, it’s wise not to try and purge all toxic chemicals from your home in a few weeks. Implement some of these tips slowly and phase in safer products. As someone dedicated to healthy parenting, you can begin now and take baby steps to a greener, safer home!
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Child Magazine, where this article first appeared, the author of thirteen books including Natural Life Magazine’s Green and Healthy Homes, and the mother of two adult daughters.