All families agree: the items that their baby touches or contacts should be safe, their construction should be safe, and the materials that they are made out of should be safe.
In reality, this is a concept that should not have to be written about. Why discuss something as obvious as not exposing your baby to harm? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
How Do We Know if a Material is Toxic?
When we talk about materials, we are really talking about the chemicals that make up these materials. Chemicals, of course, can be very good. All the materials we breathe, drink, touch, and see are composed of chemicals. Many of them are harmless—but not all.
It turns out that in the United States, roughly 85,000 chemicals are manufactured and released, which we regularly come into contact with in our everyday routines.
These chemicals serve an incredibly wide range of purposes—including the structure of a material (think the plastic in a bottle), the attempt to safeguard a product (think the use of flame retardants in the black resin of cell phones and computers), or are part of the industrial process of stabilizing or enhancing the function of a product (think Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—a ground of man made chemicals used in electrical equipment that have been known to increase rates of many different kinds of cancer in humans, rats, mice, and other study animals).
Very few chemicals are studied in an effort to determine whether they do any immediate or long-term harm. Some groups of chemicals are intensively studied before their release to the public. For example, medications stand out as an example of a class of chemicals that by law cannot be released to the public until the manufacturer proves they are safe. However, most of the 85,000 chemicals we drink, swallow, breathe, and touch exist by a different set of rules. The responsibility to see if these chemicals are harmful rests on you, the consumer.
Even if scientists are engaged in the study of a chemical and its harm is proven, the public faces a very difficult challenge—convincing the manufacturer to stop using said chemical. This is the situation with many chemicals that evaporate from the foam seen in nearly all the cushions in our furniture, mattresses, and bedding. The manufacturers of these foams never studied the harm they cause; it was by some other path that it was discovered to be harmful. Even though it has now been many, many years after finding these vapors can cause real damage, the foams are still being used widely with no end in sight.
The Challenge of Keeping Our Babies from Being Hurt by Toxic Chemicals
These facts leave all parents in an awful situation. Manufacturers can create any chemical and sell it without knowing if it is harmful. We as consumers are plunged into real ignorance about which materials contain toxic chemicals and which do not. Even when a handful of chemicals are found to be harmful, manufacturers are not required to discontinue use in their products. This leaves parents to find out which materials contain toxic chemicals and which are actually safe.
What Harm Can Toxic Chemicals in Safe-Appearing Products Do?
This important question should define how parents think about the issue. Sadly, toxic chemicals can cause a wide range of problems, including risk of cancer and the overall health of various organs’ like the heart, liver, and lungs.
Focusing on the safety and development of your baby— we will focus on a very important organ, the brain.
Chemicals have the ability to alter the genes in the sperm or egg of a father or mother-to-be. Chemicals could also disrupt and interfere with the astoundingly complex formation of the nerves in the brain and network creation at any stage during pregnancy. Harmful chemicals have also been known to hurt established brain tissue even after pregnancy and birth into childhood. Whether prior to conception, during pregnancy, or during childhood, damaging brain tissue carries the possibility of a child’s mind not properly developing with devastating, lifelong results.
Of course, the chemical impact varies depending on which chemical your child is exposed to, the amount of said chemical, the duration of the exposure, and the response of the child’s brain to that exposure.
In the United States, the current number of children who experience difficulties or diagnosed learning disorders in school is rising, presently standing at one in six children.
Examples of Chemicals That Can Damage the Brain’s Development and Cause Great Harm
Of the approximately 85,000 chemicals manufactured and released into our air and water, only a small minority have been evaluated to see if they harm brain development. Six of these chemicals have been identified by the nation’s leading toxicologists and epidemiologists, for which evidence is sufficient to say that these chemicals do in fact damage brain development in children.
Those six chemicals are:
3. Chemicals in air pollution from combustion
4. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) Flame retardants
5. Organo-phosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos
6. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
These six chemicals have been found to have convincing evidence of harm to the developing mind, andhere are likely many others that have not been tested.
What to Do
Ultimately, our goal is to eliminate chemicals that can harm the creation and function of children’s organs and increase susceptibility for diseases or disorders.
The ideal approach is to stop the manufacture and use of such chemicals. This is an action that can only be taken at the societal level, either by companies that make chemicals or the governments that regulate them. This approach has already been adopted in many countries for a plethora of chemicals. For example, one cannot make gasoline for cars or paint for homes that has lead in it.
Another societal-wide approach is to locate places that contain toxic chemicals and remove the source. For example, hospitals have since eliminated mercury use in their devices.
For families, the greatest power they have to protect their child is to not buy products containing chemicals known to be toxic to their child and do extensive research into chemicals deemed “safe.” One way to make sure that your children are protected is to strive to only buy organic produce, which eliminates exposure to pesticides. Another protective stride that you can make is choosing to buy mattresses and bedding that is free of any toxic chemicals that can hurt your child’s developing mind.
1. The world is made of chemicals, many of which are safe and even necessary for life.
2. In the U.S. alone, we are exposed to an estimated 85,000 chemicals, which are manufactured and released into our environment.
3. We know almost nothing about the large majority of these chemicals, but we do know that some cause damage to the developing brain of a baby, both before and after birth.
4. Manufacturers should test chemicals before using them to ensure they cannot harm us.
5. Governments should ban the use of chemicals that cause harm.
6. In the meantime, all of us can engage in smart buying decisions and make a conscious effort to avoid the chemicals known to be toxic.
About Dr. Lavin