I suffered from low-level asthma as a kid. To this day, when I catch a cold or flu, it runs right to my lungs and lingers. Some of this is genetic — my son has some sinus and respiratory sensitivity too — but growing up in an age when my parents’ dinner parties created a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging low over the table, and car rides meant being trapped in a box of tar-drenched air, surely played a role as well.
As a young adult my asthma disappeared, until I moved to China. I lived in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, which was once farm fields and rice paddies, but is now a sprawling metropolis growing at a rapid pace. A few days a week, I’d go for runs by the side of a canal. The water’s rank smell was one thing, but the smell of soldering and building compounds coming from the factories going up by the canal’s banks was something else entirely. I’d come home smelling like I ran through a chemical fire, my breath short and rattling in my lungs with a thick wheeze. I had to stop running for my health.
It seems obvious to me that the environment plays a role in the body’s development, and as parents, we have to be especially rigorous about how we take care of ourselves as well as our children. But just as people were once unaware of the full dangers of cigarettes — or, if they were aware, they choose to turn a blind eye — so we need to be careful in what chemicals our children are encountering in their day-to-day lives, as we may not properly understand their long-term effects.
An article on The Huffington Post reports on a study that says there are now twice as many industrial chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals that have been proven to negatively affect normal brain development as there were several years ago. This doesn’t mean that there are new chemicals out there (though I’m sure there are), but that we now know chemicals which we once considered safe actually are not. One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, told HuffPo that he was inspired by seeing a young Japanese woman talking about the developmental difficulties she faces because her mother unknowingly consumed seafood that contained methylmercury when she was pregnant.
“I was shocked, as they didn’t teach us anything about the effects of pollution on human health” in medical school, recalled Grandjean, chair of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “That was the moment I decided to do something about it.”
In an initial 2006 study, Grandjean and co-author Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, identified six chemicals that have a detrimental impact on the developing human brain: methylmercury, lead, arsenic, PCBs, toluene, and ethanol. The updated list includes managanese, fluoride, DDT, chlorpyrifos, tetrachlorethylene, and polybrominated biphenyl ethers. Some of these are pesticides, others are compounds used in flame retardants and solvents. All of them are no good for a pregnant mother or young child, and could cause cognitive or behavioral disorders, brain defects, and autism. Additionally — and more subtly — they could lower a child’s IQ by up to 5 points, an effect that might be minor for a particular child, but which has a great impact over an entire population of children. Hence, Grandjean calls these chemicals “brain drainers.”
The large number of children being diagnosed with behavior and cognitive issues may be explained by better awareness and reporting, but experts believe that environmental pollutants are also factors. Children growing up in impoverished neighborhoods stand greater risk, as they’re potentially exposed to lead paint, cigarette smoke, pollution, and pesticides. What’s really scary is that these chemicals may act in tandem with one another, as the Huffington Post reports that kids’ lead causes greater harm to kids who also encounter tobacco smoke and manganese.
Even in so-called “Brownstone Brooklyn,” we’re on the alert for lead. As the walls of our old building chip, layers of lead-based paint become exposed. My son has an elevated level of the element in his system — not enough that it’s a hazard, but still, this isn’t great.
We are very mindful about what products we use around the house, especially when cleaning, using mostly vinegar and baking soda, and certainly nothing stronger than Murphy’s Oil Soap or Bon Ami. We avoid air fresheners, aerosol cans, and anything with an artificial scent. When food shopping, we buy organic produce, especially if it’s something that’s not going to be cooked, and hormone-free meat. There are enough pollutants just in the air of New York City, it’s important to try and keep our house as pollutant and chemical free as possible. Even with clothing, we prefer wool and cotton, and don’t like synthetic materials.
Better to be safe than sorry! I have little faith in our federal regulatory agencies and certainly not in the companies pushing their products on us, out only to make a buck. What’s crazy is that this report identifies only 12 hazardous chemicals. That’s it? Sadly, I suspect that in the coming decades, as more research is done, that list is going to grow. It’s up to parents to simplify our lives in regards to products and cleaners, and create a clean, chemical-free environment in which their children can thrive.