Dr. Harvey Karp. The "Happiest Baby" author on his autism theory.Sara R. Fisher
He’s best known as the creator of the best-selling Happiest Baby on the Block series of books and DVDs, but for the past twenty years Dr. Harvey Karp has been tackling something even tougher than a toddler temper tantrum: endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs are found in almost every product we have in our homes and exposure to them have been recently linked to everything from hormonal disorders to fetal malformations to even obesity
In his recent series for The Huffington Post, Dr. Karp theorizes that overexposure to EDCs during pregnancy and the first years of life could be a main cause of the disorder. Through his work as an activist for the organization Healthy Child, Healthy World, a movement to protect young children from harmful chemicals, Dr. Karp and others are trying to get the word out about the dangers of EDCs and have succeeded in obtaining government funding for new studies about the effects of environmental influences on children. Babble spoke with Dr. Karp about what chemicals to look out for in our homes and products, how to best avoid overexposure, and why vaccines are still misidentified as a cause of autism. – Sara R. Fisher
I have to ask you this first. Why do rumors about a link between autism and vaccinations still persist when all evidence and research show the contrary?
The biggest reason is the increase in reported incidents. Now, a lot of kids get reported with new diagnoses of autism and it’s scary.
Then people like Jenny McCarthy, who is an impassioned spokesperson, have been given the biggest platforms in the world to make these claims with the most threadbare scientific support, accompanied by doctors with dubious reputations.
It was a good idea to look at vaccines as a cause of autism, but we have no proven links. We took the mercury out and the rate of autism keeps going up. But there are bound to be parents who say their children got worse after the vaccine. It’s just a coincidence without any correlation. We are constantly scrutinizing vaccines to make sure they are well-tested and safe. I’m hoping to make a more reasonable appeal to parents about vaccinations that a) there is no association and b) there are other things to think about when it comes to autism.
By these “other things,” do you mean EDCs?
There is a possibility it’s related to these chemicals. Fifty percent of chemical exposure you get in your lifetime you will get in the first five years of life. I want to expand the dialogue and want to do research now about what babies are exposed to. We want to learn if chemicals affect other things too besides autism, like obesity, asthma and leukemia rates. Fortunately, we now have the National Children’s Study, and in three to four years we may see something more specific linking the two.
After reading your HuffPo pieces I was shocked I hadn’t learned all this before. Being seven months pregnant, I told my OB-GYN and my son’s pediatrician about this theory and they just shrugged it off.
I think it’s a generational issue: if you’re not given this information during your training you don’t pick it up afterwards. It’s only been in the last ten years that the Academy of Pediatrics started to talk specifically about environmental risks. It’s a slow process of informing people. But parents have access to so much information besides what their doctors know and this is one of those emerging areas that we’re all learning about together.
So what chemicals exactly should we be looking out for?
There are many types of chemicals: phthalates, insulating agents, BPA, pesticides, BCBs. It’s one of the reasons why some studies that are done aren’t very credible – they only look at one chemical. But these EDCs may have added or multiplicative effects. It’s kind of like what we learned about cigarette smoking and asbestos. They both cause cancer individually, but if you’re exposed to both together, your rate of cancer then increases by five times. I say use the precautionary principle – if you’re not sure about it, avoid it.
I can avoid BPA, but aren’t phthalates in almost every beauty product? I’m scared to shampoo my hair! What’s the best way for us to live with EDCs and their potential hazards?
We can’t do everything, but we can do some things. You can start buying things that are organic. You can begin to cut back exposure by buying healthy cleaning products. You can take off your shoes when you walk in the house so you don’t track in pesticides. You should wash your hands and your child’s often. If you use beauty products like nail polish, you have to ventilate. Open up the windows in your house to get fresh air inside. So many people have carpet and particle board furniture that release gas and chemicals indoors and those collect in your house. You have to clear it out. Also, don’t spray roach or ant spray in the house or microwave in plastic. All these things can make an immediate impact.
Also, you could make a donation to an environmental organization like Earthwatch, NRDC, and Healthy Child, Healthy World. Parents have an important job to raise their families and they depend on others to be vigilant and help them watch out for harmful things. By donating, we can delegate responsibility to organizations.
The advice makes sense, but you know there are people out there who will say that only buying organic is cost-prohibitive and hard to do with a toddler who just wants to eat Oreo cookies.
There was a poll done in Newsweek about fifteen years ago asking people if they would rather eat food with pesticides or not, and everyone said not, and the people surveyed said they’d pay fifteen percent more for food without pesticides. People say that organic is too expensive, but I look at it like building a highway or an airport. Your parents and grandparents paid for that. Each generation has to make an investment for future generations. As we spend more money for organic food, the price comes down. Twenty years from now there will be an abundant supply of less polluted food because some of us will have invested in the market. Remember, children are only twenty-five percent of our population but one hundred percent of our future.