Children are uniquely vulnerable — biologically and behaviorally — to the toxic risks in our environment. While everyone is exposed to chemicals via air, water, and food, children take in more of these per pound of body weight than adults. They also indulge in more hand-to-mouth activity, transferring more foreign substances into their bodies. Young children spend a lot of time playing or crawling on the ground, which brings them in contact with pesticides on lawns and toxins in carpets. The cumulative impact of toxicity can affect every aspect of the mental and physical development of children.
Today’s children are exposed to more toxins than any generation in the history of the world. I believe environmental and dietary factors are the main reasons that the predominant cause of death in children has shifted in the last twenty years from infections and accidents to chronic, disabling conditions.
Childhood cancer has risen 10.8% in the past decade, and 25% since 1970. Childhood asthma has almost doubled since 1976. There has also been an increase in learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and other behavioral problems. I attribute these to heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, trans fatty acids, sugars, and other toxins that are known to target the brain and central nervous system.
Let’s look at what the average newborn, with his little, immature detoxification system, is exposed to. He spends his first year of life in a new crib with a mattress that’s been treated with pesticides and fire retardant chemicals. The foam stuffing outgasses formaldehyde, and the dyes are generally carcinogenic. The typical crib headboard or bed frame is constructed from particle board pressed wood shavings glued together with a urea-formaldehyde resin.
Baby’s disposable diapers are made of bleached paper that emits a slow, steady dose of carcinogenic dioxins. Nourishment comes from a plastic bottle lined with a plastic baggie that outgasses phthalates (plasticizers) that can be measured in the blood stream. The newborn travels in a brand new vinyl-covered car seat that outgasses toluene and more plasticizers.
If that were not enough, the formulas that many babies drink are deficient in the correct fatty acids necessary to promote optimum brain development. The synthetic chemicals in formulas can alter the chemistry of the brain and other organs. Breast feeding is the best way to ensure the high quality of fatty acids for brain development, but unfortunately the quality of breast milk fatty acids depends on the quality of the mother’s diet. And the best time for a mother to improve her diet is a couple of years before she becomes pregnant.
As these children grow, they attend school where the windows rarely open, and pesticide spraying is done on a fixed schedule rather than as needed. Children in schools are often exposed to additional toxic materials like perfumed fabric softeners, hydrocarbonbased cleaning products, carpets that outgas formaldehyde and toluene, and air fresheners with benzene in the lavatories.
Dietary factors can also affect the immune system. Popular aluminum-lined boxes, for example, increase a child’s exposure to Alzheimer’s-promoting aluminum. Most of the juices in these boxes have been boiled into concentrates, then shipped to a factory and reconstituted with chlorinated city water. The acidity potentiates the leaching of aluminum into the juice. And, of course, juices add to a diet that’s already too high in sugar.
Obesity in children was a rarity until our society became inundated with processed foods. Now it is an increasing problem. Snacks of pretzels, chips, ice cream, cookies, and candies contain trans fatty acids that promote the chemistry of cravings and obesity. This biochemical change makes losing weight very difficult, if not impossible, until the chemistry has been changed back to normal, and this takes one to two years of intensive nutritional work.
Where to Start
- At home, children spend the most time in their bedroom, so it’s the most important place to start clearing out toxins. Look for cotton sheets and pillow cases made from untreated natural fibers; grandparents often find them in the attic. If you use a regular mattress, cover it with several layers of old cotton blankets washed in a nonscented soap or just plain baking soda. If you or another relative of an infant sews, make a casing for the crib bumpers out of a heavy barrier cotton cloth that keeps the toxic plasticizers and formaldehyde stuffing odors to a minimum. Or, start from scratch by making a crib bumper from cotton cloth, stuffed with organic cotton.
- An air cleaner in the bedroom to remove dust, molds, and the chemicals that ride on the dust particles is useful. Some of the best air filters are by E. L. Foust (800.255.9549) and Austin (800.705.5559). Remove carpeting and any new unnecessary smelly-plastic items, and store over-stuffed toys that are not “emotionally essential” in a chest.
- Cotton bedclothes, as opposed to polyester, help the skin breath, and normalize body functions. Try to buy only 100% cotton, natural-colored clothing or fabric. If you can smell any trace of chemical residue, wash the items in baking soda or borax, followed with a vinegar rinse. Better yet, get used cotton clothing at consignment shops or neighborhood yard sales. These clothes have already been laundered repeatedly, reducing toxins. Use vinegar as a fabric softener. Keep the fragrances in children’s bedding and clothes to a minimum so they have more capacity for detoxifying the odors at school, with enough reserve for optimum brain function.
- Avoid scented detergents, bleaches, polishes, waxes, and cleansers. Replace them with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), washing soda (sodium carbonate), borax and natural soaps, olive oil with a little lemon juice or vinegar for polishing, beeswax, and Bon Ami cleanser. Remove room fresheners. It’s a good idea to culture the bedroom to detect the presence of mold, a common cause of recurrent colds, allergies, and earaches.
- If a mother or infant is unable to breast-feed, try to find glass baby bottles and use organic milks such as soybean and rice. In 27 years of medicine, I have never heard of a child being cut by a glass baby bottle. For older children, try to find glass-lined thermoses and make your own fresh juices. Or, encourage plain fresh mineral water that can be flavored with a slice of fruit.
- As children mature, we must teach them to be healthy eaters, and set an example by not eating processed foods ourselves. We can enlist children to be partners in maintaining their health so that they learn while young to appreciate this responsibility and control.
- Parents and grandparents must acquire the necessary knowledge to prevent today’s tots from becoming tomorrow’s toxic teens.
Dr. Rogers specializes in environmental medicine. She is board certified by the American Board of Environmental Medicine and the American Academy of Family Practice, and is also a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. She teaches advanced courses for physicians on environmental medicine techniques and is the author of several books including Depression-Cured at Last! and Detoxify or Die.