What environmental issues are most important?
A. I think there are three pressing concerns: air pollution, pesticides, and lead. Air pollution is especially threatening to children who live near major highways and in congested urban areas. Pesticide exposure is an issue for every child. In cities, chemicals are used to control roaches and vermin; in the suburbs, they're used on lawns; and in farming areas, they're used to protect crops. Lead dangers tend to be most prevalent in the upper Midwest and the Northeast, where many old homes still contain lead paint. People tend to think of lead poisoning as an inner-city issue, but the fact is about 15 to 20 percent of cases occur among well-to-do suburban families who renovate their homes.
What policies will keep kids safe from hazards?
A. We need strong programs to test imported toys. I also think that we need to have solid programs to test the toxicity of household chemicals as they're brought to market. Too many chemicals go into children's products with insufficient or no testing, and we only realize that they're dangerous once they've been out there for years. A recent example is phthalates, chemicals that are often found in plastic items including infant products and children's toys. Phthalates, which have been in some plastics since the '70s, may cause congenital abnormalities in reproductive organs. I'm advising parents in my practice not to bring these chemicals into their homes, when possible. If you look at the bottom of plastic bottles, you can tell whether they're relatively safe or potentially dangerous. On the safer plastics, you'll see the numbers 1, 2, 4, or 5, and the less-safe plastics are printed with the numbers 3, 6, or 7.
Does the environment affect asthma, autism, or other health issues?
A. We have good information that there are environmental causes of some learning disabilities and other problems of the developing brain that stem from lead, methylmercury, PCBs, and pesticides. We're vigorously searching for an environmental cause for autism, and we don't know much about environmental causes of childhood cancer. We do know that cigarette smoke, air pollution, mold, and mildew can cause asthma, allergies, and other respiratory problems in children.
How can you limit air pollution exposure?
A. You can buy more fuel-efficient cars, drive less, and walk more. Over the last 30 years we've reduced the amount of visible air pollution by cleaning up factories and auto emissions. But even though cars run a lot cleaner, we have more cars on the road and poor public transportation in many areas of the country, which is something that cities and states need to address. You can take steps to reduce pollution in your own home. If anybody smokes, he should do it outdoors; 40 percent of kids are still exposed to cigarette smoke. If you have a fireplace or a wood-burning stove, make sure it's well ventilated. And if your child has allergies or asthma, get rid of wall-to-wall carpeting and heavy drapes, both of which trap dust and particles.
What can you do about pesticides?
A. When you think of pesticides you probably think of the chemicals sprayed on produce, but what you spray around your home may be even more harmful. Pesticides are dangerous because they can hinder brain development and may increase the risk of childhood cancer. Instead of spraying to control roaches, try closing up cracks and crevices. Make sure there's no food residue under your sinks or counters. When you hire an exterminator, look for an Integrated Pest Management company -- it can help you get rid of bugs without using too many chemicals. If you have to use chemicals, look for gels and baits, which are a lot less toxic than sprays. Also, avoid spraying pesticides on your lawn. I know people like perfectly green lawns, but it's much safer to let a few dandelions come in.
How dangerous is lead?
A. The lead paint on the recalled toys can be dangerous if a child puts a toy in her mouth and swallows a paint chip -- and kids under 5 are likely to put things in their mouth. If you're concerned that your child has been exposed to one of the toys that's been recalled, you should make sure that her doctor gives her a blood test, which the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doing anyway at 12 months and again at 24 months.
Should you only buy organic fruits and veggies?
A. It may be even more important to buy American-grown produce. Pesticide levels in domestic fruits and vegetables have been going down steadily since the Food Quality Protection Act went into effect in 1996. Imported produce is the worst offender and the most dangerous; it can contain particularly toxic chemicals that we no longer allow in this country, like DDT. I tell people to buy organic and to buy local. Also, nonorganic produce with hard skin -- like apples and bananas -- is safer than fruits and vegetables with softer skin, such as peaches and strawberries, because it's harder for chemicals to sink into the pulp.
How You Can Make a Difference
Advocate for more research.
Write your congressmen, President Bush, and your favorite presidential candidate to tell them you support the National Children's Study, a long-term project that will follow 100,000 children and track their environmental exposures in order to search for causes of conditions like asthma, autism, dyslexia, birth defects, ADHD, and obesity. The study is ready to go (you can read about it at nationalchildrensstudy.gov), but funding is in jeopardy. We've made it easy for you to help: Click the link below to print out a form letter you can send to your senators to urge them to support the study.
Make your children's school safer.
You can make your home as environmentally friendly as possible, but kids are in school for a good part of the day. And schools can be big offenders in the overuse of pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. Make a difference by getting involved in your PTA and pushing your district to use nontoxic cleansers and pesticide alternatives. Go to beyondpesticides.org for suggestions on how to start a campaign in your own community.
Log on to these Web sites for more info on environmental issues:
Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
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