Environmental Toxicity at Home
By Lisa J. Sirota, M.D. / June & July 2012
With the steady and alarming increase in neuro-developmental disorders, such as autism and ADHD, and illnesses, such as asthma and childhood cancer, one important unresolved question is how the rise in environmental toxins is contributing to the declining health of our children. Experts estimate that the proportion of autism, ADHD, asthma and cancer related to environmental toxicity is more than ten per cent. Here is a list of the most important toxins found in the home, how they affect the body, and how to reduce their potential harm:
Environmental tobacco smoke: Cigarette smoke contains irritants, carcinogens, and reproductive toxins. Second-hand smoke exposure in infants is related to sudden infant death syndrome, and, in older children, asthma, ear infections, and lower cognitive and behavioral functioning. Never allow cigarette smoking in your home or in your car, and require a change of clothing in order to prevent bringing cigarette residue into a child's environment.
Lead: Dust from lead-based paint is the leading cause of lead toxicity in children. Although lead-based paint was banned from housing in 1978, there are still homes where lead paint exists. Lead also enters the home in plumbing products, imported toys, pottery, stained-glass, and jewelry.
Lead is a neurotoxin.
Even low levels of exposure cause brain injury, loss of IQ, and behavioral disorders that may be irreversible. Though lead poisoning is on the decline, fifteen cases per year still occur in Broward County. Screening is recommended for all children between one to two years of age. Use cold tap water for drinking and preparing formula, as hot water is more likely to contain lead. Avoid cookware and tableware not shown to be lead-free. Check lead recall lists at www.cpsc.gov.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are organic chemicals that are released as gases in the environment. Common home items that release VOCs are cleaning products, cosmetics, paints, dry-cleaned clothing, and furniture. VOCs can cause airway irritation, cough, asthma, headache, vomiting, and increased risk for cancer. Protect your child from VOCs by choosing paints that are low in VOCs, and providing ventilation when using these products. Never store partially-used paint containers in the home. Do not bring dry-cleaned clothing with a strong chemical odor into your home. Keep cleaning products away from children, and consider using "green" cleaners without VOCs.
Plastics: Phthalates are chemicals that make plastics more flexible. They are found in cups, bottles, toys, plastic furniture, vinyl flooring, and wallpapers. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in hard plastics, like food containers, cups and bottles. Phthalates and BPA can leach into food and drink. They have been linked with neurologic disorders, cancer and endocrine disruption. Reduce exposure by switching to stainless steel, glass or BPA-free bottles and containers. Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers, which release phthalates and BPA into the food. Avoid washing plastics in the dishwasher, which promotes further leaching out of chemicals. Use plastics that have safest recycling labels, numbered 1 or 2.
Pesticides: The EPA estimates that 80 percent of people are exposed to pesticides at home. Pesticides can cause irritation in the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, kidney damage, and cancer. To protect your child, remove pets, toys and the child from the environment before applying pesticides; store pesticides in locked cabinets outside the home; never transfer pesticides to containers that a child might mistake for food; buy organic produce when possible.
Dr. Lisa Sirota has 25 years' experience treating infants, children and adolescents. She is a pediatrician at Children's Medical Association, with offices in Plantation, Tamarac and Coral Springs, where she integrates natural strategies with traditional Western medical approaches in caring for children.
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