Limiting BPA and other potential toxins in your child’s environment

BPA childGuest blogger pediatrician Heidi Román returns to us today to give practical advice on how to decrease potential toxins in your child’s environment.
In today’s world we are surrounded by “stuff”. We touch it, we eat from it, we drive in it, and we wear it. Before becoming a parent, I have to admit I didn’t think all that much about whether this “stuff” was safe. I had passing thoughts about toxic chemicals in “stuff”. Mainly, the environmental toxin I worried about as a pediatrician was my little patients’ exposure to lead.
Suddenly, as a new mom, I started to think about toxins a lot. I did little things like get BPA-free cups and bottles and avoid plastic toys. But, sometimes it feels like a losing battle. I did all kinds of research and bought a car seat with great safety ratings, only to later read a report that suggested it was “toxic”. And, in many cases the science is not definitive. A product may be found to have a substance that is considered toxic, but it is unclear whether or not the exposure is sufficient to actually impact the health of children. It all feels a bit overwhelming.
So, I’m here today to offer a few practical tips to parents who want to make their home environment safer for their kids; and, to let you know about some important legislation that is coming up that may help us all out.
1. Reduce exposure to BPA (bis-phenol A). We don’t yet have all the answers about the impact BPA may have on our kids. But, we do know this. BPA is all around us- particularly in food containers and linings. And, we have emerging evidence that it is an “endocrine disruptor“. The endocrine system is a set of organs that controls everything from body temperature to puberty via complex hormonal interactions. So called “endocrine disruptors” are thought to somehow alter these interactions. There is enough evidence out there about potential detrimental impact of pre-natal and post-natal exposure in kids (including suggestion of impact on behavior of young children) that I think it is time to dramatically reduce our exposure to BPA. Many companies who market products to babies have already made the switch- so look for BPA-free bottles and the like. You can also reduce your own exposure. Switch to glass food containers. Try to eat less canned food.
2. Improve the air quality in your indoor environment. Bring a few plants into your home. Varieties like the peace lily and rubber plants have been shown to significantly improve air quality. Switch to less toxic household cleaners or make your own from simple ingredients like vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda. “Conventional cleaners often contain volatile organic compounds whose fumes can trigger asthma attacks and irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory passages”, says Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and environmental health specialist at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Not only that, they are a significant poisoning risk to children if swallowed.
3. Decrease the number of products (cosmetics, etc) you use on your hair and skin. Learn more about the safety of those that you continue to use. Definitely use broad-spectrum sunscreen, but consider switching to a zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based formulation, especially for young children. Avoid aerosolized skin products, as there is risk of inhalation. Keep all personal care products out of reach of children.
4. Support TSCA reform. The Toxic Substances Control Act is the federal law that regulates which chemicals are deemed “safe” for use. The problem is that TSCA was passed in 1976 and has never been updated. TSCA grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals that were “presumed safe”. It does not require studies of health impact prior to chemicals reaching the market. Instead of requiring industries to prove the safety of chemicals, TSCA leaves the onus on the consumer and public and environmental health agencies to prove that they are unsafe after they’ve been available for use. It ties the hands of agencies like the EPA when they try to limit exposure, even to chemicals such as asbestos that are known to have adverse effects.
The great news is that for the past few years a growing coalition has organized to tackle TSCA reform. The EPA put forth a list of Essential Principles for Reform of Chemicals Management Legislation. Most importantly, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (SB 847), put forward by Senator Frank Lautenberg, is making its way through the early legislative process. This bill seeks to improve chemical safety and protect our health using the best science available. It aims to reward innovative companies that attempt to put safer products on the market. The bill still needs our help to push it forward. Call your Senator and ask him or her to sign on as a co-sponsor.

One last thought. Many products are actually very safe. The trouble is, right now it is really hard to know which ones are okay for children and which ones aren’t. Parents have enough to worry about. Let’s give some of the responsibility regarding unsafe chemical exposures back where it belongs- to the industries producing chemicals and the regulatory agencies designed to keep our communities safe. And, for now, a few easy changes at home can keep toxic stuff away from your kids and help keep them safe and healthy.Heidi Román, MD

Heidi Román MD, FAAP is a mother and pediatrician who practices in San Jose, California. She has special interest and experience in public policy issues and working with under-served families from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Find her thoughtful blog posts at

Special thanks to toxicologists Alan Woolf and Melisa Lai Becker for reviewing this post.
©2012 Two Peds in a Pod®
Add 7/18/12: The FDA announced on July 16, 2012 that BPA is banned from use in baby bottles and sippy cups. BPA use in other containers is still permitted. Click here for the New York Times article.
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