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Is It Safe to Play Yet?

by Michael TortorelloNew York Times
March 14th, 2012

LAURA MacCLEERY was four months pregnant when she parked herself on the couch and started an inventory of the chemicals in her Alexandria, Va., town house. First, Ms. MacCleery, 40, a lawyer and women’s health advocate, collected 70 products in a pile: things like makeup, shampoo, detergents and sink cleaners. Then she typed the names of the cosmetics into an online database called Skin Deep, created by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org/skindeep), a research and advocacy organization.

The results were not comforting. Ms. MacCleery’s $25 lipsticks contained a dizzying brew of chemicals, including ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, a possible endocrine disruptor. “When I bought them, I thought I was doing something special for myself,” she said. “But then it turned out I was probably eating petrochemicals.” The lipsticks went into the trash bag.

For some products, the site listed dozens of exotic chemicals and compounds. There were estrogenic hormones and neurotoxins and bioaccumulators. For other items, there was almost no information at all. What effects could these substances have on her baby? Ms. MacCleery didn’t know and didn’t intend to find out.

By the time the inventory was over, “I threw out, I would say, all but three or four of the items,” she said. “Everything was toxic. Everything.”

Ms. MacCleery had previously spent eight years working for Public Citizen, a consumer-product-safety organization. Following the birth of her baby, Maya, in the fall of 2010, she said she “became obsessed” with monitoring the health of her own home. How could she determine whether the wall stickers in the nursery contained polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a suspected lung irritant? She interrogated the merchant by e-mail. (Surprise! Ms. MacCleery had inadvertently stuck PVC above Maya’s crib.)

“Professional experience showed me that neither corporations nor the government could be counted on to care for my family,” Ms. MacCleery said. So she did it herself, establishing a shelf of environmental-health books and a regime of natural baby products.

In lieu of a hazmat Onesie, the household chemical purge may be developing into a ritual of new parenthood, a counterpoint to the traditional baby shower. Talk to pediatricians, medical historians and environmental scientists, and they will tell you the social phenomenon hasn’t been studied much. Depending on whom you ask, it’s a media-induced mass hysteria, an eco-marketing trend, a public health campaign or a stealth environmental movement — possibly all of the above.

Forecasts from Mintel, a market research firm, say concerns about chemicals have made natural baby goods “some of the hottest green-product categories.” The mood of the times must be anxious, indeed, when an entertainer like Jessica Alba starts not a perfume line, but a subscription service for nontoxic baby products (the Honest Company).

Parents can consult Web sites like Healthy Child Healthy World (healthychild.org), whose mission is to “ignite the movement that empowers parents to protect children from harmful chemicals.” Or they can pore over safety ratings for children’s clothes, furniture and toys at GoodGuide (goodguide.com) and Healthy Stuff (healthystuff.org). An online retailer like Oompa (oompa.com) offers “organic and eco-friendly” toys by country of origin. (Would anyone trust a finger puppet that doesn’t come from Sweden?)

And once baby finally goes down for the night, new parents can fret along with the documentary “My Toxic Baby.” Or they can seek succor in a library of horror: books like “What’s Toxic, What’s Not,” “Raising Elijah” and “Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World.” The title of one volume suggests the pervasiveness of the threat: “Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things.”

Margie Jacobs, a 41-year-old rabbi in Berkeley, Calif., banished all the usual suspects before the birth of her first daughter, Elana. Fragrant shampoo, dubious pajamas, flea collars, plastic food containers — all gone. But the big clean didn’t fully assuage her fears.

“I think there are a lot of places these chemicals show up and we have no awareness of it,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “Even for someone who’s really careful and concerned about these issues, it’s hard to get all of the information.”

Rabbi Jacobs’s sentiment, echoed by many parents, recalls a slogan from the David Foster Wallace novel “Infinite Jest”: “Yes, I’m paranoid — but am I paranoid enough?”

AMERICAN parents (mothers in particular) have forever worried about the health of their children at home. Sarah Leavitt, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, cites the early-20th-century campaign to banish the “Turkish cozy corner.” Referring to the latest science, domestic-advice writers condemned this tenting of draped cloth and stacked pillows as a breeding ground for germs.

Perhaps every era gets the anxiety it deserves. After all, many of today’s hypervigilant parents grew up in the who’s-watching-the-kids ’70s, burning plastic bags in the backyard and spraying poison on anything that crawled. Back then, typical lead levels in children registered at five to six times today’s average reading. And didn’t most of those kids turn out (more or less) O.K.?

But what this argument misses is the wild proliferation of chemicals in the marketplace, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University. “One thousand to three thousand new chemicals were introduced into our environment every year over the past 30 years,” Dr. Trasande said.

According to published counts, more than 80,000 chemicals go into American industry, from the manufacturing process in a factory to the end product at the big-box store. These compounds may be innocuous (like water) or pernicious (like methylmercury). With so many substances in the marketplace, it’s hard to know. A chemical registry in the European Union, which Dr. Trasande cited, suggests the number of substances in global commerce is more like 143,000.

Hundreds of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, fire retardants and PCBs, can be found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, according to studies by the Environmental Working Group. It’s particularly unsettling to imagine how these chemicals might affect fetal development, as a single cell turns into trillions, said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.

And from birth, chemical exposure only grows. Young children eat and drink more, as a share of their body weight, than adults do. They breathe more air. Playing on the floor, they absorb chemicals through the skin.

As the chemical load, or “body burden,” has increased, Dr. Trasande said, “we’ve seen an increase in chronic childhood diseases: asthma, developmental disabilities, certain birth defects, certain childhood cancers. And these aren’t just two trends that exist at the same time. There are scientific studies that have tied the two together.”

So what do we know about the individual chemicals that enter children’s bodies? “Really very little,” Dr. Paulson said. We understand even less, he added, about how thousands of chemicals may interact in the human body.

Health or safety data exist for approximately only 15 percent of new chemicals submitted for approval to the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Paulson wrote in a May 2011 policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of older chemicals — those on the market before the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 — typically require no safety testing at all. Manufacturers need only disclose possible health effects that they might discover through testing, Dr. Paulson said, which he argues has created a perverse “disincentive to do any premarket research” on potential toxicity.

More recently, the E.P.A. has tried to collect data for high-production chemicals, endocrine disruptors and roughly two dozen suspect chemicals that surround children. But these voluntary monitoring programs have led to few meaningful regulatory changes, Dr. Paulson said.

In an e-mail, Kathryn St. John of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, maintained that manufacturers “go to great lengths to make their chemicals safe — for industrial uses, for commercial uses and for consumer uses.”

Ms. St. John, the organization’s senior director for product communications, added that the chemical industry strongly believes Toxic Substances Control Act should be modernized, in part “to reflect improved understanding of the way chemicals interact with the human body and the environment.”

But even under today’s standards, she argued, the “E.P.A. has full authority — and uses it — to demand additional information and testing, impose labeling requirements, limit uses to manage potential risks and deny the application for manufacture.”

The debate may seem suited to a slow day on C-SPAN3, but the stakes could scarcely be higher. In May 2011, Dr. Trasande published a paper in Health Affairs calculating recent costs of treating pediatric diseases of possible environmental origin like asthma, childhood cancer and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The portion of the total societal costs attributable to toxic exposures: $76.6 billion for a single year.

BACK on the scale of home economics, Laura MacCleery discovered that it’s not cheap to buy a chemical-free bassinet. “We had it made with nontreated wood, by Amish people,” she said. “I think it was 400 bucks.” The organic mattress was hand-stitched.

“And then the baby was born large,” Ms. MacCleery said. “She was like 8 pounds 10 ounces.”

Maya outgrew the nontoxic bassinet in a month.

That purchase may sound frivolous. But then how much would you pay to keep your baby from being exposed to the formaldehyde emitted by some particleboard furniture?

Janet Golden, a professor at Rutgers in Camden, N.J., who is writing a history of the American baby, sees the quest for the perfect green nursery as a kind of second job. It’s “a status marker for women,” she said. “You have to have a lot of money to throw away a perfectly good shower curtain.”

Ms. MacCleery doesn’t entirely disagree. She points to plenty of low-cost fixes, like using $1.95 porcelain demispoons in place of plastic utensils. Ultimately, “What we need are rules and systems to protect her,” she said of her daughter. “Not this idea that we can all shop our way to some place that protects us.”

As it stands, every mother can seem like her own E.P.A. This is something less than an ideal system, Dr. Paulson said. The media encounters a germ of new health research, then spreads a contagion of fright to the public.

Lead, mercury, asbestos, cigarette smoke: these are proven risks. But should parents “go to the ends of the earth to get every potentially toxic product out of the household?” he said. “If you want to do that, I guess it’s O.K. But there isn’t the science there to back it up.”

Some parents take up the research into chemical safety with intellectual rigor. Adam Zeiger, father to 6-month-old Eyal, is a 27-year-old doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering in Cambridge, Mass. His wife, Danna, 27, is earning her doctorate in molecular and cell biology.

Even so, “If my Ph.D. process has taught me anything,” he wrote in an e-mail, it’s that “I know absolutely nothing. But at least I can do my homework.”

Mr. Zeiger’s inquiries have left him unconvinced about the toxic threat.

“There are tons of people and forums against this chemical,” he wrote. “Or saying to avoid that product. Or, ‘Don’t touch X, Y or Z because they contain something that resembles something, that came from something, that if used otherwise would cause cancer when given to rats in a million times higher doses.’ ”

Heavy exposure to bisphenol A (known as BPA) is almost certainly a health threat, for example. But how much of the substance actually exists in a plastic bottle and how much leaches out?

Mr. Zeiger is even more skeptical about the benefits of “green” alternatives. “Now, there is food-grade stainless steel,” Mr. Zeiger wrote. “But do you really know if the steel container you bought for your water was really made to the highest of standards?” (Could this be the spark for a stainless steel panic?)

Besides, Mr. Zeiger added, he recently read an Environmental Working Group report that revealed a more surprising source for BPA exposure: cash register receipts. When it comes to chemicals, it seems, you can run but you can’t hide.

He recommends that parents do the research for themselves and trust their common sense. Yet it’s not always so easy.

Abby Wolfson, 37, remembers taking plenty of science classes on the way to becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner. “But I can’t say motherhood has done anything good to my intellectual capacities,” she said, during a lunch break at her clinic in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Ms. Wolfson started casting off cleaning supplies last summer, when her baby, Calliope, was 6 weeks old. At night, she whipped up recipes for wholesome cleaners, like a D.I.Y. laundry detergent she found on a single-mom e-mail list. But the eco-overhaul of her one-bedroom apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn, remains a work in progress.

On one hand, Ms. Wolfson bought a set of rubber ducks that purports to be “BPA-free, phthalate-free and PVC-free” — though, at $25, certainly not free. On the other hand, she has yet to do anything about the stinky area rug that she laid in Calliope’s room to muffle late-night howls. Ms. Wolfson recently read that if a carpet releases a smell, it’s likely off-gassing volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.’s). “And, of course, because I don’t have a complete grasp of the details, it makes it sound even more worrisome to me,” she said.

She could read more about the topic after Calliope goes to bed. Or she could go to sleep herself. How long can a working mom continue to spend her weekends mixing batches of natural deodorant, anyway?

“Time will tell,” Ms. Wolfson said. “It never feels like a phase to me. I’ve had my eyes opened to a lot of things that I’d never paid attention to. But now that I’m aware of them, I’m not planning on going back.”

NEWBORNS have no say about whether their rattle comes from locally harvested hardwood or 100 percent pure asbestos. But at some point, children start to shop for themselves.

With one child, it was possible to keep track of every crayon and every barrette, said Sarah Lozoff, a 31-year-old doula and childbirth educator who lives in Los Angeles, Miami and Ashland, Ore. (Her spouse is a touring actor.)

But with two children — 4-year-old Naiya and 18-month-old Esme — junk seems to materialize everywhere. “You’re getting things in goodie bags and birthday parties,” Ms. Lozoff said. “Things aren’t always coming through you.”

And, she said, once you get a handle on one hazard, there’s always another. For instance, have you ever stopped to think about all the electromagnetic fields in a wired American home?

“I know several families in Ashland that don’t have wireless,” Ms. Lozoff said. “Or they only turn it on when they’re going to use it. They unplug everything at night. Or they take batteries out of their cellphones.”

Could Wi-Fi actually harm the baby? Who knows. Let the worrying begin.


Protecting Children From Household Toxins

SO the world is a toxic cesspool and it’s poisoning our children. What to do about it?

You could open a noisome can of air freshener in the Capitol Rotunda. Congress has been a graveyard for proposals to update the Toxic Substances Control Act, which by most accounts does an ineffective job of regulating chemicals in the marketplace.

If you don’t like your odds of cleaning up Washington, start at home. The best primer may be “Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World” by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and two other authors. It’s a decade old now, and plenty of chemical scares have come and gone. Still, the book offers comprehensive checklists: for the nursery, the bathroom, the neighborhood and the day care center. How can you keep lead out of your child’s sandbox? What nastiness lingers inside a toddler’s art box? What do you know about your drinking water?

If you’ve applied all of the book’s “101 smart solutions” and you’re still worried, it’s time to dig a hole in the ground and move in. (But first test the dirt for radon.)

It seems wrong that one particularly unclean activity should be cleaning. Along with a Healthy Home guide, the Environmental Working Group proposes a few tips for cleaning products. You’ll want to cast off your oven cleaners, antibacterial soaps, fabric softeners, air fresheners, drain openers and toilet sprays. What’s in: nontoxic mixtures, like baking soda and vinegar.

Will they work? What do you think? Life is messy that way.

Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the group, highlighted a few other product categories it considers vexing. Traces of bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disrupter, continue to be found in most canned foods and on store receipts. Nonstick pans and no-stain fabrics often contain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which may cause numerous cancers and lower birth weights.

The flame retardants called PBDEs have been phased out of some computer casings and banned from new foam products. (The compounds seem to affect thyroid hormone, which is crucial for brain development.) But PBDEs may linger in foam hand-me-downs from before 2005. “We cut samples of my own car seat and breast-feeding pillow,” Ms. Lunder said, “and they have these toxic chemicals in them.”

Some parents will want to stress out on a molecular level. With its lucid catalog of human ills and the chemicals that cause them, the Toxic Substances Portal from the Centers for Disease Control is a gateway to the dark side. Yet before you diagnose nose cancer in your toddler based on exposure to bubble bath, you can call an expert through the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units. Or you can stick with your own neurotic Internet research.

The Household Products Database from the National Library of Medicine, provides chemical safety sheets for thousands of consumer products. Brake fluid, printer cartridges, dog shampoos: all there. Want to read up on the “diethylene glycol mono-n-butyl ether” in your barbecue-cleaning spray? Follow the links on Toxnet, and you’ll be scrutinizing Japanese lab studies on prenatal rats.

Or maybe you could just scrape the grill with a wire brush.