In the United States, we are in a curious situation when it comes to public health. We generally adopt an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to regulation, which means health policy is generally reactive rather than proactive.
U.S. regulators are reluctant to move against a product or restrict the use of a chemical until a clear danger can be shown. For American consumers, this can be confusing because we cannot be certain that a product we are buying is fully safe. Moreover, risk assessments in the U.S. can last years while the public goes unprotected.
There is a markedly different approach in Europe. European Union policy follows the precautionary principle, a “better safe than sorry” philosophy. This guideline is codified into EU law and has resulted in European regulators taking action against chemicals even when their dangers remain largely uncertain.
Perhaps the best-known example of the conundrum created by the U.S. regulatory approach is its treatment of the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA. The Food and Drug Administration says that BPA is safe, but since 2012 has banned it in baby bottles, baby cups, and the packaging for baby formula. (It was banned in Europe in 2008.) The American Medical Association classifies BPA as an endocrine disruptor and studies have shown it mimics estrogen and have linked it to cancer, asthma, early onset of puberty, hyperactivity in children, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
As any parent of a baby or young child can tell you, all baby products are now boldly labeled as “BPA-free.” But recent studies have questioned whether the BPA-free plastics, which simply substitute other chemical plasticizers, are dangerous as well.
A secondary challenge for parents is the use of phthalates, a lesser known but similarly common additive often labeled on common household products as “fragrance.” Before I did my own research, I naively assumed that buying products labeled “BPA-free” or “pediatrician approved” was enough. When I examined the label of a bottle of “pediatrician recommended” baby shampoo purchased in the United States and discovered “fragrance” was included in the list of ingredients, I decided to be more vigilant.
Here are my five ways to protect exposing your children to toxins:
1. Eliminate plastic items for serving food and drink as much as possible.
While this may seem daunting at first because plastic seems to be everywhere for children, there are now a wide array of alternatives. You can find bottles, cups, and tableware made from other substances. Look into glass bottles or stainless steel sippy cups. Encourage children to eat from proper plates earlier. When my son started at his Dutch nursery school, I was initially shocked to see the children drink from small glass cups and have their meal served in glass bowls. In addition to being healthy, it encourages them toward good behavior. The tots cannot throw glass tableware on the floor, so they learn not to do so.
2. Examine your bath time products.
You can buy baby wash or baby shampoo in a BPA-free bottle only to discover it's full of phthalates or other undesirable substances. Similarly, think twice about what the rubber ducky is actually made of before your let your little one put it in his or her mouth. I tend to stick with European bath time products because I trust the regulatory process more and because I can better understand the labels. They tend to be more expensive, but the peace of mind I purchase is worth it.
3. Avoid using plastic in your home.
BPA and phthalates can cause health problems in adults as well. Taking a broader approach and setting a good example for little ones can assist in promoting a safer environment at home. Using glass containers for storing food and not purchasing bottled water, for example, are simple steps toward a less toxic environment for all.
4. Get creative with toys made from traditional substances.
While many children’s toys today seem to be entirely constructed of brightly colored plastic, there are alternatives. Appealing toys made of wood or paper are readily available. Using natural substances to encourage playful exploration can be great fun. On a recent rainy day, I made an indoor “sandbox” for our son by pouring polenta flour on a sheet spread over the living room floor. He had a great time and didn’t once look at his plastic toy laptop.
5. Educate yourself, read labels carefully, and think like a European regulator.
Learn what you can about how exposure to chemical substances can be toxic. There are a few good articles and even documentaries on this subject that I found quire illuminating. Armed with the knowledge gained from a bit of research, I can now better decipher labels and choose products for my family wisely. After reading about the precautionary principle applied in the EU, I decided I would adopt that same strategy for our family and try proactively protect our son from toxins.
In addition to these recommendations, I would also add that I try to be realistic and not to stress about this too much. My son is going to be exposed to some of these chemicals no matter how vigilant I am at home. He still has plastic toys and will inevitably be in situations where he comes into contact with products I that may contain toxins. We probably all will. My goal is to limit his exposure as best I can, not achieve zero toxin perfection.