Massive toy recalls in last year's pre-Christmas season made many parents very aware of potential hazards that might exist. It also highlighted concerns about other substances used in infant's and children's products.
"Although there has been a lot of focus on "safety" in children's and infant's products from the standpoint of choking, drowning, suffocation, fall and fire hazards, we have until recently mostly thought of children's safety in terms of mechanical dangers, rather than chemical ones," says Marla Craddick, new mom and founder of Ashland-based on-line Bumble Baby.biz. "Because I am an environmental consultant with over 10 years of experience in the field, it was a natural instinct for me to research the toxicity in infant's products when I became pregnant last year with my first child." What Craddick, a certified indoor environmentalist, found was a growing amount of research aimed at some specific groups of chemicals.
Along with a desire for more "natural" choices, many parents are turning to herbal supplements and treatments for their children. And with that use is a growing concern for safety. In terms of chemical danger to children, says Dr. Sarah Christensen of Children & Adolescents Clinic in Medford, "Over the counter things are probably more of a real threat."
Part of the difficulty is the lack of oversight for many herbal supplements during manufacture, labeling and distribution of these products. "For substances not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, there are no requirements," says Christensen. Just like the lead-tainted toys made abroad, she compares, "We have no control over it." Also of concern are folk remedies privately brought from other countries or typically sold in ethnic stores. Many of these substances have been found to contain lead levels as high as 80 percent along with arsenic or mercury and are the number two cause of lead poisoning in U.S. children.
Be sure to ask your child's care provider before you give your child any sort of supplement to prevent any possible drug interactions and to give the provider the fullest possible information when making a diagnosis.
PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are flame-retardant chemicals used in everything from furniture and electrical components to mattresses and sleepwear. "Children are exposed to PBDEs either by direct contact with products containing them or when PBDEs in these products attach to particulates that break off and become part of normal household dust which is then either inhaled or swallowed," says Craddick. But the research also demonstrates a difficult balance, says Dr. Sarah Christensen of Children and Adolescents Clinic in Medford. "Generally, we believe [flame retardants] are good — if there's a fire, then baby's jammies won't go up in flames."
A second group of chemicals known as phthalates keep plastics soft and pliable. "These chemicals are commonly found in PVC-containing plastic products, such as plastic toys, teething rings, baby bottles and pacifiers," says Craddick. "Phthalates are also used as a binding agent for fragrances in lotions, shampoos, wipes, diaper creams, etc."
A third chemical under scrutiny is BPA (bisphenol A), a polymer that has been proven to leach out of some plastics when heated.
While acknowledging the amount of research being put into these chemicals, Christensen cautions against undue alarm. Though research has shown these chemicals are found in varying amounts in humans, and they have been linked to significant health issues in lab animals, there is still no clear indication of the effects on human health. "The link is missing," says Christensen. "For now we simply have no proof." And many states and retailers have already taken preventative steps to either stop or reduce the use of these chemicals in consumer products.
Parents who want to err on the side of caution can consider these steps to reduce their family's exposure:
1. Be proactive. "If you are concerned about a product, call the manufacturer and ask for information about the chemicals in their products. You may have to dig a little, but they are obliged to provide the information when requested," says Craddick.
2. Check the labels. Look for products that are "PVC-free" or "phthalates-free." As Craddick reminds, "There are many companies who are now in the business of manufacturing children's products without the use of harmful chemicals."
3. Never heat plastics. Don't heat plastic bottles or dishes in the microwave — advice new parents are given anyway. "It's in the things we tell them not to do," says Christensen. Use glass containers to warm foods and formulas and avoid washing plastics in harsh detergents or very hot water.
4. Buy natural. When shopping, choose wooden toys and stainless steel or glass dishes. Silicone nipples or teethers are also considered safe.
5. Look for safe plastics. "As a general rule, check the recycling number on the bottom of the bottle or container," says Craddick. "Numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 (usually polyethylene and polypropylene) are better choices while numbers 3, 6 and 7 (largely polycarbonate and polystyrene) are less safe and usually contain BPA."
6. Go fragrance-free. "Most any product that contains "fragrance" as an ingredient, likely contains some form of phthalates," reminds Craddick.
7. Don't overdo shampoos and lotions. It is not necessary to use a lot of bath products for an infant, and powders are too easily inhaled.
8. Stay informed, finishes Craddick. "There are scientific organizations out there who are conducting their own research and making their results available to consumers."