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We’re all painfully aware of the changes happening to our planet: global warming, loss of whole species of songbirds and butterflies to extinction, changing weather patterns that are wreaking havoc on communities around the world. It's overwhelming at times to think about. And not to add to your worries – but it's important to say: the same burdens our planet is facing are being played out on the landscape of our personal – and our children’s – health.
In the past decade we’ve seen a continued escalation in health conditions affecting kids, from allergies (including food and environmental) to asthma, eczema, and autoimmune diseases. (I’ve had kids as young as two years old in my practice for autoimmune disease treatment.) Many of these conditions can be traced back to environmental toxin exposures. These exposures also affect our fertility and genetics, and we pass the impact down to our babies at conception. Then we download more toxins during pregnancy. Scientific organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG), estimate that most of us have stores of hundreds of environmental contaminants in our bodies. Several studies have now demonstrated that babies are born already carrying a toxic load of as many as 300 different chemicals in their bodies, and breast milk is rife with environmental pollutants. These toxins are coming from our foods, our water, our air, our household cleaners, our cosmetics, plastic containers, building materials, and about a million other places.
A study done in New York State showed that Asian women of childbearing years had blood levels of mercury that exceed federal safety standards, and that most of this mercury can be traced back to high levels of fish consumption. This study that shed light on the problem with arsenic in rice some years ago, was done on pregnant women in New Hampshire. Those consuming high levels of concentrated rice products (i.e., energy bars that contained rice syrup) had the highest levels.I discuss healthy preconception health at length here.
It's not just pregnant women and little ones that are affected. Laboratory tests reveal girls aged 14-19 across America are contaminated with chemicals commonly used in cosmetics and body care products including phthalates, triclosan, and parabens, Studies link these chemicals to potential health effects including cancer and hormone disruption. Teens use an average of nearly 17 personal care products each day (and adult woman 12 products daily).
The chemicals are not benign. Even in practically unmeasurable tiny amounts, many can wreak havoc on our hormones, immune system, and nervous system. They can cause people to become overweight by disrupting the endocrine system. And we really have no idea how multiple different chemicals interact in the body, yet we are living with a veritable soup of environmental chemical interactions!
Here’s a small breakdown of some of the conditions associated with various contaminants:
- Heavy metals and organochlorides affect the nervous system causing anxiety, insomnia, ADHD, chronic fatigue, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s dementia.
- Endocrine disruptors in plastics and pesticides affect our hormones leading to thyroid disease, diabetes, PCOS, and infertility.
- There are well-established connections between toxin-mediated changes in our endocrine (hormonal) and immune systems and obesity. More environmental chemicals = More fat. And since these chemicals are stored in our fat cells, more fat = more stored chemicals (though you can be thin and have a high body burden, too). And check this out: a high body burden can keep people from losing weight – even on a good diet and exercise program!
Unfortunately, as individuals, we can’t always control or eliminate all of our toxic exposures. Major regulatory and industry policy changes (which we can accomplish in groups!) are needed. But we can do our part to reduce our own body burdens and thus the environmental load.
So what can you do to protect those you love – and the planet you love? Become an eco-committed parent. While it can feel overwhelming to rethink one’s lifestyle, it’s important to be proactive – for our planet- and for our health and that of the next generations. It’s what’s inspired me to raise my children – and live my own life – as close to 100% naturally as possible.
I’d love to share some common sense ideas with you on how you can raise your family as an eco-warrior in this article (and podcast). It’s not as hard as you think, it doesn't have to be expensive, I know these options are not cheap, and can be hard to budget for – and at times, impossible to fit into the budget. We raised our kids on a $30,000 school teacher's salary and a very modest midwifery income, so we had to make these decisions too, and became very intentional with our money, prioritizing our commitment to ecologically sound choices. And what's really convincing, is that the results can be significant. Studies reveal that simply removing phthalate containing body lotions and the use of plastic cups for drinking leads to substantially reduced phthalate levels in teens in as little as one week's time, and switching to organic fruits and veggies as much as possible for children, reduces their blood pesticide levels in just 3 days. So let's get you started!
Making the Commitment
When my kids were little I was ‘mean mama’ for not letting them wear the kinds of PJs their friends wore at sleepovers, meaning the polyester kinds with flame-retardant chemicals. I was adamant in fact. Now, three decades later, the evidence is clear: flame retardants are endocrine disruptors and can have a serious impact on children’s hormonal development.
Fast forward and now it’s on trend to be ecologically conscious. And that’s awesome. And incredibly important because the same underlying factors leading to global warming are also playing out on the landscape of our personal health – and our children’s health from preconception on. And we can’t wait for industry or the next administration to deal with the ecological crisis our planet is facing.
I’ve lived an eco-conscious life for nearly 40 years; it's also how I raised my own four children. Now grown, they are, in turn, eco-conscious adults. When my kids were little (pre-internet!), and it was nearly impossible to find pajamas that were flame-retardant free, toys made of natural materials rather than phthalate-containing plastic, or organic dairy for that matter. These things were considered weird, as was I for making those choices, and I had to pay a premium to be eco-conscious. Our families also thought we were too radical because of those choices, and it led to a lot of stress on me. But I felt those choices were so important – and now what we know, just as the tip of the iceberg on environment toxin exposures, about flame-retardants and phthalates as a cause of early puberty, and more, I’m glad I was persistent and confident.
Today, making the eco-conscious choice is a normal, preferred path, and there’s no shortage of wonderful, accessible options – untreated cotton kids clothes, eco-friendly toys, organic foods, and more. And while some options may be slightly more expensive, most aren’t, less is more, and frankly, what we don't pay for in quality and eco-consciousness now, we pay for later with our health personally, and globally – the planet we’re leaving to our kids.
We can’t change everything we’re exposed to, and none of us can single-handedly repair our planet. But we can do our part to reduce both planetary burden – and our own and our children's body burdens – the amount of environmental toxins we have stored in our bodies. It’s really about stepping back and making it a way of life to make gentle shifts in the choices you make, and the values that guide those choices. Below you'll find a few important steps you can take today to get you started.
1. Go organic.
When you can, shop organically. Organic food enhances biodiversity, fosters higher soil quality and reduces pollution from fertilizer and/or pesticide run-off – and it’s better for your body! r. Eating organic prevents you from being exposed not only to the pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and myriad other chemicals in our food supply in the US, but also prevents exposures to chemicals that are banned in the US but which are still used in other countries and which show up in our foods – and bodies – through imported produce and meats. If eating all organic is too expensive, at least make sure your meats and dairy products are organic, as these are repositories for environmental contaminants, and make sure that you avoid or eat only organic picks from the “Dirty Dozen,” the most contaminated foods as determined by the EWG. These include: Apples, Celery, Strawberries, Peaches, Spinach, Nectarines (imported), Grapes (imported), Sweet Bell Peppers, Potatoes, Lettuce, Blueberries, and Kale. A famous study on kids in Washington state showed that even after just a few days on an organic diet, the levels of toxic chemicals in kids' blood dropped dramatically, while there was no change in kids who were kept on a similar, but not organic diet. Visit http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ to learn more about safe and healthy shopping, and the Dirty Dozen.
However, I know that organic is not always possible due to financial and access restrictions, so if you are having to make the call on what to buy organic and what to buy conventional – refer to both the Clean15 and Dirty Dozen lists. These lists, provided by the Environmental Working Group, provide up to date information on which foods contain the most pesticides – like apples and spinach – and which contain the least – like avocados and pineapples.
Another place you want to prioritize organic is dairy and animal protein. When animals are raised with antibiotics, it’s not to prevent them from getting infections, but to fatten them up, so that they can go to market faster. Consuming dairy and animal protein that has these antibiotics in them does the same thing to us. Similarly, inorganic dairy may have growth hormone added to it – even in organic dairy, there's likely going to be some hormones in it, but much less than inorganic – which has been linked to premature puberty. Also, if you are going to include fish in your diet, which is a healthful source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, make sure it’s low-mercury fish especially during preconception and pregnancy, and for young children.
2. Become a plastic-free family.
As of 2015, approximately 6300 metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, only around 9% of which had been recycled. Much of the rest ended up in landfills or the natural environment. By 2050, it’s estimated that this amount will more than double, And 79% of the plastic that’s ever been produced has been discarded – just 21% is in active use. Isn’t that astonishing?
Also astonishing is the volume and the effect of the plastics – and other common environmental toxins – we’re using and exposed to in our daily lives on personal health. Plastics act as xenoestrogens – or endocrine disruptors – which are also found in makeup, bug sprays, sunscreens, non-organic foods and much more. They are a category of endocrine-disruptors that have an estrogen-like effect which can cause hormonal havoc on the body, causing symptoms from heavy periods to cyclic breast pain and endometriosis and much more. Just from our diet and environment alone, the average person consumes the weight of a credit card in microplastic each week. Some pieces are small enough to penetrate the human tissues, where they can also trigger immune system reactions!. Yuck.
Reducing the amount of endocrine-disruptors you and your family absorb into your bodies is essential for hormone balance. While it may seem like a small thing to do, getting the plastic out of our lifestyles – and especially our food sources – is so important. So how can you reduce your family’s use of plastics and protect yourselves at the same time?
Here's what you can do:
- Avoid foods that come in soft plastic wrap, are stored or microwaved in plastic.
- Swap out your water bottles: instead of drinking out of plastic, opt for glass or stainless steel; ditto that on all other beverages. My favorite choice is the LifeFactory Bottle – I've been using the same bright red one since 2008! They make kids' sizes and baby bottles, too.
- If you bottle feed, choose a glass bottle and make sure pacifiers and bottle nipples are BPS and phthalate-free.
- Avoid takeout in plastic containers. Minimize takeout to avoid excess packaging waste, and find creative ways to enjoy leftovers to minimize food waste.
- When you can, order or shop foods in bulk and use your own cloth bags for both shopping and storing. Avoid all plastic packaging – it basically never breaks down in the environment and most plastic is not recycled, even by recycling companies. I promise, you can eliminate almost all the plastic in your fridge and pantries.
- Opt for reusable household products (everything from dish soap to skin care) that comes in either recycled or glass containers.
- Opt for wooden toys over plastic.
3. Use eco-friendly household products.
What we clean our homes with leaves residues on our counters, bedding, in our air, and just about everywhere – and we ingest, breathe, and absorb these chemicals. Yes, eco-friendly household cleaning products are more expensive, but we can no longer put a price on our health or that of future generations. You can also make your own – it’s actually not that difficult. Even large supermarket chains are carrying eco-friendly cleaning products by companies like Ecover and 7th Generation. The EWG also has a great resource for environmentally friendly cleaning here.
4. Be picky about your body products.
Most commercial cosmetics are laden with heavy metals and other toxic ingredients. Ditto on body products ranging from shampoos and deodorants to sunscreens and lotions. Learn to read labels and avoid those ingredients known to be especially harmful. For more information and resources, including companies with clean ingredients and eco-friendly policies – and those to avoid – visit here.
5. Green up your home.
Fabric protectant chemicals and flame retardants are just two classes of the numerous seriously harmful toxins that are built into your sofas, chairs, carpeting, and other household décor and building materials. Nearly all of these toxins are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Minimize exposure by emphasizing wood, metals, and untreated natural fibers, and learn more about green building and décor here. And here’s a blog on eco-friendly upholstery.
6. Less is more.
If you’ve had a baby, you know how much family, friends, and the child-rearing industry will try to convince you of what you need – dozens of onesies, dozens of toys, the newest carrier and rocker, and developmentally appropriate games. But if you’ve had a baby you also know how quickly these gadgets and gizmos can add up and how quickly the baby grows out of each one, if they engage with it at all. My entire repertoire of baby-stuff included a rebozo and baby carrier, cloth diapers and natural covers, a diaper bag, blankets, and cotton baby clothes. That's it. You don't need all the “stuff!”
Before loading up your registry with every suggested item under the sun, take a moment to think about what you absolutely need and what is likely frivolous. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Use cloth diapers or a cloth diaper service when possible – disposable diapers are a large source of microplastics in the environment. It can be done 100%. If cloth diapers and services are just not an option for you, opt for biodegradable disposables.
- Use eco-friendly and eco-safe textiles – clothing, sheets, towels, etc. – to help reduce a baby's exposure to toxins. Avoid anything you can that is flame-retardant. You can learn more about that here.
- If you can, avoid plastic toys – which end up in a landfill when you’re done with them and never degrade – and go for natural wood and cloth toys instead. It’s all my kids had. They are highly creative, innovative, and successful adults.
- Purchase as much pre-loved as possible. Clothes, toys, books, high-chairs, cribs, you name it. I promise your newborn won’t know the difference. Make sure they’re natural materials, too.
7. Start early.
The toxic load we’ve built up prior to pregnancy can have an impact on our children. We also know from “washout” studies (which look at what happens when someone switches from conventional to organic food), that just in the span of a few days, we can eliminate significant amounts of toxins from our bodies, particularly herbicides and pesticides we consume with our foods, and thus lower systemic toxic levels. So it’s worth it to spend a few months, ideally, “cleaning up” our toxin exposure and levels before conception whenever possible.
I talk more about preconception health here.
My biggest tip for raising an eco-conscious family is to integrate your fam into every single one of the above practices. Don’t just make environmentally sustainable decisions for your family, but make them with your family.Explain, in an age appropriate way, non-scary way of course, that also makes it fun and important to be part of – that these actions help reduce electricity and water generation, which are two of the largest source of carbon emissions.=
- Shop and cook together and explain why you are purchasing some foods over others, why you are storing in glass rather than plastic, and why we are avoiding takeout whenever possible – this engages children in learning how to shop smartly and not take home any unnecessary packaging. If you recycle (which I hope you do!) or compost, get your kids in on the act – teach them to sort the recycling and explain why it’s so important, show them how vegetable waste can be turned into soil – and show them how to grow a plant in it – even if in a pot in a windowsill.
- Teach your children to shut off lights when they are not in a room, to not leave the water running when they are doing things like washing their hands or brushing their teeth, and give them slippers and cozy at-home wear so you can keep the thermostat set lower at home.
- Explain why you purchase pre-loved clothing and toys for them, the stories these items likely contain in their fibers from their past owner, and then allow your little to complete the circle by giving away some of their own gently-loved clothing and toys. Show them how happy it will inevitably make another child happy. And that new and more doesn’t mean better.
- As your children get older, consider how many electronics you have in your household and perhaps opt for one iPad, one TV, fewer phones, and fewer computers. Information technology – from powering internet servers to charging smartphones – is estimated to have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry's fuel emissions. How we shift our digital device and internet use rapidly is considered critical to whether we’ll be able to arrest climate change in time,” according to a Greenpeace analyst. Even if you're not using your device, by having home wi-fi active, you're consuming energy, Share devices on rotations, don’t just trade in your old models the minute the new versions hit the market – I’m known in my family for keeping a laptop computer for 8 years!) – turn off wi-fi when you’re not using it, and unplug devices before bed each night. And remember non-electronic device dependent activities – aka good old-fashioned play! Getting off of electronics more is not only good for our kids' minds and moods (the rise in depression and suicide in teenaged girls has exactly matched their increased use of social media), it’s good for the planet.
Each choice you make at home, when you shop, etc., is an opportunity to teach your children valuable lessons from a young age and raise them with an awareness of how their actions and choices impact the world around them. Can you imagine if the next generation was raised with this consciousness and respect for mama earth? A wave of environmental warriors who are passionate about loving and protecting the earth from their very first steps, words, and memories? I can…and I love the way it looks.
We can’t simply wait for policy makers, industry leaders, or the government to change the course of our planetary catastrophe – and with it – our personal health and safety and that of the next generations. The change has to start with us, how we live, what we teach our children, and our own health depends on the many little choices we make each day.