Protecting Your Child From Toxic Threats to Brain Development
Guidelines for children, parents, and future parents
1) Reducing Risks from Pesticides
*Nearly all pest problems can be solved without the use of toxic pesticides. Alternatives include the use of nontoxic products and
substances to kill or repel pests, and also the use of techniques that prevent pest problems. These range from companion planting
in the garden, to sealing cracks and crevices in the home where pests may enter. Many of these can be found in a variety of books
that detail specific nontoxic products, remedies and methods. Do not use pesticides in your home or garden unless all other
alternatives have been exhausted. Then try to use least toxic pesticides.
* Make sure your child's school has policies in place that emphasize the least use of toxic chemicals, including pesticides.
Many communities have adopted Integrated Pest Management techniques to minimize pesticide use. Parent involvement has
often been the catalyst to reassess the need for using toxic chemicals in the school environment. See if such a group exists
in your area as part of the national Healthy Schools Network. In order to protect your child from exposure when pesticides are
used, inform the school that you, as a parent, want to be
notified if and when pesticides need to be applied.
* Give your kids a varied diet, buying organic fruits and vegetables and other foods whenever possible. Peeling and/or
washing can in some instances remove surface residues of contaminants. Buying organic also helps support the growers and
distributors of organic foods, who are contributing to the creation of an overall healthier and cleaner environment.
2) Reducing Risks from Lead
* Have your child screened by your pediatrician or family physician for lead.
* If you live in a home built and painted prior to 1978, it is likely to have leaded interior paint. The paint should be tested
by a professional, especially if it is peeling. When possible, lead paint should be removed, but only by trained personnel,
since removal can create even more problems when not done properly. When lead paint cannot be removed, surfaces and floors
should be wiped regularly with a damp cloth, and children's hands and toys should be frequently washed. It may also be possible to
cover lead-painted surfaces with wallpaper, tiles, paneling or other materials.
* Check product labels for the presence of lead, and avoid the use of products such as hair dyes and lipsticks that may contain
* Run tap water for a minute or two in the morning to discharge water that may be contaminated from leaded solder (used for
sealing joints until 1986, and still commonly used in taps and water coolers).
3) Reducing Risks from Chemicals that Accumulate in Food
* Eating low on the food chain (more fruits and vegetables; less meat, dairy, fish and poultry) is an effective way to reduce your
intake of the persistent chemicals that accumulate in animals that are high on the food chain or long-lived. These chemicals
also accumulate over many years in humans, and are passed from mother to fetus during the most sensitive period of brain
development. Fetal exposures are therefore best prevented by lifelong dietary habits that minimize your intake of these
* Since these "bio-accumulating" chemicals are found mainly in animal fat, reducing your intake of animal fat reduces toxic
threats as well as risks for heart disease. Animal fats are found in dairy products (especially cheese), processed foods, meat,
fish, and chicken. You can lower your fat intake by consuming only low fat animal products, such as nonfat milk, and lean meat,
poultry and fish, and by cutting away any fat that can be trimmed before cooking.
* Mercury, unlike other bio-accumulating chemicals, resides in the muscle of the fish, not the fat. Therefore, high-mercury fish
should be avoided. Fish of concern include swordfish, shark, and freshwater fish in contaminated regions (commonly found
throughout the US). Tuna, which is moderately high in mercury, should be limited to about 6 oz/wk5 (for a woman of average
weight). [Read the articles about the harmful impact of mercury in fish:
"Too much tuna could harm
babies" and "FDA to review its do-not-eat list of
Before and during pregnancy and lactation, high and moderately-high-mercury fish should be avoided in favor of fish
which are lower in mercury and other bio-accumulating pollutants, such as cod.
4) Reducing Risks from Household Products
* Use less toxic or nontoxic cleaning products. Commercial brands are available, or you can make simple cleaning solutions with
substances such as baking soda, soap, and vinegar. The use of scrubbing pads and brushes can also eliminate the need for
chemical cleaning agents. Modern household and bathroom deodorant products (e.g., toilet bowl deodorizers, air fresheners, surface
disinfectants) and some cleaning products may contain solvents, suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and sometimes
5) Reducing Risks from Building Materials, Construction and
* Toxic fumes and dust are commonly present during demolition and new construction. Pregnant women and young children should avoid
exposure to home renovations and construction areas.
* Bonded wood products (plywood, chipboard), carpeting and furniture may contain and off-gas volatile organic chemicals and
other toxic fumes. Purchase nontoxic or less toxic furnishings and building materials when possible, such as solid woods.
* Installed carpets may be reservoirs for toxic pollutants (including lead, pesticides and dust). They should be vacuumed
frequently with a rotary brush, fine-filter vacuum, or eliminated when possible. Removing shoes when entering the house can reduce
carpet contamination by chemicals brought in from outdoors (e.g. lead, pesticides). Natural fiber area rugs are constructed
without chemicals, and, in contrast to installed rugs, do not require gluing with solvents. Like installed carpets, area rugs
may also be reservoirs for pollutants and should be vacuumed or shaken outdoors frequently.
6) Avoiding Solvents
* Numerous hobbies (e.g. painting, model building, furniture refinishing) and any activity using degreasers (e.g. automobile
repair) or non-water-based glues are likely to involve exposure to solvents. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should completely
avoid such exposures. Others should minimize solvent exposure by using these products only in very well ventilated areas, and
avoiding skin contact.
* Avoid chemical dry cleaning whenever possible. Air out freshly dry cleaned clothes outdoors before wearing or storing them
indoors. Leave windows open in the car when transporting newly-cleaned clothes. If you live above or near a dry cleaner,
have your home tested for perchloroethylene contamination. Women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing should
avoid any exposure to dry cleaning, including recently dry-cleaned clothes.
* Alternatives to traditional solvent-based dry cleaning are available. Wet cleaning processes using soaps and controlled
application of water have been found to be extremely effective, and well received by consumers. Urge your local dry cleaner to
switch to safer cleaning methods.
* Breast-feeding is recommended for a period of at least one year, since it provides a broad spectrum of important, proven health
benefits to the infant.9 These benefits include reduced risks for life threatening diseases as well as mild illnesses. For example
breast-fed infants have less pneumonia, ear infections, diarrhea, and meningitis in infancy, and later in life, appear less likely
to develop asthma, obesity and diabetes. Mothers who breast-feed return to their pre-pregnant weight more quickly, and have
improved bone remineralization and reduced risk of hip fractures in later life.
* While breast milk is contaminated by environmental chemicals, these exposures, unlike those of the fetus, have not been shown
to cause harmful effects. Since the chemicals in breast milk, however, do increase the chemical body burdens in infants, it is
prudent to decrease breast milk contamination. This can be accomplished by reducing consumption of animal fats, which are
high in cheese, processed foods, and non-lean meat and fish. Since persistent chemicals build up in the body over decades,
these dietary habits should extend from infancy through the
reproductive years. A diet low in animal fat prevents not only breast milk contamination, but more importantly prevents the
fetal exposures that have been shown to cause adverse effects.
* Breast milk contamination should be prevented at its source. The
margin of safety in breast feeding, and in fetal development, should be protected by reducing or eliminating the production of
these contaminants. For more detailed information, see What About Breast-Feeding? on
8) Alcohol and Tobacco
* Children whose mothers smoked in pregnancy, or who were exposed
to second hand smoke, are at risk for impairments in learning and
intelligence. Pregnant women should not smoke or be near others
who are smoking.
* Pregnant women should forego all alcohol throughout pregnancy.
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Published with permission from 'Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility'