Think back to when you were pregnant. How many times did you avoid something because you were worried about the effects on the body growing inside you? How many times were you, like me, taken to task because you dared to sip some champagne, nibble on some soft cheese, drink your daily latte? And why did you, or the people around you, feel it was important to care about these things? Because they affected your growing child.
Now what if you were told that your now growing child is coming in to daily contact with a substance that has been linked to cancer, obesity and other serious health complaints. Or how about a substance that has been proved to build up in the body is linked to baby boys being born with hypospadias (which is a birth defect where the opening of the urethra is in the wrong place) and undescended testes and is given as a reason why so many girls have breasts before they turned ten? Would you go out of your way to make sure you eliminate it from your daily life? Of course you say. But what if you found out that this substance was just about everywhere – in hairspray, make-up, kids’ toys, your car, the containers your food comes in and the containers you store it in? Would you still go out of your way to avoid it, or would it all just be too hard?
Recently there has been growing concerns about Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, a substance found in polycarbonates. If you have anything that is plastic and is relatively clear – baby bottles, some Tupperware containers, and water bottles – it probably has BPA in it. Many other products, such as the cans tinned food comes in, also contain BPA. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that interrupts hormones, which has been linked to various cancers, hyperactivity and other behavioural problems. Various studies have shown that there is a highly likelihood that BPA has an adverse effect on the development, both physical and neurological, of babies and children, with foetuses and newborns lacking the enzymes to break down these chemicals if they are introduced in to the body. The Danish government has banned the use of BPA in food containers for young children (including feeding bottles), and Canada and some states in the USA have banned its use in baby products.
Phthalates are a substance used in plastics to make products more soft and flexible. Since they are not chemical bound to the plastics, they can be released in to the environment relatively easily. They are also used in a wide range of things – almost all perfumes contain phthalates, as well as anything with artificial fragrance (think deodorants, shaving cream, shampoos, cosmetics etc. as well as air fresheners and many candles). Many toys are made with products containing phthalates, and your car dashboard is made with products containing phthalates. Even your shower curtain probably has phthalates in it – PVC uses phthalates, and most shower curtains are made with PVC. Inks, shoe soles, flooring materials – all of these things commonly contain Phthalates. Food may have phathalates in or on it due to its use in pesticides. Phthalates have been linked to a raft of problems, from low sperm count to precocious puberty,
Even if parents know about substances such as BPA and Phthalates, it can be difficult to know what to make of all the information. A recent article in the New Yorker explains the difficulty of knowing if studies conducted on animals, or even on small groups of people, can be reliably used to decide what is safe or not for the whole population. However, many of the reliable, publicly funded (as opposed to chemical company funded) studies are starting to show that there is a negative effect on human development due to these chemicals, ranging from potentially harmful to very serious. When you consider that pregnant women are strongly encouraged to avoid many things that could potentially, maybe, perhaps result in harm to the developing foetus, why is there not more government or community pressure to avoid BPA and phthalates, especially due to the effects on foetuses and developing children?
The answer could be because it is just too hard. Not drinking for nine months of pregnancy seems doable (for most), but avoiding something that is found in almost every ‘regular’ product means thinking about everything you purchase, everything you and your family consume. It would mean a radical change in manufacturing, the use of plastics (just think for a moment how much would be left in your house if plastics disappeared overnight. Not much I am guessing) and how we ship, store and prepare food. It would mean, in short, a fundamental change to how we live our lives. Yet if these substances are harming us and our children, should we not at least consider steps to eradicate them?
Some may dismiss fears over BPA and phthalates as the latest ‘health scare fad’, and it is their right to do so. But the fact is that it is our responsibility as decision makers about our own lives, and especially as the decisions makers for our children, to stay informed about the food we eat and the products we use. There is no guarantee at this stage that these substances will definitely cause problems for you and your children, and ever parent knows life contains a degree of risk. But perhaps informed risk is more responsible than just carrying on blindly because we can’t be bothered thinking about what we are doing. While it may seem overwhelming, the first step is to be informed. With all the resources available to us today, especially the internet, it is becoming harder to keep our heads buried in the sand and say ‘it’s all too hard’.
UPDATE: On July 1, major Australian retailers announced they would start to phase out baby bottles containing BPA.
if these substances are harming us and our children, should we not at least consider steps to eradicate them?
Natalia Forrest is a UK based writer and researcher with an interest in incorporating ethical and sustainable practices in to everyday life. She is the mother of a six year old.