For Children, the Biggest Hazards May Be Indoors

children indoorsParents worry that sending their children outdoors, to play, participate in sports or even go to school, exposes youngsters to a myriad of known and unknown hazards.

The world is a big and dangerous place for little people, made ever scarier by parents' visible anxiety, but in truth one of the most dangerous places for your young ones is inside your home. This is true even if you don't smoke.  

Environmental Expert (EE) reports that the risks from indoor dust can wreak havoc with emerging hormonal and immune systems. This dust contains alarming quantities of persistent and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), pyrethroids, dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), chlorodanes and phthalates, in spite of the fact that DDT and PCBs were banned in the 1970s.

Endocrine disruptors are substances that stop the production of, or block the transmission of, hormones in the body. This often interferes with development. The endocrine system, a complex web of hormone producing glands, regulates many of the body's functions, including physical growth, development and sexual maturation. Hormones also regulate the function of many of the organs inside the body. These glands - pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, thymus, pancreas, ovaries, and testes - release minute amounts of "messenger chemicals" into the body telling it when to wake, sleep, eat, grow more muscle and resize organs.

Some endocrine-disrupting chemicals can persist for many years, and children are at greatest risk from exposure because they are still developing. These disruptive chemicals can result, in later years, in declining sperm counts, genital and reproductive deformities, cancer, impaired neural development (imperfect eyesight, hearing, reflexes and even learning disabilities) and may influence future sexual behavior.

These disruptor chemicals are scarcely regulated. In fact, of the more than 2,000 new chemicals developed every year, only a handful go through any kind of screening process to determine their toxicity, and those tests that are carried out do not focus on endocrine disruption.

chrysanthemumsA case in point would be pyrethroids, developed about a decade ago from a species of chrysanthemum and heralded as the first, truly green insecticide. Used to treat bed nets in malaria-ridden third world countries, this compound also appears in indoor pest repellants, dog collars, flea shampoos, human head lice treatments, and even in the carpeting and sheathing for your home, where it is used to repel dust mites and termites, for example.

Pyrethroids in indoor air can cause shortness of breath, nausea, headaches, and irritability, especially when introduced to a home where heating or air conditioning circulates the compound throughout the dwelling. Because pyrethroids are neuroexcitatory, they cause nerves to fire repeatedly, which can cause numbness, burning, tingling and itching of skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. This altered reaction of the nerves, and brain, can lead to neurological abnormalities like shaking, weakness, reduced muscle strength, delayed response and balance changes. Over time, repeated nerve stimulation can lead to other neurological symptoms, and this is why pyrethroids are cited as a possible cause of ADD, ADHD, Parkinson's, Bell's palsy and even Alzheimer's disease.

Pyrethroids are lipophilic, meaning they store themselves in fatty tissue and are not easily disposed of via the liver, kidneys or digestive system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, reports them as the second most common cause of symptomatic illness as reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. This lipophilic, neurotoxic action is further intensified by the presence of piperonyl butoxide, which delay or prevent pyrethroids and other toxic chemicals from breaking down in the body. Pyrethroids have also been shown to harm chromosomes and break down the immune system.   

In the most recent EE study, dust collected from vacuum cleaners used to clean an apartment complex and a shared, community hall somewhere in the U.S. showed high rates of contamination with these various endocrine disruptors, especially phthalates and PBDEs (flame retardants). Levels of banned PCBs also occurred at rates that suggest these endocrine disruptors persist in the environment for at least three decades, meaning we have opened a Pandora's Box of ills that will not easily or soon be closed.

Although some PBDEs are being phased out in the U.S., on a region-by-region basis, they are already banned in the European Union, or EU, where a 2004 mandate recognized their dangers. Even Canada, with half the U.S.'s GDP and income per capita figures, recently announced a $300 million plan to put a leash on toxic chemicals. For all America's bragging about health standards, it really is behind much of the world in promoting chemical safety - a situation exacerbated under the Bush administration, whose bias in favor of corporate profits versus human health has left the U.S. on a par with China where product safety is concerned.

PBDEs are commonly found in soft goods like carpeting and furniture. Since young children spend a lot of time at or close to floor level, they face increased exposure. This, coupled with their smaller size and vulnerable, developing bodies, puts them at greatest risk. Studies from a decade ago show that PBDEs are 2 to 5 times higher in young children than in their parents.

Pyrethroids and PBDEs are just part of a larger picture of childhood hazards. In a report released by Greenpeace, called "Playing Dirty", game consoles like Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 Elite (PS3) and Microsoft Xbox 360 all tested positive for such toxic chemicals as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), phthalates, beryllium and bromine (from brominated flame retardants, or BFRs, closely related to PBDEs). In two instances, the Xbox 360 and PS3, the levels of phthalates were in excess of "safe" thresholds. Phthalates in toys and childcare articles are forbidden under EU statutes, and even manufacturers recognize that there are safer components and technologies available for making these items, which is why the 360 and PS3 tested safe or even negative for beryllium and brominated compounds.

Given that the game console market is approaching $11 billion in revenues, manufacturers should be encouraged to set aside some of their profits for developing these "greener" gaming technologies (and disposing of used consoles in an environmentally responsible manner). Parents can urge them to do so by boycotting the worst and e-mailing companies who won't get with the program.

Last but not least among disruptive chemicals are the phthalates, organic compounds used as plasticizers, or plastic softeners, and found in plastic toys, baby bottles, detergents and cosmetics, and even in paper manufacturing. These phthalates are suspected to cause cancer and reproductive defects, most notably deformed penises, absent testicles, early menstruation (as early as 8 years of age), and a host of illnesses in animals tested. Human testing has never taken place. Phthalates are also linked to an increase in allergic reactions like asthma and eczema, and to obesity and weight-related diseases like Type II diabetes. 

You, as a parent, can protect your child from these dangers by identifying which products contain these various chemicals and eliminating them from your home wherever possible. You can also check with your daycare center or school to find out what their exposure is to these detrimental substances. You can control the lipophilic and dietary aspects of endocrine disruption by limiting fatty foods like cheese, meat and fried or fast foods, and checking with your state's Department of Natural Resources to see if the fish you buy is contaminated.

Above all, do not heat foods in plastic containers, feed your baby from plastic bottles, store leftovers (especially fat-laden foods) in plastic wrap, or give your infant plastic teething rings or pacifiers. A little crying in the short run more than makes up for sterility, health problems or even early cancer in the long run. Finally, join a grassroots organization aimed at making the government more responsive to, and aware of, the dangers these uniquely 20th century chemicals pose to the future of our children in particular and the human race as a whole.

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  • Posted on Oct. 28, 2008. Listed in:

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