Kilogram for kilogram, babies eat more food, drink more liquids and breathe more air than adults, thereby taking in more toxins from their environment. Blood tests regularly show higher per-kilogram chemical loads in babies, but that falls as they age.
Babies are more likely to be on the floor, putting objects in their mouths and ingesting more dust known to contain pollutants from household plastics, treated fabrics, sprays and deodorizers.
At the same time, concern is growing over the cumulative effects of chemicals found to persist in the body long after exposure. That’s why industry watchdogs say there needs to be even more restrictions on substances, such as phthalate plasticizers, that accumulate in humans.
While Canada has banned the hormone-mimicking chemicals bispenol A and phthalates from plastic baby products, groups such as Toronto-based Environmental Defence say there should be a complete prohibition to reduce the number of toxic chemicals in the home. These critics site the rise in chronic childhood health problems such as obesity, asthma and autism to support their call for a complete ban.
Most recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in September that found children and teens with the highest levels of bispenol A in their urine were more likely to be obese.
The use of unnecessary but potentially harmful additives in everyday products — anti-bacterial soaps, for instance — is also under attack.
These are the areas of greatest concern:
Shampoos with formaldehyde-releasing chemicals 1,4-dioxane and quaternium-15
Concern: These chemicals used as preservatives in shampoo (and a host of other cosmetics) can release small amounts of formaldehyde, a known cancer-causing agent, into the air where it can be inhaled.
Antibacterial soap with triclosan
Concerns: Critics say triclosan could be another persistent, hormone-disrupting chemical and is an unnecessary additive to soap, toys and toothpastes. A recent Health Canada review determined it safe for humans, but found it could pose a risk to plants and animals after it goes down the drain and finds its way into rivers and lakes. The Canadian Medical Association has asked for it to be banned because it could promote drug-resistant bacteria.
Soft plastic or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) containing phthalates
Concern: Canada banned phthalates, which are used to make vinyl flexible, in children’s toys, baby bibs and teethers in 2010, but they remain in other household products, including shower curtains, flooring and items such as backpacks and pencil cases for older children. Phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals suspected of causing reproductive and developmental problems, including genital abnormalities in males. PVC flooring has also been linked to asthma.
Hard plastic with bisphenol A (BPA)
Concern: Bisphenol A, like phthalates, is an endocrine disrupter that interferes with hormones in the body. It’s banned in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups for toddlers in Canada, but remains in other plastic products. Animal research links it to aggressive behaviour, early sexual maturity and developmental problems.
Pyjamas or car seats with flame retardants
Concern: Flame retardants are coming under greater scrutiny because they persist in the environment and accumulate in humans. Their levels are rising in women’s breast milk in North America, for instance. Critics say they don’t greatly reduce a family’s risk from fire, but instead load people and the environment with unnecessary toxins. Animal research has linked some of these chemicals with cancerous tumours; others alter hormones.
Concern: What’s in disposable diapers? Manufacturers don’t have to make that public. But we know the super-absorbent crystals inside them are sodium polyacrylate which leading brand-names producers sometimes identify when they describe their diapers as very safe. The environment is a larger concern: every child uses thousands of disposable diapers that end up in landfills, along with the human waste in them. They are also bleached white with chlorine, a process that creates cancer-causing dioxins.
Petroleum jelly containing petrolatum
Concern: Since petroleum jelly is a byproduct of petroleum, groups such as Environmental Defence say it could be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) — some of which cause cancer — but Health Canada says that impurity has not been found in products here.
Sunscreens and other perfumed lotions containing phthalates
Concern: Phthalates are used in cosmetics, including sun screen, to keep scents strong. Health Canada advises not putting sun screen on babies younger than six months, keeping them covered or in the shade until their first birthday instead. Better sunscreen choices for little ones are those without perfumes, in a lotion rather than spray so that babies don’t inhale it.
Points to consider:
Children in low-income households often have a higher toxic load than others because they are likely eating more packaged foods, (bisphenol A is found in the lining of food cans, for instance), playing with plastic toys from the dollar store and living in older homes with decaying, lead-based paints.
Lead levels found in humans have plummeted since the 1970s when it was removed from household paints and gasoline after it was found to impair thinking, even at low levels, in children.
Parents are taking notice. A satirical online campaign called Nothing But Tears helped convince consumer-products giant Johnson and Johnson to phase formaldehyde-releasing ingredients out of its baby products by the end of 2013. It plans to do the same with its adult products by 2015 and also exclude the antibacterial triclosan, phthalates and parabens (a common preservative in skin lotions that is also an estrogen mimic).