I was reading an article the other day on three-year-olds. I have a three-year-old, and I mistake him for a monster at times. His behavior can be shockingly crazy and defiant. In some frantic, “Oh my gosh, what do I do with this little person?!” moment, I of course went to Google and researched. I gave a large sigh of relief when I came across, “What Parenting Books Don’t Tell You: Three-Year Olds Are Jerks” Okay, I can just survive this phase, I thought. But, what if some of the “bad behavior” is a result of toxic exposure in our environment? I was introduced to this idea, and of course went to find out what I could remove to help my child’s brain and behavioral development.
Turns out, there are five major toxins that are affecting brain development in children. Let me give you the run down of these five.
1. LEAD: Dr. Jane Tavyev Asher, Director of the division of the Division of Child Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California makes a clear statement on lead in her interview on Healthchild.org. She says, “With so many chemicals hiding in our food, homes, and everyday surroundings, which is a top offender in your book and why? I would say lead. Lead has been studied the most, and so we know without a doubt that it causes serious consequences to the developing brain. Yet it is unfortunately still found too often in very surprising places in our home and environment.”
My immediate questions are where do I find lead? And what are the impacts it could have on my child?? Apparently, there is such thing as lead dust floating around in older homes. Your baby can be breathing in lead without you even knowing it. What can you do? According to WebMD, “If you live in a home built before 1978, have your home tested for lead. Ideally, hire a trained professional. Although less reliable, you could also test surface paint yourself with a home kit. If you have lead, look into abatement. It can be expensive. Often, a cheaper option is encapsulation — sealing the lead paint with a fresh layer of new paint.”
What happens when your child is exposed to lead? Well, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child’s development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death.” This is still a bit vague for me. I like to see specific symptoms that I can correlate, so the general idea is to take a look at your home and your child’s behavior. Ask yourself, “Is it possible that some behavior issues could be a result of some lead in our home?” From there, you can do some testing and possible talk to your doctor about testing your family for lead. Moving on to the #2 toxin.
2. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB): This one I had never heard of. BPA yes, but Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) I wasn’t aware of. We are mainly exposed to PCBs through contaminated food, and infants through breast milk. PCBs are particularly found in fish. The chemical is also stored in fat and blubber of animals. Usually, the older and fattier species have the higher concentrations of PCBs. Great Lakes fish and wildlife are shown to have the highest amount, so you can avoid those types of fish and check out fish advisories to see what fish are most impacted. You can check out some more sources of contamination here. To sum it up, there are a lot of possible contaimination sources: air, wastewater and food. So, how do we eliminate or monitor PCBs in our life? Here’s a great article/pdf that goes over details to reduce the PCBs.
To lower your family’s PCB intake, minimize the amount of animal fat you eat and make all seafood choices carefully. Thankfully there are many seafood databases online as well as apps for smartphones that list safer fish by contaminants (PCBs and mercury) as well as sustainability. Certain common fish notoriously high in good nutrients are also high in PCBs, including Atlantic as well as farmed salmon. In 2014 the FDA reinforced that isn’t a good idea to remove seafood from your diet entirely, suggesting kids and pregnant moms consume more, not less seafood. Rely on the online databases to find out how many meals of any given fish are safe to eat per month. Cooking fish and meat so the fat drips away from the flesh is another way to reduce the PCBs in your finished. See more of simple, everyday guidelines here. The third toxin is one that I’ve heard of, but never thought much of.
3. Arsenic: Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil. The element seeps and swirls around in soil and rock, then makes it way into groundwater. Arsenic didn’t receive much attention, until studies and researchers found damage and toxicity at low doses. Officials were aware of high-level toxicity, but not of low-dose chronic exposure issues. They found that this type of exposure can cause respiratory problems, play a role in cardiovascular disease, and it is linked to skin cancer, diabetes and cancer in the bladder and lungs. You can read more on those issues and research here.
I was surprised to find out that there are many brands of rice that contain arsenic. Especially brown rice. Chris Kresser reports on a Consumer Report which showed that many brands of rice contain “significant amounts” of both inorganic arsenic (a carcinogen) and the less toxic organic type. Many of these foods are marketed to babies (rice cereal, for example) and, surprisingly, so-called “healthy” brown rice was found to have even higher levels of arsenic than white. Kesser goes on to bash brown rice as not a health food, and to substitute for white rice. There’s also more foods that can be high in arsenic. These are brussel sprouts, dark-meat fish, chicken and poultry and beer and wine. This article goes into detail on the specific contamination of each one. Many children love apple juice, and the FDA recently took on apple juice as a low-dose contamination source. Read on there here.
Children are particularly susceptible to chemicals and toxins. We experience more symptoms and behavioral problems that go unnoticed because we blame it on their age and development. Children’s brain and sensitivities are different from adults. The National Academies report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, found that children are quantitatively and qualitatively different from adults in their sensitivity to pesticides and other chemicals. This study and realization wasn’t done until 1993, and we are still learning the impacts.
Children have a greater exposure for their body weight, obviously because they are smaller. The food and water intake per pound is much greater than an adult, leaving children disporportionately exposed to the chemicals in the air, food and water. They also put everything in their mouth. In addition to the exposure amount, their metabolism isn’t completely mature. They haven’t developed the enzymes necessary to break down and remove the toxins from their body. This allows the toxins to sit in the body and disrupt normal development. As cells are forming and building, there are toxins affecting this process.
The important take-away is to take the time to look at your child, home, environment and diet. Are you feeding your child something that could be contaminated on a regular basis? Is your home older and in need of testing and updating? Start by asking questions and working your way through the answers. Talk to your pediatrician about advice and testing to find out the concrete exposure and affects on your family.