From the ill effects of too much TV to BPA and pesticide exposure, this year was a busy one in the realm of green parenting.
All parents want the best for their children, but it seems that everywhere we turn there are dangers for our children. From environmental toxins to advertising directed toward children, there are enough threats out there to cause any parent to constantly worry. It seems to me, though, that the best way to protect our kids is to be aware of the dangers and do the best we can to avoid them without making worry the central part of our daily lives. After all, children are much more likely to grow up happy and healthy if their parents do their best to be happy and healthy, too.
Here are the 10 most interesting Green Parenting topics that I covered in 2011. As we enter the new year, I hope that reflecting upon the previous year's most important issues will give parents information they need to raise their children the best way they can.
In March, I wrote a commentary on Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals. The book was the last straw for me in eating industrially-raised animals. It's been almost a year that I've been a vegetarian, and I'm glad to have removed my support of a system that holds profit as its only motive while, as Foer explains in his book, neglecting the environment, animal welfare and public health.
If you're concerned about these issues, I definitely suggest reading Foer's book, and even if you don't go completely vegetarian, even reducing your meat consumption is a wise move not only for your personal health, but that of the Earth as well.
With increasing concern across the U.S. about where our food comes from, McDonald's announced in late July that it was taking steps to make its Happy Meals healthier. By 2012, the company said it aims to reduce Happy Meal calories by 20 percent. McDonald's received the most press regarding its move to decrease portions of french fries in Happy Meals and add apples. What's still missing from Happy Meals, though? Vegetables, (unless you count pickles and ketchup!)
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released a report in November that said Johnson's Baby Shampoo contained two toxic chemicals, 1,4 dioxane and the formaldehyde releasing chemican quaternium-15.
The group had been lobbying Johnson's on this issue for two years, and noted in the report that Johnson's had removed the chemicals from some shampoos sold internationally, but not in U.S. products. In response, the company said that "the bond of trust we have with parents" is "most important," noting that some of their other products don't contain 1,4 dioxane and quaternium-15.
To be safe, I listed five shampoos and soaps sold by companies that don't use toxic ingredients. They're a bit more pricey than Johnson's, but in my opinion the extra cost is worth reducing our kids' exposure to toxins.
In July, I offered parents tips for reducing their kids' exposure to advertising that food companies direct toward them. Those suggestions included shopping locally for food and other goods as much as possible, limiting TV time and teaching kids about where their food comes from.
Astonishingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that, annually, kids see an average of 5,000 to 10,000 food advertisements, and most of them are for junk food. While the big food companies are trying to make a profit at any cost, the toll is high childhood obesity rates and the associated health risks.
A study that found that fast-paced television shows negatively affect young children's creative and cognitive abilities was the inspiration for a Green Parenting discussion on television use.
There are correlations between attention span and excessive TV viewing by kids, so it might be wise for parents to limit how much TV their children watch. According to the AAP, 39 percent of families with infants and young children engage in "heavy media use," or having the TV on for six or more hours each day.
The AAP notes that these kids spend less time reading, playing and bonding with their parents, and go on to lag in reading ability compared to kids who watch less TV. Moral of the story? Kids should spend more time reading, playing, jumping, running and pretending, and much less time watching TV.
In October, I covered a report released by the Breast Cancer Fund that found BPA, an epoxy resin used to line cans, present in six types of canned food marketed to kids. Surprisingly, two of those products were certified organic!
BPA is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the effects of estrogen in the body, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93 percent of Americans have BPA in their bloodstreams. While some legislative progress has been made to ban BPA from toys, bottles and food packaging has been made, the FDA maintains that BPA is safe, although it's announced plans for 2012 to devote $30 million to more research.
The Environmental Working Group released a report in June that ranked 53 fruits and vegetables based on their level of pesticides. Apples ranked at the top of the list, with 92 percent of 700 apples tested containing two or more pesticide residues. The group compiled the data based on USDA and FDA findings from 2000 to 2009 and said the purpose of the list was to help consumers decide which items they'd prioritize to buy organic.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization, announced in early June that electromagnetic fields related to wireless phone use is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
A working group of 31 scientists analyzed hundreds of studies to come to the conclusion that cell phones should be classified as "2B," on the same level as the pesticide DDT and chloroform, which is used to make Teflon cookware. The IARC estimates that there are five billion cell phone subscriptions worldwide, with 255 million in the U.S. Because children are smaller than adults, this additional environmental health risk is important for parents to be aware of.
In April, I covered the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute's second annual County Health Rankings report. Westchester County ranked ninth out of New York's 62 counties. The study looks at 10 environmental, behavioral and health factors and ranks counties based on available statistics.
In this column, I compared rankings for Westchester and the Bronx and found that there was a positive correlation between higher income and educational attainment and better health statistics such as low obesity rates, low smoking rates and good access to healthy foods.
In May, I covered a call by the American Academy of Pediatrics for the federal government to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which the group says hasn't undergone any "meaningful revision" since it passed in 1976. The AAP noted that the TSCA has only been used to regulate five chemicals and chemical classes and does nothing to protect kids from the "tens of thousands of new chemicals that have been introduced into the environment" over the past few decades.
In the month prior to the AAP's statement, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, which would update the TSCA to allow for the EPA to mandate testing by chemical manufacturers before new chemicals are allowed on the marketd. Sen. Lautenberg notes that of the more than 80,000 chemicals registered in the U.S., the EPA has only required testing of 200.
According to a 2010 report by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Campaign, toxic chemicals are related to ailments such as neurological disorders, cancer, infertility and asthma. "Conservative estimates show that if reductions in toxics led to even a 0.1 percent incidence of these diseases the US would save $5 billion annually in health care costs, and New York would save nearly $300 million annually," the group said.
While it's virtually impossible to completely deter our children's exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment, it is possible for parents to reduce exposure through being educated consumers.