What do a can of corn, a take-out pizza, a reusable water bottle, a bright green yoghurt, and an inflatable pool toy have in common? They all contain food additives or chemicals that can be dangerous for children. Over the last few decades, the number of chemicals added to foods and other products has sky-rocketed. We have created all sorts of plastics that are used in innumerable ways. We add preservatives to foods to keep them fresh. We add chemicals to foods to make them look more appealing. We have made food packaging to keep food fresh. We add chemicals to lotions and beauty products to make them feel, look, and smell nice… the list goes on and on of the ways we have invented and used chemicals.
We did all of it for what seemed like good reasons at the time, but we are learning that many of those chemicals can cause real harm. In a policy statement entitled Food Additives and Child Health, the American Academy of Paediatrics warns about these harms — and points out that they often are worse for children. Children are smaller, so their “dose” of any given chemical ends up being higher. They put their hands in their mouths more than adults do, so they are likely to ingest more. Their bodies are still developing, so they can be more at risk of harm — and they are young, so the chemicals have more time to do more damage.
In particular, the policy statement warns about:
Bisphenols, such as BPA. They can act like the hormone oestrogen and interfere with puberty and fertility. Bisphenols can also increase body fat, and cause problems with the immune system and nervous system. They are found in the lining of food and soda cans, plastics with the number 3 or 7, and cash register receipts, among other places. They used to be found in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups; while this has been banned, older bottles and cups may still contain them.
Phthalates. These can also act like hormones, interfering with male genital development, and can increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. They are ubiquitous, found not just in plastic packaging, garden hoses, and inflatable toys, but also in things like nail polish, hairspray, lotions, and fragrances.
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs). They can lead to low-birth-weight babies, as well as problems with the immune system, the thyroid, and fertility. They are commonly found in grease-proof paper, cardboard packaging, and commercial household products such as water-repellent fabric and non-stick pans, among other places.
Perchlorate. This chemical also interferes with thyroid function, and can disrupt early brain development. It’s found in some dry food packaging, it’s used to decrease static electricity — and sometimes in drinking water.
Artificial food colours. These have been found to increase symptoms in children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. They are found in all sorts of food products, but especially those marketed for children.
Nitrates and nitrites. These can interfere with the thyroid, as well as with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the body. They can also increase the risk of certain cancers. They are used to preserve food and enhance its colour. They are commonly found in processed foods, especially meats.
So what is a parent to do about food additives and chemicals? These chemicals are truly everywhere, and impossible to avoid completely. Here is what the AAP suggests:
Buy and serve more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed meats, especially during pregnancy.
Since heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food, avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastic containers. Also: wash plastics by hand rather than putting them in the dishwasher.
Use more glass and stainless steel instead of plastic.
Avoid plastics with the numbers 3, 6, and 7 on them.
Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food, and clean all fruits and vegetables well.
And here are a few more ideas:
Cut back on canned foods and beverages in general.
Cut back on fast food and processed foods.
Read labels. Get to know what is in the products you use.
Look for lotions, soaps, and other products that are made naturally, and are fragrance-free.
Consider making your own home cleaning products. You’d be amazed what a little baking soda or vinegar can do.
The idea isn’t to get paranoid (although that’s an understandable feeling); the idea is to get informed, and to make some simple changes that can go a long way toward keeping children and their families healthier.