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Toxic Troubles: Top Environmental Health Threats To Children's Health

By Dr. Lawrence Rosen MD

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For my first contribution ever in 2006 for the Greening Your Life newsletter, I focused on my top 5 environmental health threats to children’s health.   This article in fact served as the template for the first appendix in my new book, “Treatment Alternatives for Children,” titled “Toxic Troubles.”  Deirdre Imus, in her foreword to the book, notes, “Nothing is more important than our health—except the health of our children. From the time they are infants and through young adulthood, nearly everything our sons and daughters eat, drink, inhale, swallow, or rub on their skin is determined by their parents often at the advice of a pediatrician.”  Indeed, I spend a lot of time in my practice teaching parents how to avoid common toxic pitfalls, if you will – a precautionary philosophy that helps create wellness, a much more effective strategy than attempting to reverse disease.   Here, excerpted from “Treatment Alternatives,” is my updated list of top environmental health treats to children’s health.  You’ll find more details on natural solutions to ameliorate toxicity and the science behind these therapies in Appendix A of the book. 

 

1. Heavy Metals

Numerous toxic elements cause harm to the environment and to people.  The most common examples include arsenic, lead, and mercury.  Heavy metal poisoning occurs when one of these elements is ingested, inhaled, or absorbed in either single large amounts or in small amounts over a long period of time.  Symptoms vary depending on the heavy metal exposure and on the individual's ability to excrete the toxin. Some of the most common symptoms of heavy metal poisoning include: headache, confusion, visual impairment, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and changes in skin pigmentation. Heavy metal toxicity is most serious for pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, and infants and children. Nutritional supports for detoxification of heavy metals include garlic, cilantro, vitamin C, N-acetyl cysteine, zinc, and selenium.

 

2. Endocrine Disruptors

Synthetic chemicals that interfere with the functioning of the body's hormones are considered endocrine disruptors. Some of these chemicals actually change the way the body produces hormones like estrogen and testosterone, thereby damaging an otherwise healthy endocrine system. These exposures can lead to early or delayed puberty, impaired fertility, or certain cancers. Fetal exposure to BPA and other plasticizers is particularly dangerous. Avoidance of these chemicals is the first crucial step. Interestingly, there are some natural remedies that may help protect us from the damage from these exposures, including probiotics and cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower) containing indole-3-carbynol compounds.

 

3. Pesticides

Human exposure to pesticides can cause health problems ranging from minor (e.g., skin irritation) to major (e.g., asthma, cancer, and neurological problems). DEET and permethrins - the active ingredients in most over-the-counter insect repellants and lice treatments - are neurotoxic at high doses. The best way to reduce or eliminate kids' pesticide exposure is to choose pesticide-free home, garden, and cleaning products and organic fruits and vegetables. Probiotics may help reduce pesticide toxicity by binding to the chemicals to make them more easily excretable.

 

4. Air Pollution

Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, and nitrogen oxide are all examples of air pollution that can impact the atmosphere. A range of sources cause air pollution including aerosol deodorants and hairspray, smoke stacks, and transportation sources. Direct exposures affect breathing, but of equal concern is the affect of air pollution on pregnant women and their babies. Air pollution exposure in these cases can lead to premature labor and neurological problems for the unborn child.  The risk from exposure to air pollution can be reduced in a number of ways including choosing transportation methods that do not emit harmful gases, utilizing recyclable and renewable forms of energy, and properly ventilating living spaces to prevent respiratory problems from pollutants. Maintaining healthy antioxidant and nutrient levels through intake of organic fruits and vegetables may also help limit the ill effects of air pollution.

 

5. Tobacco Smoke

The numerous chemicals found in tobacco smoke are easily absorbed by the lungs and directly affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. It has been known for a number of years that smoking tobacco can lead to a variety of cancers, respiratory problems, heart attacks, stroke, and emphysema. For children the bigger risk is secondhand smoke. The toxic chemicals exhaled by smokers can actually cause more health problems than those experienced by the person smoking. For children, this can lead to asthma, bronchitis, ear infections, or pneumonia. It is also thought to increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in babies. Pregnant women exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk of premature birth, stillbirth, and low birth weight. More recently, data has clearly shown the negative effects of third-hand smoke - that is, the effect on infants and children (including those in utero) via tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette has been extinguished. Nutritional protectants against toxic effects of environmental tobacco smoke include omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, turmeric and green tea extracts.

 

6. Climate Change

Global climate change clearly affects the environment and only now are we recognizing the major impact it has on human health.  Climate changes affect our health by affecting food supply - both crops and livestock. It also increases pollution, thereby affecting air quality and leading to respiratory problems, particularly in young children. Climate change will also alter the areas in which insects can live and thrive. This poses a problem in that insects that carry diseases will be more easily spread throughout the world. Pollens and molds also thrive in warmer temperatures. Changes in the earth's ozone layer lead to health problems in several ways. Breathing increased ozone is associated with respiratory problems like asthma. An increase in warmer weather means more exposure to harmful ultraviolet light. Studies also suggest that children who live in areas with known problems with air pollution are at risk of vitamin D deficiency and could therefore benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D, in fact, may be protective against a number of climate change-related health effects.

 

7. Radiation

While exposure to high levels of radiation can have devastating effects on one's health, so can low levels of radiation when one is exposed over a period of time. Ionizing radiation, found in X-rays and some UV rays, has the potential to cause damage to human DNA and has carcinogenic properties. Types of cancer associated with ionizing radiation include breast, lung, skin, and thyroid cancers. Though levels of radiation are relatively low in single X-rays, cumulative or sporadic high-dose exposure (via CT scans, for example) may endanger the growing bodies of young children. Radiation can also cause birth defects in growing fetuses. Exposure to high levels of radiation (specifically the iodine isotope 131I) through catastrophic disaster exposure causes a major increase in the risk of developing thyroid cancer. Potassium iodide can greatly reduce the risk of developing thyroid cancer following exposure to radiation. Allylmethylsulfide (AMS), a derivative of garlic, serves as a radioprotective agent, helping to protect the body from the potentially devastating effects of radiation. 

 

8. Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)

Electromagnetic fields (EMF) are fields of energy that result from the use of electrical devices. Cell phones are a common example and research is inconclusive thus far on the long-term dangers of prolonged usage. There are concerns raised by heat and EMF exposure to the brain through the thin area of the skull near the ear.

Both milk thistle and astragalus herbal extracts may serve as a protective agents in cases of EMF exposure. 

 

 

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Lawrence Rosen, MD is an integrative pediatrician and co-author of Treatment Alternatives for Children, an evidence-based guide for parents interested in natural solutions for common childhood ailments. He is the founder of one of the country’s first “green” pediatric practices, The Whole Child Center, in Oradell, NJ, and serves as Medical Advisor to the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center at HackensackUMC. Dr. Rosen is a founding member and Past Chair of the AAP Section on Integrative Medicine and is appointed as Clinical Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at UMDNJ. A graduate of New York Medical College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he completed his residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Dr. Rosen has been featured on Good Morning America, CNN, and Imus in the Morning, and he is a frequently cited expert on children’s and environmental health matters. He is a contributing editor and pediatric columnist for Kiwi Magazine, as well as a contributing author/editor for several books, including Integrative Pediatrics, Green Baby, and Pediatric Clinics of North America: Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Dr. Rosen serves on many integrative health advisory boards, including the Holistic Moms Network, Teleosis Institute, IntegrativePractitioner.com and Integrative Healthcare Symposium, Integrative Touch for Kids, PedCAM, Kula for Karma, and MarbleJam Kids.

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