4 Tips for Stocking a Kid-Friendly, Nontoxic Kitchen
By Molly M. Ginty
You shun Styrofoam tableware, buy organic oranges and even get your kids to eat leafy greens. But are you doing all you can to protect your children from toxic chemicals that may lurk inside their favorite foods?
"When it comes to pesticides, preservatives and other toxic chemicals, you need to set priorities for your family," said Kristi Pullen Fedinick, a staff scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) health program. "You may not be able to eliminate all potentially harmful chemicals from your kitchen, but you can work to minimize them."
Because their bodies are still developing and their neurological and endocrine systems are more sensitive than those of adults, kids are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals that pollute food. A recent study in the medical journal Lancet concluded that "children are at high risk of pollution-related disease." Health issues that are linked to toxic chemicals found in food include asthma; reproductive deformities; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); the early onset of puberty; and learning disabilities, lower IQ and other neurological problems.
When pollutants in food are ingested by kids who happen to be going through growth spurts, it's especially risky. "The stage from infancy to age three and the pubescent phase are critical times when these chemicals' influence can be even larger because of how the body is developing," said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist in NRDC's Health program. "During these windows, even small exposures can potentially have long-term effects."
Here are four tips for reducing that risk at home.
1. Mix it up.
Stay vigilant about your family's menu choices. But don't allow your kids to get too fussy in turn. "Young children have a tendency to like eating only certain foods," Rotkin-Ellman said. "But there was a documented case of a kid who had mercury poisoning because of eating the same type of mercury-laced tuna-fish sandwiches day in and day out."
By exposing your children to as many flavors, textures and varieties of food as possible, you'll not only expand their horizons but also help them stay safe. "I have a three-year-old son," Rotkin-Ellman said, "and by cultivating variety in his diet, I'm lessening his chance of getting overexposed to any single toxic chemical."
2. Feed them plenty of fruits and veggies, but avoid pesticides.
When shopping for produce, it's especially important to make your selections free of chlorpyrifos. This common pesticide has been shown to delay development and cause neurological problems, yet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has recklessly approved it for continued use on our crops. To avoid exposure to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides toxic to kids, choose foods labeled USDA Organic.
EPA Scraps Scheduled Ban of Widely Used Pesticide Known to Harm Kids’ Brains https://t.co/0TlRurL4pN @ewg @nongmoreport @NRDC @FoodDemocracy— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1491149696.0
"Organic food can be more expensive," said Rotkin-Ellman, "but from a health perspective, it's definitely beneficial for those fruits and vegetables your kids eat most." The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists are helpful guides, especially when making decisions about which items to splurge on from your grocery's organic produce section. Items on the Dirty Dozen list include strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes.
As an extra precaution, or when it's not possible to buy organic products, wash all produce thoroughly and carefully before eating it, and peel conventionally grown fruits and veggies.
3. Proteins are important, but stay away from those packed with mercury or raised with antibiotics.
When it comes to fish, the top concern is mercury. The toxic metal is often found in high concentrations in the bodies of fish toward the top of the food chain, such as tilefish, bluefish, grouper, king mackerel, swordfish and tuna. Children with prolonged or repeated exposure to mercury can suffer brain damage and learning disabilities. To avoid mercury contamination, serve smaller varieties of seafood, and look for mercury-free fish sticks for those who prefer finger food.
Gil Axia / iStock
When buying meat, poultry and dairy, opt for products from animals raised without the routine use of antibiotics. This helps prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in communities. Look for any of these labels: USDA Organic, USDA Process Verified Never Ever 3, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), American Grassfed, Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. Note that while animal products bearing labels such as No Antibiotics Administered, No Antibiotics Added or Raised Without Antibiotics communicate the producer's commitment to responsible use, they are not third-party certified as coming from farms where routine use of antibiotics is prohibited. Fortunately, there are now more affordable options in this category, especially for chicken products.
4. Cut down on processed foods.
Yulka Popkova / iStock
Scientists estimate that more than 3,000 chemicals are currently being added to foods during processing, often without safety testing first. Consider phthalates, additives that are used to make plastics soft and flexible. These harmful chemicals can make their way into food through packaging and the manufacturing process, and though they are known to disrupt hormones and impair neurological development in children, they "are used in much of the factory equipment that food goes through," said Rotkin-Ellman. "And as foods get more and more processed, their phthalate levels go up." In a recent analysis of macaroni and cheese powders by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging, of which NRDC is a member, phthalates were found in all 10 products sampled. The presence of these chemicals in "kid-friendly" foods is particularly troubling given that children's phthalates levels can be double those of adults.
While NRDC, our partners and concerned consumers continue to push for stricter regulation that prohibits risky chemicals in our food, here are some simple ways to protect your family:
- Opt for simple, unrefined foods with as few additives and preservatives as possible. Think melted whole cheese and not cheese powder. "The closer you are to a product as it originated, the better off you are," said Rotkin-Ellman.
- Avoid canned foods as much as possible. An estimated two-thirds of food can linings contain bisphenol A (BPA), which has been linked to behavioral problems in children. And higher levels of BPA can be found in canned acidic foods, like tomatoes. Unfortunately, a BPA-free designation doesn't guarantee safety because companies often replace this chemical with related ones.
- Don't buy foods containing artificial colorants and sweeteners. It's noteworthy that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows manufacturers to list these additives generically on food labels without spelling out what the specific ingredients are. Not only are consumers kept in the dark about what they're eating, but, said Rotkin-Ellman, "some artificial colorants and sweeteners have been linked to cancer and ADHD in kids."
- Have a baby starting solids? Choose oatmeal or multigrain cereals instead of rice cereal. A recent report found that infant rice cereal contained six times more arsenic than other varieties of infant cereals.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.