Like any expectant first-time mother in full-blown nesting mode, I spent an inordinate amount of time in my last month of pregnancy getting our home and the nursery “baby ready”.
The chemical detective
I deliberated over just the right shade to paint the walls, spent countless hours shopping for baby’s stylish layette, and assembled a stockpile of sweet smelling bubble baths and shampoos.
With the benefit of hindsight, what I wish I’d done with my time was research what was actually in a lot of these products.
You see, many of the everyday items we use on our babies and in our homes can contain chemicals that may have adverse effects on their health.
As a self-confessed borderline (now reformed!) germaphobe, nothing used to give me greater satisfaction than a freshly bleached bathroom. Sure, the bleach would burn my eyes and throat a little, but it was a small price to pay for a germ-free home, right?
When my son was born, I was conscious of not exposing him to these kinds of chemicals, which deep down I knew couldn’t be good for your health.
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I switched over to using good old-fashioned white vinegar (non-petroleum derived), tea tree oil and baking soda instead, and while it took a little getting used to (and a bit of extra elbow grease!), I felt comforted knowing my newborn wasn’t inhaling any noxious fumes.
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With the seed planted, I looked around my home and considered what other chemicals by bub was being exposed to. Was that lavender scented candle creating a lovely relaxed environment or doing him harm? Did my daily spray of perfume irritate him or did he associate the smell with “Mum”?
This led me to pick up a copy of Alexx Stuart’s Low Tox Life: A handbook for a healthy you and a happy planet. Stuart, an educator and wellness columnist, coined the term “lox tox” back in 2009, and through her website, Low Tox Life, provides e-courses, books, recipes, podcasts and blogs on how to reduce exposure to everyday chemicals and lead a more low tox life.
Like my own journey, Stuart’s was sparked by the impending birth of her son 10 years ago.
At her baby shower, the expectant mum received the typical haul of baby products like mineral massage oil and talcum powder and decided to do a little digging before using them.
“When I started to look at what was in some of the products I’d received, I was horrified to learn that 80 per cent of the ingredients were petroleum-derived,” says Stuart.
“That’s when I became aware of environmental toxins, especially endocrine disrupting chemicals. That really worried me.”
What’s up with all the nasties?
These days, there is certainly a growing realisation that the daily exposure to synthetic chemicals may have possible health effects, with many parents opting for certified organic cotton clothing, wooden toys over plastic and natural skincare products, but it’s still yet to achieve widespread awareness.
Chemicals of particular concern are the endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can be found in many everyday household and baby, items.
Scientists, industry and regulators though are divided on how harmful EDCs really are. With the inability to conduct human trials, scientists are limited to testing on mice and rats. These studies do show EDCs adversely affect endocrine function, but whether they have the same effect in humans is inconclusive.
However, the most comprehensive report on EDCs to date, the State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, conducted in 2013 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), highlighted some associations between exposure to EDCs and health problems, and called for further research.
“We live in a world in which man-made chemicals have become a part of everyday life,” the report stated. “It is clear that some of these chemical pollutants can affect the endocrine (hormonal) system.”
The report found the potential for EDCs to contribute to a range of conditions and illnesses including developmental effects on the nervous system and attention-deficit/hyperactivity in children, and even cancer.
Other studies have linked EDCs to everything from endometriosis, early puberty, altered nervous system function and immune function to respiratory problems, metabolic issues, diabetes and obesity.
The report went on to state: “Risk reduction measures need to be improved to prevent the adverse effects of chemicals on the health of children … One measure … is the minimisation of chemical exposures before conception and through gestation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”
Some of the main EDCs to watch out for are phthalates, found in synthetic fragrances and some plastics (think cheap plastic toys), nail polish, insect repellent, vinyl floors and synthetic carpet.
Bisphenol A, or BPA, which can be found in food packaging, food storage containers, water bottles and thermal cash register receipts. You’ll start to notice that a lot of products now state “BPA free” and in 2012 the Australian Government introduced a voluntary phase-out of BPA use in polycarbonate baby bottles.
The other two big EDCs are parabens and phenoxyethanol, both predominantly found in personal care products and make-up.
What’s a Mum to do?
Armed with this information, my home got a “low tox” overhaul.
I checked through the ingredients of the baby products we were using by downloading the Chemical Maze app and swapped them out for more natural alternatives.
We replaced a lot of my son’s synthetic clothing and bedding for more natural fabrics like cotton and wool and recycled his plastic feeding equipment.
I also culled a lot of the products from our home that contained synthetic fragrance like candles and certain cosmetics.
Was my home detox overkill? Perhaps. But to my way of thinking, if there’s even a slim chance of these chemical nasties having an effect on my son’s health (not to mention my own and my husband’s health) then I’m not willing to take any chances.
3 ways to create a low tox environment for your bub
While eliminating all chemicals and toxins from our children’s environment is impossible, there are a few easy and cost-effective ways you can at least limit their exposure.
1. Invest in a decent water filter
Babies in their first year have delicate little tummies so it’s worth investing in a water filter as tap water can contain chlorine, bacteria and other contaminants.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Stuart, “just a small benchtop water filter will do, or even a portable mini filter.”
At the very least, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that all water given to infants be freshly boiled and cooled.
2. Think about your indoor air quality
“Anything with synthetic fragrance – scented candles, reed diffusers, plug-in air fresheners, fabric softener – you should think about removing from your home,” says Stuart.
If you’re reluctant to part with it, “box it all up and pop it in your garage,” Stuart suggests. “After a couple of weeks bring it all back in, use it and see how your body responds. You’ll most likely find the smell overwhelming.”
3. Think about what your bub sleeps in and on
“Make sure they’re sleeping against a natural fibre,” Stuart advises. “You may not be able to afford certified organic cotton (the gold standard in natural fabric) but you can at least opt for natural fibres like cotton, wool and latex (for mattresses) over synthetic materials.”
“If you’re using a synthetic mattress, for example, consider purchasing a pure cotton mattress topper.”