Food and Health Archive

Declining Sperm and The New York Times

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Declining sperm count?  Forget about it, declares the Science section of The New York Times.

Until this news blast, a great barrage of scientific studies, mostly from the U.S. and Denmark, had warned about a broad pattern of male reproductive troubles.  Studies concluded that sperm counts fell by nearly half between 1938 and 1990.  Other data tracked a worldwide decline in the ratio of male to female births since 1950.  Boys have increasingly been found to suffer from a complex of genital abnormalities, from a deformity of the penis to undersize and undescended testicles, as well as rising rates of testicular cancer.  Tests have shown lower sperm quality in the agricultural Midwest.   Couples are experiencing more and more trouble conceiving.

Scientists have repeatedly suggested that these troubles arise from the sharp rise over the past two generations of environmental toxins that saturate our everyday lives, especially those chemicals that disrupt our hormones (generally called “endocrine disruptors”), from pesticides on our strawberries to BPA (bisphenol-A) in our baby bottles.

Yet, in June this year, as the NY Times section reported, Danish researchers’ data appeared on a Danish website showing no evidence of sperm count decline during the past 15 years.

Seizing upon this data, one media outlet to the next, and one industry spokesperson to the other, have declared, ‘AHAH, we told you, there’s nothing wrong with pesticides or BPA or other such chemicals.’

But wait.  The new data did not contradict the fact that sperm counts are low.  Indeed, the data confirms very low sperm counts in young Danish men, so low that many are likely to have impaired fecundity.  The data just inferred that, perhaps, the count is not falling further.  As Dr. Shanna Swan, one of the leading U.S. researchers in this field points out, “one would not expect any trend to continue indefinitely (particularly something so critical for species survival). Of course they must level off at some point.”  And, as Dr John Peterson Myers, founder of Environmental Health Science, adds, “Public health measures were implemented in Denmark during those past years in response to the poor condition of Danish sperm” –another potential clue to why there was no further decline.

Furthermore, the material that was published on the web is not a report at all.  It is, rather, a leaking of some data from a study of Danish military recruits, started in 1991 and still in progress.

The data cannot be used to refute changes that took place before the Danes began studying these young men.  These data also do not refute the fact that there are dramatic differences in sperm count from one region to another, nor the prevailing hypothesis is that this geographic variation is highly likely the result of an environmental component or the finding that male children increasingly suffer from a web of interrelated problems afflicting their reproductive tract.

The section carrying this misleading article is the same NY Times Science section that, in 2007, proclaimed Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, to be “a hodgepodge of science and junk science, dubious statistics and anecdotes.”

In witnessing this sham debate, we are left to wonder: Don’t our children have the right to science that is not influenced by vested interests or ideology?

Alice Shabecoff
is a freelance journalist focusing on family and consumer topics, and co-author of the recently published book Poisoned for Profit
(Chelsea Green). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and International Herald Tribune, among other publications. She was executive director of the National Consumers League, the country’s oldest consumer organization, and executive director of the national nonprofit Community Information Exchange.

Radiation in Your Children’s Water

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Radiation now pollutes the drinking water in Tokyo, far from the scene of the ruined power plants.  Could that happen in the United States, with our 104 active nuclear power plants, the most of any nation in the world?

In fact, it’s already happened, and goes on still, not the outcome of a unique triple catastrophe but just from business as usual.  It’s not only major calamities such as Japan’s but also the day-to-day operating problems of nuclear energy production that threaten our children’s health.

At dozens of nuclear plants across the country, tritium, a radioactive atom, leaks into the millions of gallons of ground water and ends up in the supplies that the near-by communities use for drinking, bathing and cooking.(1)  Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is supposed to regulate nuclear power, does not require nuclear plant operators to test groundwater.  It’s a voluntary initiative.  The owners of the Vermont Yankee plant even denied the existence of the underground pipes that were leaking.

Nor are radioactive leaks the only commonplace dangers.  Last year, 2010, the NRC reported finding significant “near misses” of one variety or another, after making 14 special inspections. (2)   In addition, the mining of uranium and the debris left from making nuclear fuel release radioactive gases which spew radiation and other pollutants into the air and drinking water of near-by communities (3) and blow clear across the country.

Do such day-to-day radioactive toxins cause harm?  After fifty years of nuclear energy production and a flawed study done 11 years ago, last year the NRC took steps to find out.   It asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study whether people who live near NRC-licensed nuclear facilities are at an increased risk for cancer.

Sarah Sauer and her parents spoke last year at one of the public meetings the National Academy of Science’s expert committee is holding across the country.  Sarah, who has survived the brain tumor found when she was seven, lived then with her family near two nuclear power plants in Grundy County, Illinois.  These plants, operated by Exelon, our nation’s largest supplier of nuclear energy, had leaked tritium into the surrounding community for a long but unknown time.  Addressing the NAS,  Sarah asked them to remember that she is one of the statistics they are studying; her parents spoke of the numerous and serious leaks from the Exelon plants and the health concerns these leaks raise.  Sarah and her parents plan to return to talk to the committee.

But there’s a problem built into the study design: science currently measures radioactive harm by using as its “reference man” a male, Caucasian, between 20 to 30 years old, weighing 154 lbs, standing 5’7” tall, living in a temperate climate.  The study will not inform us about harm to children because children’s bodies are vastly more susceptible to all kinds of environmental exposures than adults.

It’s also logical to ask a related second question about potential dangers:  If nuclear plant operators not infrequently fail to protect their facilities from commonplace accidents, isn’t it inevitable that, sooner or later, they will fail to prevent a major disaster?  That’s exactly what the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s history indicates.

No need, though, to look for warning parallels anywhere but in our own backyard.  Think of our nation’s financial disaster of 2008, even termed a “meltdown.”  Recall the BP oil calamity.  Remember Enron, its lying top mangers and the lying auditors who were supposed to be its safeguards.  Look at the coal mining industry’s record.

The same web of malfeasance runs through them all.  The executives pursue huge and quick personal gain, the companies choose a good-looking if fake bottom line.  The governmental bodies that are supposed to regulate and protect instead become captive to the very industries they were founded to control.  (One example: The NRC successfully fought a law that would have required potassium iodide, an antidote to radiation exposure, to be stockpiled to protect people living near nuclear reactors.)  The top executives of the regulatory agencies come out of the industry for a few years, then return to their old buddies to earn even higher remuneration.

Huge and ever huger corporate donations pollute the entire political system.  Exelon spent a bit more than $3.7 million on lobbying last year.(5)  Companies and unions related to the nuclear industry spent more than $650 million on lobbying and campaign contributions from 1999 through 2008, and $84 million in the first three quarters of 2009 alone.(6)  Members of Congress vote for laws that protect their donors’ interests.

The parallel between nuclear and other industries extends to the use of tax-payer money.  Just as we the people paid to bail out the banks, the nuclear industry wants government guarantees.  After five decades of operation, why are private investors unwilling to take the risk?  Why did President Obama seek $36 billion of taxpayer money for loan guarantees for a proposed 20 new nuclear plants?  If accidents occur, federal laws cap the industry’s liability for damage to people and property; in contrast, other energy providers must carry full private insurance.  The corporate owners of nuclear facilities have already written off tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns.(7)

As always, when our children are harmed by an industry’s pursuit of profit over safety, families and taxpayers end up paying the financial and human cost.

The conclusion must be, that safe energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, despite their shortcomings, are the only way to power the future and protect our children.

Resources for Parents

Nuclear Information and Resource Service,

Wise Uranium Project,

Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Safe Energy Program,

Public Citizen,

Union of Concerned Scientists,


1.  Groundwater Contamination (Tritium) at Nuclear Plants,

2.  “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety,

3.  Poisoned for Profit, Philip and Alice Shabecoff, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010, pp 215-22.



6.  “Nuclear Industry Working Hard to Win Support,” Judy Pasternak,

7.  “Nuclear Power Still Not Viable with Subsidies,”

_ _ _ _

Read the original post on

poisonedprofit Alice Shabecoff is the coauthor, with her husband, Philip Shabecoff, of Poisoned for Profit.

Pacifiers, Underpants, and other Unexpected Places to find Nano Particles

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Have you noticed that many pacifiers contain nanoparticles of silver these days, and is that good? The manufacturers tell us this process makes the pacifier anti-bacterial, but why not just rinse it with soap and water?

What, come to think of it, are nanoparticles?

Manmade nanoparticles are groups of atoms manufactured from atoms in other materials, mainly carbon and metals, arranged into a new product, and characterized by their fantastically small size. They are between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers in size (in at least one dimension), that is, between one and 100 billionths of a meter. To give you an idea of how small that is, it would take eight hundred 100 nanometer-size particles side by side to match the width of a human hair. (The definition is still in flux. Particles up to 300nm in one dimension can also be called nanomaterials and can also have toxic properties.) Nanomaterials can be seen only with powerful microscopes.

The really essential point is, that they have unique chemical properties that differ from the properties of their larger scaled components.

Let’s get to the bottom line right here and now: products with nano ingredients are increasingly used in electronics, medicine, personal care products (even ones labeled as ‘organic’) and many other applications. The food and agricultural industries are using nanotechnologies to manufacture foods, food packaging, more potent pesticides, and more. A European report says these uses are “bringing in a fortune” to their manufacturers.(1)

But none of the uses have been proved safe. I wouldn’t stick a silverized pacificer in my grandchild’s mouth nor clothe him in nano-impregnated clothing. At least, not now.

No one knows just what these particles can do to humans, especially to children, nor to plants or wildlife, but what we do know so far is not reassuring. As consumers and parents, we are at a disadvantage because manufacturers do not have to disclose the use of nanoparticles on product labels (see below for help with that). Furthermore, there’s no one in the world regulating the manufacture or use of nanomaterials; nor is any public agency tracking them, so it’s virtually impossible to find out how many “nano” consumer products are on the market and which merchandise could be called “nano.”

Hundreds of nano products (as far as anyone can tell) are made from silver, which has anti-bacterial properties. Nanosilver has been incorporated into socks, tee shirts, underpants and other clothing, manufactured mainly in China, South Korea and other Asian countries - then marketed as germ-killing and odor-free. It’s also been added to toothpastes, shampoos, cosmetics, deodorants and sunscreen (allowing the chemicals to penetrate the skin more easily). And coated onto computer keyboards and mousse; added to toothbrushes, food storage containers, lightswitches. No one knows how much nanosilver is now in use.

In fact, because of its antibacterial properties, nanosilver should already be a regulated product. Silver itself, more toxic to aquatic plants and animals than any metal except mercury, is classified as an environmental hazard by EPA, and, silver nanomaterials (because of their higher surface area) release their toxic silver ions more readily than the larger forms (2) A drop of nanosilver has the polluting strength of a ton of silver. Fabrics laced with silver nanoparticles release those particles when the fabric is exposed to artificial human sweat, one study showed.(3) . EPA has not yet figured out what to do though the agency is proposing to grant conditional approval to a pesticide containing nanosilver.

Research has shown that nanoparticles can penetrate into places larger particles cannot go, such as through our “blood-brain barrier” which would otherwise stop toxic molecules passing from the blood into the brain. The particles also find their way into vital organs including the kidneys and liver, but precisely what they do to them has yet to be fully investigated. Researchers in the United Kingdom have found some nanoparticles in common household items can damage DNA without even penetrating the cells (the nanoparticles transmit signals through a protective barrier of human tissue and indirectly damage DNA inside cells).(4) Worms fed gold nanoparticles have up 90 percent fewer offspring.(5)

Once released from the product they were in, silver (and gold) nanoparticles, like all waste, first end up in your city’s sewage. There they inhibit the break-down of other waste products. And this throws into doubt the ability of cities, like San Francisco, to make “organic” compost out of sewage sludge.

The silver nano particles are non-biodegradable, so they cannot be removed but continue to circulate and accumulate over time in organisms, including humans. When the nanoparticles reach waterways, they are highly toxic to fish and the aquatic ecosystem. Gold nanomaterials are similar killers.(6).

The nanoparticles used in sunscreen, as well as in food coloring, paint, and other consumer products, are derived from titanium dioxide, the most common nanomaterial used in consumer products today. The few studies done so far indicate that fetal exposure, through the mother, alters the way genes involved in brain development express themselves (that is, how those genes turn on or off, to do what they’re supposed to or not). (7)

Manufacturers are now nanosizing lead and cadmium, two metals notoriously toxic and, when nanaosized, incredibly more dangerous. But the manufacturers will not disclose what products they aim to use these materials for.

What about the future, then? Most likely, some nano applications will be helpful, perhaps even miraculous, especially in the field of medicine. For example, the most harmful side effects of today’s treatments such as chemotherapy are a result of drug delivery methods that don’t pinpoint their intended target cells accurately. Researchers at Harvard and MIT are experimenting with using nanoparticles to deliver cancer treatments that target only the tumor without damaging normal tissue.

Perhaps the future will bring a “green nano technology.“ For example, a Maryland-based company is trying to make the world’s smallest organic solar cells that could be sprayed onto glass where they’d generate electricity.(8) A Kansas university is trying to develop a nanocrystalline powder that could theoretically absorb toxic air-borne particles.(9) Companies claim these technologies will be safe but no regulation yet exists to substantiate such claims. Not to mention that nanomaterials take huge amounts of energy to produce and throw off toxins during their production. (10)

If and when the law that’s supposed to protect us from all manmade chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, ever comes up for the improvement it desperately needs, new rules for nanomaterials will have to be included. The industry is of course gearing up to resist regulation as “increasingly difficult and far more costly.”(11)

For now, here’s a story with a moral: Samsung manufactures a line of silver nano-coated washing machines called “Silver Care,” capable of removing 99.9 percent of the bacteria in a load of laundry. These machines release 400 billion nano-sized silver ions in each load. When a different manufacturer looked into the usefulness of nanosilver in washing machines compared to regular washing machine technology, they found that washing clothes at 20C (68F) with detergent removed 99.79 percent of bacteria.(12) Thus, they determined, using nanosilver was not worth the environmental cost.

So if the benefit is, for now, minimal, and the health risks are substantial, the conclusion of one of the nation’s lead environmental health scientists, Dr. Jen Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council, makes sense: “Things that are in the nanoscale that are intentionally designed to be put into consumer products should be instantly required to be tested, and until proper risk assessments are done, they shouldn’t be allowed to be sold.”(13)

Resources for Parents

To identify products with nanomaterials:

While not comprehensive, this inventory gives the public the best available look at the 1,000+ manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market. You can browse products by name, category, company, or country. (This is a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson Intl Center for Scholars.)

If you have questions about a product not on that inventory, try to phone the manufacturer.

For a guide to sunscreens without nano ingredients:

To follow citizen-based research and actions:

Nanotechnology Citizen Engagement Organization.

Friends of the Earth Australia

For information on the effect of nanoparticles on women’s reproductive health:

Ask for a copy of the study from the University of California at San Francisco: [email protected]

— - - - - - - - - - - - - -

1. “ The Bund opens a database with over 200 nanoproducts.” The Organization for the Environment and Protection of Nature press release, December 14, 2010



4. Nanoparticles can cause DNA damage across a cellular barrier,“ Gevdeep Bhabra et al, Nature Nanotechnology 4, pp 876 – 883, November 5, 2009

5. Laura Cassiday, “Nanoparticles Worm Their Way Into The Food Web,” Chemical & Engineering News, October 7, 2010

6. Heather Hamlin, “Silver is a potent nerve cell toxicant,” Environmental Health News, January 21, 2010

7. Maternal exposure to nanoparticulate titanium dioxide during the prenatal period alters gene expression related to brain development in the mouse,“ Midori Shimizu, et al, Particle and Fiber Toxicolology July 29, 2009





13. communication with author

Alice Shabecoff is the co-author of Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill. The book includes guidance for parents on how to reduce risks for the children and how to change the system that allows these toxins in our children’s daily lives.

THIS BEATS AN APPLE A DAY: Food that Prevents and Heals Childhood Illnesses

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

The power of some foods to prevent and even heal childhood illnesses is nigh unto a miracle.

If Americans ate better, it’s pretty likely that you wouldn’t find, as you do today, that one out of three American children suffers from a chronic illness –asthma, birth defects, cancer, lead poisoning and mental-behavioral disorders. Mostly those children are sick because of their exposure to the massive load of toxics while in their mothers’ womb or early in infancy. They lost the battle against these toxics, though of course some children are more genetically more susceptible than others (1).

    How to get a young child to eat these foods?

Here’s what I learned (unfortunately, too late for my own grandchildren) from a wise friend:

  • “My children eat these foods because their taste buds are not polluted with synthetic flavorings or sugar. I was careful to not introduce junk food to her and to my son. Let’s face it, a carrot will not taste sweet and delicious if your child is getting donut holes or Captain Crunch for breakfast.
  • “Just because an infant spits out a food at your first attempt to give it to them does not mean that they don’t like it. It’s just different to them, so you reintroduce it time and time again until they accept it. Since babies learn a lot from facial expressions and voice tone, new foods should be introduced with a smile on your face and words of encouragement.
  • “We’re a one meal household: If there’s a family member who does not like a particular food I’m making for dinner, I will not make a separate dinner to their liking just for them. I will never cater to such pickiness. If a child skips a meal because they hate what you are serving, that’s ok because they won’t starve to death from missing one meal; however, there’s no junk food in the house for them to fill up on till the next meal.
  • “It’s more difficult to get a child who has been altered by having junk foods to switch to healthy foods, but it is doable with patience. I’ve made extensive use of children’s picture books that get the message across. When possible, children should be allowed to help prepare the meals or do the shopping. They also seem to like to grow the food and eat it right from the garden.
  • “P.S.: If your young child has a Fisher Price play kitchen set, throw out all the ‘garbage’ plastic foods that it comes with and replace them with plastic fruits and veggies.”

So it’s a major problem that, in too many families, neither the children nor their pregnant mothers eat the food that defends against toxic assaults. Of course, there’s a toxic point in all people, no matter how well nourished they are, but the threshold for resistance will usually be lower in poorly-nourished children and children with specific nutritional weak spots.

This is more than just ‘eat an apple a day.’ Today a lot is known about which foods will protect against which specific illness, drawn from recent discoveries about how our body’s systems work. (2)

One field of battle takes place in our immune system, where, as in all mammals, we generally have the ability to generate an army of antioxidants whose mission is to fight the “oxidative stress.” Oxidative stress is the ordinary result of our body’s perpetual struggle to rid itself of the by-products of normal cellular metabolism. Normally, our bodies win these daily battles.

But then, along come manmade contaminants. Such as PCBs, found in trace amounts in all of us, though those chemicals (once widely used in electrical equipment) were banned decades ago. Many types of PCBs wreak this harm by causing a huge amount of oxidative stress, far more than many people’s bodies can cope with; the stress ends up inflaming the cells that line blood vessels and, in that way, damages the cardiovascular system as well as the brain and nervous system. A child exposed in the womb to a dose that’s the equivalent of one single drop of PCBs in a bathtub can suffer a lowered IQ and a rise in attention disorder, and cardiovascular diseases later in life.

Manmade contaminants especially threaten children because their bodies produce lower levels than an adult of the master detoxifying antioxidant, glutathione. And some children make even lower levels, probably because of inherited genetic variations (see my article, These children are often the ones with learning and behavioral disorders.

So antioxidants, which you’ll find in many foods, are up there at the top of the list of nutrients we need to fight toxins.

food illustration

Cancer, too, is influenced by antioxidants. The higher the mother’s diet in the 12 months prior to pregnancy of vegetables and fruit as well as protein sources (such as beans and lean beef), the lower the risk of having a child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ACC). Again, what’s at work here includes the antioxidant glutathione, with its power to help make DNA and repair DNA damage. The study that found this connection also found that pregnant women who consumed cod liver oil and folate supplements similarly reduced the risk of their children suffering from ACC cancer. (3)

If a child during his early years consumes oranges and orange juice, which are packed with the antioxidant vitamin C, and eats potassium-rich bananas, again the likelihood of childhood leukemia falls. (4) A hearty consumption of fruits and vegetables high in beta carotene, another dietary antioxidant, and of foods with vitamin A (oranges, as well as yellow, orange and red vegetables) as well as the antioxidant vitamin E (sunflower and safflower oils, hazel nuts and almonds, wheat germ) also builds the body’s defenses against cancer. (5)

How about damage from lead and other heavy metals to your child’s brain and nervous system? It’s lessened if your child’s body has a good reserve of calcium, iron and zinc, all nutrients that found in a good diet.

Certain birth effects such as neural tube defects, cleft palates and cleft lips are linked to a deficiency of folate acid, a B vitamin found in abundance in leafy green vegetables, as well in lesser amounts in citrus fruits, beans and whole grains. Just to be sure, it’s usually recommended that pregnant women take 400 micrograms or more of folic acid supplements. (6)

Infertility, which is on the rise in the U. S., also reflects the influence of nutrition. Women are more likely to conceive if they follow a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, vegetable oils, and fish. (Some fish, however, contain high mercury levels, so you have to avoid them. Consult Fertility also requires enough iron and folic acid, and folic acid seems to bolster sperm quality in men. (7)

Endometriosis (where cells lining the uterus grow into other areas of the body), another illness on the rise, also responds to foods with anti-inflammatory powers and to foods with lignins, a type of fiber which helps remove toxic manmade hormones from the body. Lignin-rich vegetables include cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. (8)

The typical American diet contains too much omega 6, which mostly comes from processed foods and industrially-raised animals. Nursing mothers pass along the ‘wrong’ omega 6 to omega 3 ratio unless they seek out the right foods. The right foods, with their higher levels of omega 3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. are fish and fish oil, flaxseed and walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. For meat-eaters, some studies indicate that the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio is better in cows, pigs and chickens allowed to forage or fed on grass (which is one of the requirements for animals to be labeled organic).

The high-omega 3 foods are vegetables, especially green and orange vegetables, which are also high in vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc. (By the way, the uptake of zinc is damaged by high fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings.). And let’s not forget garlic, one of the world’s perfect products.

Besides health-giving foods, there are foods that parents should do their best to keep out of their children’s mouths: chicken raised with arsenic, beef raised with antibiotics, milk produced with growth hormones, and non-organic strawberries (doused with a particularly carcinogenic pesticide). It’s wise to be cautious about foods high in saturated animal fat, which includes butter, cheese, meat and processed foods, because many persistent chemicals concentrate in this fat.

About meat - one final note: Whether meat-eating is “good” or “bad” for you and your child is, as far as I can tell, still debatable. While one study shows, for example, that the level of toxic chemicals plummet after a five-day vegetarian diet, the benefits of meat eating is championed by others – see the book Nourishing Traditions. If meat is your choice, buy only grass-fed, locally-raised meats, which are less polluting and polluted, more humane and better for animals and the planet; and they do not contain as much saturated fat because of the way they are raised.

Can our nutritional troubles be solved by popping a vitamin pill or eating the ‘superfoods,’ also known as “nutraceuticals,” that our food industry is beginning to manufacture? Will “fat-burning waffles” or tomatoes pumped full of beta-carotene take care of our children’s needs? Dr. Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health says, “Eating nutrients in their natural state, in food, appears to have more positive effects than taking one chemical such as one specific vitamin and putting it in a pill.”

When your child is an adult and parent or grandparent, s/he will thank you for all this care. First, because s/he will have a lower likelihood of getting sick. Research has confirmed that disorders seeded in childhood set person’s cellular code for life and can cause illness at any time from conception until old age. So defending against these assaults can head off adult and old age diseases, too. And second, because disruptions to the way our genes normally work, whether disrupted by harmful foods or by toxins, can be inherited through several generations. So your child’s good or bad health will likely show up in your grandchildren and on . (9)

What It Means for You

Compared to 50 years ago, we Americans eat drastically fewer vegetables and whole foods. Yet we are bombarded by toxins in enormously increased amounts. In 1980, we manufactured or imported 200 billion pounds of manmade chemicals a year. Today that figure is 27 trillion pounds.

First and foremost, we as citizens should find ways to reduce the burden of toxins in our environment, and change the system that allows this assault on our children to continue.

As prospective parents, start eating healthy foods even before your child is conceived, at least twelve months before you plan a pregnancy. (One scientific article on the subject bears the title “You Are What Your Mother Ate.”) But that should include both partners. Some physicians recommend that pregnancy-planning women get tested for their nutritional levels; probably makes sense for the partner to be tested, too.

Reduce your child’s risk from all sources of pollution, including foods: consult the resource appendix in Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill (

True Food offers 8 simple, wise steps (in a visually appealing layout) for cooking, eating and cleaning in ways that are healthy for your family and the planet. Washington, DC: National Geographic, by Annie E. Bond, Melissa Breyer, and Wendy Gordon, 2010.

Anticancer: A New Way of Life, Viking Press, by David Servan-Schrieber, September 2008.

Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, Ted Schettler et al, Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Science and Environmental Health Network, Boston, 2009. The same nutritional advice that applies as we age applies to children. Rates food, applying an algorithm developed at the Yale Prevention Research Center, looking at over 30 factors to determine the score, including the calorie density and Omega 3 content.

Foods that score 100 are broccoli, blueberries, okra, orange, and green beans. Information on ingredients in manufactured foods, including a guide Healthier Food for Busy People.

Top Ten Foods and Drinks for Cancer Prevention, Melissa Breyer, August 3. 2010,; and 11 cancer fighting foods from Stanford University,

Food Matters, a documentary, see for information on purchasing this film.

1. “The Developmental Basis of Health and Disease,” Jerrold J. Heindel, Reproductive Toxicology, May 2007.
2. “Using Nutrition for Intervention and Prevention against Environmental Chemical Toxicity and Associated Diseases,” Bernhard Hennig et al, Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2007.
3. “Maternal dietary risk factors in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” Christopher D. Jensen, et al, Cancer Causes and Control, Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, University of Berkeley Press, 2004.
4. “Food consumption by children and risk of childhood acute leukemia,” Marilyn L. Kwan et al, Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, Berkeley 2004.
5. “Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention: Fact Sheet,” National Cancer Institute, undated; and “Modulation of the Effect of Prenatal PAH Exposure on PAH-DNA Adducts in Cord Blood by Plasma Antioxidants,” Frederica P. Perera, Cancer Epidemiology, August 2009.
6. “Acid May Prevent Clef Lip and Palate,” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, January 2007.
7. “The Fertility Diet,” Jorge Chavarro, Harvard School of Public Health.
8. Prevention of Endometriosis and Related Diseases, M. L. Ballweg, Endometriosis Association, Milwaukee, WI, 2010.
9. Poisoned for Profit, Philip and Alice Shabecoff, 2010, pp 97 ff.

How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

This article was originally published by

As we watched each of our five grandchildren and their friends enter this world and begin their life’s journey, it became more and more clear that something is amiss with this generation.  How are your children and your friends’ children doing?

Most likely, one of three of the children you know in this generation suffers from a chronic illness.  Perhaps it’s cancer, or birth defects, perhaps asthma, or a problem that affects the child’s mind and behavior, such as Downs Syndrome, learning disorders, ADHD or autism.  Though one in three may sound exaggerated, unbelievable, the figures are there amidst various government files.

This generation is different.  Childhood cancer, once a medical rarity, has grown 67 percent since 1950.  Asthma has increased 140 percent in the last twenty years and autism rates without a doubt have increased at least 200 percent.  Miscarriages and premature births are also on the rise, while the ratio of male babies dwindles and girls face endometriosis even in teenage years.

This generation is the first to be raised in a truly toxified world.  Even before conception and on into adulthood, the assault is everywhere: heavy metals and carcinogenic particles in air pollution; industrial solvents, household detergents, prozac and radioactive wastes in drinking water; pesticides in flea collars; artificial growth hormones in beef, arsenic in chicken; synthetic hormones in bottles, teething rings and medical devices; formaldehyde in cribs and nail polish, and even rocket fuel in lettuce. Pacifiers are now manufactured with nanoparticles from silver, to be sold as ‘antibacterial.’  What’s wrong with rinsing a pacifier in soapy water?

Despite naysayers (who pays them to say nay?—that’s a whole story in itself which I’ll write a lot about in weeks to come), it’s clear there is both an association and a causative connection between the vast explosion of poisons in our everyday lives and our children’s “issues.”  Over 80,000 industrial chemicals (tested only by the manufacturer) are in commerce in this country, produced or imported at 15 trillion pounds a year.   Pesticide use has leapt from the troubling 400 million pounds Rachel Carson wrote about in the 1960s to the mind-boggling 4.4 billion pounds in use today.   Nuclear power plants, aging and under-maintained, increasingly leak wastes, often without notifying their community.  The Gulf oil catastrophe will end up damaging a great multitude of the children living in those communities.

What could be more elemental than our desire to protect our children.  Children and fetuses, because of their undeveloped defense systems, are ten to sixty-five times more susceptible to specific toxins than adults.  These toxins diminish the capacities of our children…the future of our families, our communities, our nation.

Illness does not necessarily show up in childhood.  Environmental exposures, from conception to early life, can set a person´s cellular code for life and can cause disease at any time, through old age. This accounts for the rise in Parkinson´s and Alzheimer´s diseases, prostate and breast cancer.

Yet this is not the dispiriting ‘Bad News’ it might seem.  It is, actually, a message of hope and optimism.  We are fearful only when we are ignorant and powerless.  Now that we know what is happening, we can determine not to let it happen further.

These poisons are manmade; manufacturers can take them out of our children´s lives and make profits from safe products.  ‘Green chemistry’ can replace toxic molecules with harmless ones.  We can connect global climate change actions to environmental health strategies.  If we replace coal-fired power, in the process we reduce not only carbon but also emissions of the tons of lead, mercury, hydrochloric acid, chromium, arsenic, sulfur and nitrogen oxides that cause autism, Alzheimer’s and other public health menaces.   If we replaced our massive consumption  of oil, we’d diminish the ever-rising cases of childhood cancer.

We cannot bury our heads and hope it will all go away.  We cannot leave the job to someone else.  Some may feel the problem is so massive, it’s best to pretend it doesn’t exist.  But it isn’t more massive than we allow it to be.  It’s totally within our reach.

We are parents and grandparents.  There are 23 million children adversely affected by our toxic lives.  That makes (more or less) 46 million mothers and fathers, 184 million grandparents.  We are a powerhouse.  It is in our power to learn about what harms our children and to share our knowledge.  It is in our power as a community of citizens and parents to demand action against the current harmful policies and practices and against the indiscriminate use of processes and practices that destroy and degrade all life on our planet.

Alice Shabecoff is a freelance journalist focusing on family and consumer topics, and co-author of the recently published book Poisoned for Profit (Chelsea Green). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and International Herald Tribune, among other publications. She was executive director of the National Consumers League, the country’s oldest consumer organization, and executive director of the national nonprofit Community Information Exchange.

Kvetching About Sick Children

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Why do we write about, talk about, meet about and in general complain about children’s chronic illnesses in the U.S. when statistics show that, year by year, we Americans are living to an ever riper old age?

That’s a favorite got-cha question, intended to squash or at least minimize the impact of the damage we describe, usually employed by defenders of the right to pollute.  Sometimes, though, it can be an honest question posed by someone really wanting to learn.  So it’s worth thinking about.

Mostly, the steady increase in age expectancy results from modern hygiene that prevents the terrible contagious epidemics of past generations that cut us down in childhood or in the prime of our lives.  The thanks goes to Pasteur who discovered germs and their bad behavior, and to public health activists who figured out how to deliver clean food and water to the masses.  The decline in mortality started in New York City in the 1880s when the Croton reservoir was built.

Modern medicine must also receive our thanks.  I was about to die at age 13 from blood poisoning (an infected paper cut), but was saved by a shot of penicillin just made available to the public toward the end of World War II (until then it had been reserved for military use).  Modern technologies and diagnostic techniques, such as MRIs and CAT scans, are able to find potentially deadly illnesses and intercept them.   Modern medicine also brought (some) medical care to the nation’s poor who before that used to drive down life expectancy rates.

But, though it seems reassuring to hear that we will now live until our 80s or so, there are three catches.  First, the U.S. has not all that much to crow about: among the industrialized nations of the world, we rank 49th in life expectancy.   That we are among the richest nations but with such a poor standing puts us to shame.

Second, the oldest of the old are our nation’s most rapidly growing age group, thereby skewing the statistics.  But living longer does not necessarily mean really living.  It can be more a factor of aggressive medical technology putting off death.  Such as pacemakers inserted into the bodies of elderly with dementia.  Read My Father’s Broken Heart,

The third catch is, however, the most important.  The age curve doesn’t matter.  The death rate doesn’t matter.  What matters is the health rate.  And as a nation we are not healthy.  We suffer from a “new morbidity,” as environmental pediatrician Dr, Philip Landrigan calls it –new ways of living sick.  Among adults, it’s obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, Parkinson’s, etc., serious chronic illnesses that debilitate even if they do not kill us right away.

Among our children, one out of three is living sick.  Our children may not die, and thus bring down the life expectancy rate, but they are not healthy.  A lot of children with cancer now survive.  But we should not be proud, because childhood cancer was once a rarity.   The roster of illnesses, besides cancer, is well-known: asthma, birth defects, lead poisoning, the declining ratio of boys to girls, infertility, Down syndrome.  All of these are on the rise, and all can be traced back to exposures to toxins that were unknown one or two generations ago.

So to those who ask why we kvetch, we answer, children have the right to health.  If you’ve met a child who has lived through chemotherapy or the dozen operations it takes to fix a cleft palate, or a child with autism who has lost the ability to speak, you know that there are measures more important than the statistic of extended life expectancy.

We’ll stop kvetching when the epidemic of chronic childhood illnesses stops.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, just released in paperback, and available in our bookstore. The Shabecoffs’ website is

Save Money and Your Family’s Health

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

This article originally appeared on GrinningPlanet.

No smart and caring parent would spend a small fortune to end up harming her child. But that’s just what we do every time we enter a supermarket and come out with an armful of products intended to spiff up our homes.

We buy air fresheners, toilet cleaners, drain uncloggers, laundry fluffers, bug killers, countertop degreasers, bacteria-slaying soaps, silver shiners… and much more. In sum, an average of 23 different boxes, cartons, jars and bottles of house cleaning products, each with its distinct mission, crowd our cupboard shelves. Our typical expenditure is $15 a week. Household cleaning products have grown into a major industry, costing consumers $13.5 billion a year.

What’s in these products is a mystery. Manufacturers are not required by law or regulation to tell us the ingredients. Attempts in Congress to require full disclosure labeling are opposed by the companies, which prefer limited and voluntary listings, perhaps on a website.

When you discover the ingredients lurking in these products, you understand why the manufacturers hide them behind the veil of “trade secrets.” Of course, just because many of the ingredients are tongue-twisters that might bring back unpleasant memories from high school chemistry class, that doesn’t mean they are dangerous. But scientific research has proven that these man-made chemicals concocted on a base of petroleum can reduce fertility, trigger cancer, and intensify asthma. The most disturbing news is that a pregnant woman’s exposure may harm her fetus, affecting the child’s brain and behavior as well as his body (though, to be accurate, science now agrees that mind-body are one).

Chemicals In Household Products - A Few Examples

The chemicals in mothballs can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.

Glycol ethers, one of the chemicals commonly found in various household cleaners, are industrial solvents—used, for example, to clean gunk off machinery and computer chips. If a pregnant woman is exposed, even at low levels, her baby may suffer birth defects or damage to his developing testicles or central nervous system.

Even the commonly-used Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser releases 143 air contaminants. Seven (including chloroform, benzene and formaldehyde) can cause cancer; others are linked to asthma and allergies as well as harm to our reproductive and nervous systems. This discovery comes courtesy of independent lab tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization.

Air fresheners turn out to be among the most toxic products in our homes. The chemical analysis of one of the leading sellers, sporting the scent of a “Hawaiian breeze,” found this aerosol released 89 air contaminants. Its label disclosed only three. Of all the products tested, this “freshener” came in third place for polluting the air with ingredients linked to cancer, allergies, and reproductive harm; and if the exposed woman is pregnant, the ingredients could do damage to the fetal brain and nervous system. The plug-in variety contains “the most highly volatile chemical in the average home.” Even air fresheners labeled “natural” contain harmful ingredients. “Natural” is a term without any standards behind it.

Dryer sheets, another winner of the most-toxic-substance award, coat fabric with a thin film of artificial perfumes whose chemical components are linked to liver damage and cancer.

The anti-bacterial chemical named triclosan, incorporated into household cleaners as well as plastic shoes, toothpaste and underwear disrupts hormone systems, in adults and children. When combined with chlorinated water, triclosan can transmute into the deadly chemical dioxin. (It’s worth noting that triclosan is outlawed in many countries, including China.)

Switching from Chemical Cleaners to Natural Cleaners

We grab these cleaning products off the store shelves, convinced they work. Years of advertising have told us so. With our overworked schedules, we need to make it easy to get that sparkly clean.

The good news is, we don’t need these toxic commercial products. Non-toxic picture of cleaning bottles products are available in natural food stores and online, but it’s also easy to make a few basic products ourselves which work as well, if not better. Every ingredient you need is right there on the drug store or supermarket shelves. It’s actually fun to concoct these cleaning alternatives, and rewarding to see the results. And there’s so much less to worry about when it comes to long-term exposures or if a toddler comes across one of these products.

Next revelation: Contrary to what marketers would have you believe, we don’t need a dedicated product for each separate component of our house, from shower tiles to floors to underwear. Think of the storage space that will be freed up by slimming down from 23 individual cleaners to just 8 basic ingredients, all very safe. Who couldn’t use more storage space? Who can’t think of a good use for the money saved?

Natural Cleaner Ingredients and Solutions (RECIPES)

Basic ingredients to have on hand:

* washing soda
* borax
* vegetable-based liquid castile soap (found in the laundry aisle)
* hydrogen peroxide (drug store)
* distilled white vinegar
* lemons
* olive oil (buy cheap variety)
* baking soda (from your grocery store)

Buy a couple of spray bottles at the hardware or drug store (or re-use the ones the commercial products came in).

Here are some household products and the toxic chemicals in them. Natural green-cleaning alternatives are listed in the rightmost column.

Toxic vs. Natural Cleaning Products

Item Ingredients Alternative
Air freshener, candle Acetaldehyde, ethylacetate, BHT 1, propylene glycol, 1,3-dichloro-2-propanol, phthalates Simmer cloves or cinnamon stick or vanilla in water for 5 minutes
Air freshener, plug-in Formaldehyde, methylene chloride, benzene, propane Ditto, or set out a bowl of dried flower petals
All purpose cleaning powder Formaldehyde, toluene, acetaldehyde, chloroform, benzene, and lots more chemicals Make a paste of equal parts baking soda or borax and warm water or white vinegar
Dryer sheets Alpha-terpineol, benzyl- and ethyl-acetate, pentane, phthalates, chloroform, and lots more Dryer ball, reusable; fabric softener alternatives
Furniture polish Nitrobenzene, morpholine 1/4 c olive oil, 1/4 c white vinegar, 2 t lemon juice
Glass/window cleaner Ammonia, butyl cellosolve, d-Limonene, glycol ethers, isobutane, triclosan, monoethanolamene 1/4 cup white vinegar in 1 qt warm water, add a squirt of lemon for scent
Laundry detergent Phthalates, monoethanolamene, alkyl- and nonyl-phenol ethoxylates, aluminum hydroxide Add 1/2 c borax or 1/2 cup baking soda to phosphate-free liquid. Soak clothes in hydrogen peroxide for 1/2 hour to whiten.
Mothballs Naphthalene, para-dichlorobenzene Wet clean (uses no perchloroethylene), then store
Shower scrubbing bubbles Glycol ethers, sodium lauryl sulfates Borax and water, applied with a scrubbing pad
Tile and grout cleaner Glycol ethers, monoethanolamine, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids Mix one part borax, one part baking soda, one part vinegar to make a paste
Toilet bowl cleaner Fragrance/phthalates, sulfuric acid, lye, ammonia, naphthalene, muriatic acid, lye Borax; or baking soda and vinegar; or flat cola; let sit for 1 hr

P.S. My own favorite recipe for my least favorite task, cleaning oven racks: Put them in your bathtub, cover with water plus 1/2 cup dishwasher detergent, soak a few hours or overnight. Amazing.

Resources and Ideas

1. Host a Green Cleaning Party — Buy a green cleaning party kit and hold a house party with your friends. This is lots more fun than ‘tupperware’ parties used to be, and a great deal better for your family and the environment. The kit is made and sold by Women’s Voices for the Earth.

2. Get Additional Recipes for Green Cleaners

* Care2
* Women’s Voices for the Earth

3. See Ratings for Brand-Name Natural Cleaning Products

* The Green Guide

4. Get Information on Ingredients in Other Products in Your Home

* — a searchable database of 900 consumer goods, from cars, pet products to children’s car seats, back-to-school items, and women’s handbags.
* Cosmetics Database — an eye-opening database of ingredients in cosmetics and other personal care products
* — helps consumers make better choices when purchasing toys and other children’s products