The transition to parenthood brings many changes. Often, this is also the time when moms and dads choose to adopt a more natural, chemical-free lifestyle. And since little ones’ bodies and brains are growing and developing, there’s arguably no better time to do so!
I had a chance to pick the brains of Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green (queenofgreen.ca) and Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager with Environmental Defence Canada (environmentaldefence.ca) to get their top tips and recommendations.
Clothing and blankets
“Unfortunately, Canada continues to allow clothing and furniture manufacturers to douse children’s pyjamas, mattresses, and other upholstered furniture with toxic flame retardants,” explains Malas.
“When it comes to pyjamas, labels in Canada must disclose if they were treated with flame retardants,” says Malas. So as a first step, look at the label and find out if the pajama is flame retardant-laden.” Coulter agrees: “Choose snug-fit, certified organic pyjamas not treated with flame retardants.”
“Avoid synthetics like polyester due to the microfibres that end up in our oceans, food, and, now, the human gut.” Natural is the way to go! For all clothing and linens, choose natural fibres such as organic cotton, linen, and wool.
“Choose a crib mattress made from natural fibres—wool, organic cotton, hemp, and natural (not synthetic) rubber/latex,” recommends Coulter. “But they’re likely more expensive. Petroleum-based contents are what make some mattresses more affordable. You can also choose a mattress protector made from wool or organic cotton. It will create a barrier between your baby and that polyurethane foam mattress!”
Food and formula
Recent reports have found heavy metals and other chemical contaminants in premade baby and toddler food. Rice cereal seems to be of particular concern, potentially containing high levels of arsenic, as well as lead and cadmium.
Did you know?
Although the heavy metals found in rice come from the soil, it has been shown that white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the US had the least amount of arsenic, and white rice has less arsenic than brown rice.
An important tip for avoiding chemicals of concern from food is to eat less processed food and purchase more fresh food,” says Malas. There is a lot of information online for parents who choose to make their own baby food.
In general, try to choose organic foods and formula, as organic farmers do not use chemical pesticides or herbicides, and organic foods do not contain artificial preservatives, colours, or flavours.
Finally, canned foods are a major source of bisphenol A (BPA) exposure. Malas recommends sticking “to fresh food or foods packaged in jars or cans that you know are free of BPA and other harmful chemicals like PVC in the inner lining (check the company’s website or send them an email).”
Food prep and storage
Plastics, though cheap and durable, often contain harmful chemicals, including the notorious hormone disruptor BPA.
Coulter breaks it down for us: “Potential health effects from BPA exposure include breast and prostate cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and a wide range of developmental problems.
And phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”) are increasingly linked to endocrine disruption (interfering with hormone function) and reproductive and developmental problems, among other health effects.”
Did you know?
According to data from 2009 to 2011 (the most recent on file), 95 percent of Canadians have measureable amounts of BPA in their urine. While many companies boast that their plastics are “BPA free,” new research is showing that BPA’s alternatives, such as bisphenol S and bisphenol F are unsafe as well.
What’s a mom or dad to do? Reusable, recyclable, and nontoxic stainless steel is a great option for plates, cutlery, lunch kits, straws, and cups, advises Coulter. And glass is more durable than you might think—even for baby bottles!
If you must choose plastic, choose number 2 (high-density polyethylene) or number 5 (polypropylene). Remember that heating plastics increases chemical leaching: the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement advising against microwaving plastics or cleaning plastics in the dishwasher.
Skin, body, and hair care
Sad but true: sometimes the only difference between an “adult” skin care product and a “baby” skin care product is that the baby one contains fragrance. It seems that some companies have forgotten that babies are supposed to smell like babies!
Did you know?
“Personal care products do not have to disclose the fragrance ingredients,” explains Malas, “so stay away from products that only list the words fragrance, aroma, or parfum on the list, without telling you the ingredients that make up the fragrance.”
Fragrance isn’t the only problem. Read ingredient labels and use this list of common chemicals to avoid from the David Suzuki Foundation:
- BHA and BHT
- coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours listed as “CI” followed by a five-digit number
- DEA-related ingredients
- dibutyl phthalate
- formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
- parfum (aka fragrance)
- PEG compounds
- sodium laureth sulfate
Toys can contain a multitude of potentially harmful chemicals. Phthalates and PVC (in soft plastic vinyl toys such as rubber ducks), BPA, and heavy metals (in paints) are all concerns.
Look for trusted brands
Choose well-regulated brands made with natural materials and nontoxic paints and dyes. There are many conscious toy brands on the market to choose from! (Coulter, for instance, loves biodegradable crayons made from beeswax, soy, and other plant-based waxes.) Check out a company’s website to see where their products are made and how they’re tested.
Check second-hand toys
Be cautious with second-hand toys, as many were made before our current safety standards came into effect. Plus, over time, plastics can become hazardous as they break down.
Choose food-grade silicone
Coulter reminds us that “everything goes in the mouth for the first year. And teething can start as early as four months. Food-grade silicone is easily washed [and is] also free of BPA, PVC, phthalates, lead, cadmium, or heavy metals.”
A global perspective
Living a nontoxic lifestyle and keeping a global focus go hand in hand.
Choose fair trade
When researching purchases and going shopping for products that aren’t local, aim to choose products that support global workers and don’t use child labour. Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green, suggests purchasing fair trade soccer balls, basketballs, and volleyballs.
Tell your kids why
Take a few moments to explain to older children why you make the purchases you do. Tell them, for example, about overseas workers and choosing fair trade coffee. Check out fairtrade.ca/en-CA/What-is-Fairtrade for more information.
Take them shopping
Involve them in the shopping process if they’re old enough, and ask them to help by looking for certification labels on the products in stores.
Spic and span
There are real health benefits to keeping a clean home! Flame retardants (toxic chemicals often found in furniture, carpets, and electronics) “have been linked to cancer, adverse effects on the developing brain, and immune and reproductive problems. They are also persistent and bioaccumulative, which means they build up in the environment and our bodies,” warns Coulter.
Thankfully, dusting helps limit our exposure. As Coulter explains: “Household dust is now recognized as one of the most significant sources of childhood exposure to toxic substances, because it’s really a chemical soup with low levels of flame retardants: pesticides; phthalates; and metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic.”
Although there are “greener” disposable diapers made without harmful chemicals such as dyes, fragrance, or PVC, Coulter strongly urges parents to choose cloth diapers.
“Choosing to cloth diaper is crucial to living within the limits of our single planet!” she says. To make things easier, she recommends using a cloth diaper service, find a cloth diaper mom as a mentor, or taking a cloth diapering workshop.
She also recommends making your own wipes out of old receiving blankets, and “baby wipe solution with water and a squirt of fair trade, fragrance-free liquid castile soap.”
You’ve got this!
At the end of the day, going nontoxic is easy once you get the hang of it. When in doubt, simplify! As Coulter explains, “Less is more. You don’t need as much as you think. Keep it simple.”