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A new locally produced video covers everyday toxic threats to infants, children and adults -- and how you can avoid them.

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"Baby steps" can help babies who aren't walking yet.
  • "Baby steps" can help babies who aren't walking yet.

Our environment is a toxic dump of our own making, but that's hardly news. Half a century ago, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson noted that man-made poisons like PCBs were already found in the tissues of seemingly every animal on earth, including humans.

Carson wrote during the post-war explosion of chemicals that were marketed as life-enhancing, when in fact many were toxic. But while stuff like DDT has been outlawed (in the U.S., at least), recent decades have seen rising evidence that our increasingly synthetic environment harbors threats perhaps even more insidious.

It's no longer just pesticides, smokestack emissions and factory effluent looming. Research suggests that a host of consumer goods pose health risks, including products we ingest and apply directly to our bodies. They're in everything from liquid soap to the plastic containers that package them, from food and children's toys to furniture and carpeting.

These toxins, including potential carcinogens and "endocrine disrupters" (which interrupt normal functioning of hormones), are bad for adults. But researchers say they can do even more harm to fetuses, infants and small children. Very small doses of the wrong stuff at the wrong time in a child's development can have lasting ill effects, from birth defects to chronic diseases, scientists say. And such substances of course also damage the environment we all call home. 

A new DVD from UPMC Magee Women's Hospital and the Heinz Endowments joins the growing effort to explain and confront the problem.

Baby Steps to Green Parenting (produced by locally based Panta Rhei Media) explores the burgeoning field of "environmental health" in six short chapters, totaling 50 minutes of screen time. Real health-care providers offer commentary, while actors portraying parents and expectant parents tell how to make one's home and lifestyle safer and less damaging environmentally.

The challenge is daunting: Some 80,000 man-made chemicals are in commercial use, hardly any tested for safety. But as the video emphasizes, it's easier to prevent health problems in children than to treat them later. And many steps are pretty easy.

For instance, the video promotes limiting use of toxic cleaners and pesticides in the home, and recommends alternatives (like cleaning with baking soda or white vinegar). It condemns antibacterial soaps, which clean no better but can contain pesticides, and may help breed antibiotic-resistant "super-germs."

Baby Steps also says: Scrap Teflon cookware; use alternatives to plastic whenever possible; and avoid pressed-wood products, whose glues emit toxic fumes. The video advocates breast-feeding, and offers dietary tips like eating organic food and avoiding milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone.

If it all seems overwhelming, the video's mantra reassures: "You can't change everything, but you can change some things."

Magee has been confronting such issues for years: The hospital rid its nurseries of PVC a decade ago, for example, says coordinator of Environmental Health Initiatives Judy Focareta, a nurse interviewed in Baby Steps.

But lately, awareness of environmental health is booming: April's Women's Health & the Environment Conference, held in Pittsburgh, featured not only the premiere of the Baby Steps DVD but also speeches by both U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and EPA chief Lisa Jackson. Other speakers included the co-authors of the new book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things.

Focareta touts Baby Steps as more comprehensive and accessible than other parenting resources on the topic. The video is available online at www.magee.upmc.com. Magee is also distributing it to health-care providers, including a planned 5,000 at a national conference for women's-health nurses in Nashville, in June.

Baby Steps concludes with a brief pitch for greener government policy: better labeling and regulation of toxins, for instance.

Patricia M. DeMarco agrees that while consumer awareness is vital, ultimately better policy is the key.

DeMarco, executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead, says there are simply too many ways people are exposed to toxins to fix the problem solely by consumer-choice campaigns. New laws -- like the recently introduced federal Safe Chemicals Act -- are needed to ensure testing of new and existing chemicals, to protect consumers and chemical workers, and to promote nontoxic alternatives through "green chemistry."

Says DeMarco, "You can't buy your way out of exposure to this stuff."

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