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Invisible Danger? Parents Look Inside the Lunchbox

The following article is reprinted from the New York Times published March 12, 2006.


Published: March 12, 2006

REACHING into their nylon lunch bags at school, Casey and Cameron Lilley pull sandwiches made of organic ingredients out of wax paper wrappers, and sip water from coated aluminum containers from Switzerland. Their mother, Shawn Lilley, had carefully chosen the packaging.

At a recent gathering of kindergarten mothers in Seattle, Ms. Lilley told the women that chemicals could leach from plastic bags and other plastic containers into food. Since then, a few more kindergartners have shown up with sandwiches in wax paper.

“Shawn researches these kinds of things, and it’s not that much more expensive, so we switched,” said Linda Walker, who packs lunch daily for her three children.

Whether the information on chemical hazards comes from magazines, the Web or the playground, many parents are changing their buying habits to try to protect children from what they see as dangers. Information on what exactly is toxic, however, is scant and sometimes conflicting.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved 80,000 chemicals for consumer use, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, assistant director at the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Of those, 2,800 are produced in volumes of more than a million pounds a year, but fewer than half the high-volume ones have been studied for toxicity, he said.

Until more information is available about those chemicals, Dr. Trasande recommended that parents focus on common and significant risks, like lead, pesticides and tobacco smoke, in their children’s environment.

Some plastics contain additives like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. These have been found to be harmful in animal studies, said Dr. Wade V. Welshons of the University of Missouri in Columbia. And the Centers for Disease Control has detected them in the urine of a majority of the thousands of people it has tested in the United States.

BPA is approved by the Food and Drug Administrationfor use in polycarbonate packaging for all types of food “based on numerous safety tests,” according to the Society of the Plastics Industry, a trade group. But Dr. Welshons said a re-evaluation is needed, focused on the last five years of research. Many plastic bags and wraps are made with 100 percent polyethylene, so Dr. Trasande and others call them safer.

Ms. Lilley began buying organic foods nine years ago, when she became pregnant with her first child. Since then, the newsletter from the Puget Sound Community Co-op, where she shops, combined with Web research, has persuaded her to buy wax paper bags, dye-free detergent and other cleaners that emphasize natural ingredients. “There’s so much out there that I can’t protect them from,” she said of her children. “At least their home and the food they eat should be as safe as I can make it.”

Scientists can detect toxic chemicals in remarkably small concentrations in the environment and in foods, and even in umbilical cord blood. But studies showing that certain chemicals in high concentrations are damaging to lab animals may not indicate similar health effects from the much smaller doses to which humans are exposed, said Dr. David Eaton, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health. “Of course we should try to keep toxins out of our air, food and water,” he said, “but my motto is ‘prudence without paranoia.’ ”

The difficulty for consumers is knowing which, if any, changes to make in what they buy. And the decisions don’t stop at organic foods.

Expert opinions vary widely, and the gray area is vast. Dr. Charles M. Yarborough, a member of the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee of the E.P.A., said there were almost no easy answers for parents. “It’s hard to say something is dangerous or not dangerous,” he said. “There are questions of exposure levels, the age of the child, the toxicity of the chemical and other factors.” He added, “After all, water is toxic if you drink too much too fast.”

Dr. Trasande says children are especially vulnerable to toxins because their body systems are developing. “Once they go off track, you can’t hit the rewind button,” he said. Because of their lower body weight and proximity to the ground, where residue may linger, children feel the effects of household chemicals more than adults, he said.

Jeffrey Hollander, president of Seventh Generation in Burlington, Vt., says he has witnessed a growing interest in his company’s nontoxic, biodegradable household products, like laundry detergent. He attributes this in part to new parents who suddenly find familiar cleaners less attractive.

“Their attitude is, ‘Why take the risk that a product may be harmful if we don’t have to?’ ” he said. Sales at Seventh Generation have grown 30 to 40 percent a year for five years, to hit annual sales of $50 million, he said, led by products like unbleached diapers.

Parents’ buying patterns can lead to industry changes. While phthalates can be used in some children’s toys in the United States, parental pressure led the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1998 to ask manufacturers to take them out of teething rings and pacifiers, according to Dr. Welshons. “The science was there for some time before, but until parents exerted pressure, such as by not buying the toys, they didn’t change the formulation,” he said.

The same grapevine that encourages parents to stop buying some products can help sales of others. Since August, the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., has sued 24 lunchbox makers and retailers, after their vinyl lunchboxes were found by two independent labs to contain lead. E-mail messages flew from parent to parent.

Cool Tote, a company in Sparks, Nev., that makes lead-free nylon and cloth lunch boxes, found an immediate increase in sales on its Web site. “We started getting a lot more interesting to people,” said Bruce Clancy, the chief executive. Another site, also started to offer the product line and now sells about 100 Cool Tote lunch bags a week.

In response to public concerns, the Consumer Product Safety Commission tested 60 vinyl lunchboxes made by a variety of manufacturers, including

some named in the suits, and found that “in most cases, children would have to rub their lunchbox and then lick their hands more than 600 times every day, for about 15-30 days,” to create a health hazard.

Not everyone agrees with the government’s conclusions. The safety commission “has always lagged behind the most current science where lead toxicity is concerned,” said Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a co-author of “Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World.” “Most scientists who are actively working in the area now agree that there is no safe lead exposure level for children.”

A spokesman for the safety commission, Scott Wolfson, said, “We recognize there are differences in the opinions, but we all desire the same thing — that no child have lead poisoning.” He added, “There are federally agreed-upon levels of accessible lead beyond which children should not be exposed.”

IT may take a long while for parents to get much scientific information on what is toxic to their children. In 2000, Congress authorized the National Children’s Study, to follow 100,000 children from the womb to age 21. The goal was to understand how natural and synthetic environmental factors affect child development. The study would also examine why conditions like asthma, developmental disabilities, obesity and childhood cancer were on the rise.

Last September, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development announced seven sites where the study would start, including Queens in New York. Recently, though, the Bush administration proposed to halt the study as part of budget cuts. The cost for a national introduction in 2007 was projected to be $69 million.

A cost-benefit analysis was performed as part of the study’s preparation, said Dr. Peter Scheidt, director of the study. “The childhood illnesses and conditions that this study addresses are so burdensome and costly to the nation,” he said, “that any measurable impact the study has, even on one of the major conditions for one year, would pay for the cost of the study.”

Parents, meanwhile, will have to make up their own minds. “It’s not cheaper; it’s not more convenient,” Ms. Lilley said, “but if there’s even a chance it reduces our kids’ health risks, we buy it.”

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