Offsetting the Environment’s Impact on Our Children’s Health

Invited by Larchmont-Mamaroneck League of Women Voters (LWV), Dr. Maida P. Galvez discussed Nature Deficit Disorder, environmental factors at different stages of life, and various means for control or prevention.

There is increasingly greater evidence that the products we use individually and collectively, along with other environmental factors, have a profound impact on our health.

This was the topic that Dr. Maida P. Galvez, M.D., of Mount Sinai Medical Center, spoke about at Friday morning’s Larchmont-Mamaroneck LWV monthly breakfast, held at Hector’s Village Café. Dr. Galvez is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Preventative Medicine and Pediatrics and directs Mount Sinai's Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.

Michele Lewis, Director of LWV Programs, explained the reason for the talk. “Until now most of these studies have been done on older adults. Dr. Galvez’s research deals with endocrine disruptors during puberty and the influence of the environment on the development of children and adolescents.”

Dr. Galvez began by saying that chronic diseases are the principal cause of illness and death in children in industrialized nations. “There’s increasing evidence of environmental contribution to asthma, obesity, cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, and endocrine and reproductive development disorders.”

Dr. Galvez is director of Mount Sinai’s Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU), which is a network of experts in children’s environmental health. Her talk provided findings, advice, and resources. 

Over 80,000 chemicals are in production, most of which have not been tested, she said, and are found in most Americans, including newborns.

“Children are more vulnerable than adults, pound per pound,” said Dr. Galvez. “They process toxins differently, and have windows of vulnerability. Their brains are developing, and they have more years of future life after the exposure, meaning a longer shelf life for the risk of disease later in their adult life.”

Exposure to toxins primarily occurs at home, day care, in public areas such as playgrounds and in areas near hazardous waste sites.

Dr. Galvez listed the primary ways a child is exposed: inhalation, ingestion, dermal absorption, parenteral (brought into the body through a means other than the digestive tract, such as intravenous injection), and in utero.

Some environmental triggers and tools:

  • Mold, causing asthma. Management includes fixing the source of moisture and humidity. Consult the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Guide to Indoor Mold, and NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Guidelines.
  • Lead in homes. Check homes built prior to 1970. Ceramic pottery should be checked for lead glazes (Arcopal, a French brand, is no longer imported into the U.S., but still available online).  To test, try Lead Check
  • Lead in “charms.” While toys have been recalled, one overlooked “bio available” lead source is adult costume jewelry. Check toy recalls here.
  • Elemental mercury thermometer breakage. Guidelines: Never allow children or pregnant women near the spill, and never vacuum the mercury because it will vaporize and worsen conditions. Dispose only at a hazardous waste site, and call poison control in an emergency at 1-800-222-1222.
  • Organic mercury is highest in the following fish: tilefish, swordfish, king mackerel, shark. Lowest: shrimp, canned light tuna, tilapia, pollock, catfish. Limit intake to one 7-12 ounce serving of low mercury fish per week.

Simple steps for healthier living

  • Reduce usage of irritating chemicals (such as in cleaning products).
  • Turn on exhaust fans.
  • Ventilate—open windows, particularly important in schools.
  • Close off construction areas.
  • Follow EPA guidelines for schools.
  • Enforce “no idling” zones for air quality.
  • Get children to the playground. Dr. Galvez discussed Nature Deficit Disorder, which is a term coined by author Richard Louv to refer to problems like obesity and anxiety caused by children being alienated from nature. This is a particular problem for urban children when safety issues keep them indoors.

“Plastics have been in the news the last couple of years,” said Dr. Galvez. “Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are chemicals called plasticizers that make some plastics durable and some plastics flexible. There is concern that they mimic hormones, causing hormonal activities that can result in childhood obesity and breast cancer later in life.”

Phthalates can be found in toys, personal care products such as nail polish and fragrance, food packaging, medical supplies, certain medications and coatings and some building materials such as tiles.

The effect can show up in alterations in hormone levels, male infertility, asthma, changes in puberty and body size, decreased anogenital distance, and in neurodevelopment.

Phthalate exposure in infants can be traced to use of certain lotions (monoethyl phthalate and monomethyl phthalate concentrations); powders (monoisobutyl phthalate); and shampoos (monomethyl phthalate).

“There is evidence that prenatal phthalate exposure can result in childhood behavioral problems such as conduct disorder and ADHD,” said Dr.Galvez. “Europe is ahead of us in being precautionary.”

The European Union in 2005 passed phthalates legislation, as did California in 2009. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires safety testing and certification of all toys and products marketed to children 12 years old and younger, and bans phthalates in toys and children’s products.

To avoid phthalates

  • Avoid #3 plastics.
  • Read labels critically.
  • Choose fragrance-free products
  • Do not microwave food or drinks in plastics.
  • Do not put plastics in the dishwasher because of heat exposure.

“BPA  is found in 95 percent of the population. Adults have lower levels than children under six years old and adolescents,” said Dr. Galvez.

BPA is primarily used in production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It is found in some food and drink packaging, infant and water bottles, CD's and medical devices. Epoxy resins can coat some food cans, bottle tops, water supply lines, and dental composites.

Studies of BPA have linked it to issues of neurodevelopment and liver function, as well as  cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, and “controversial” cancer classification. It has been associated with aggression and hyperactivity in girls.

“Remember, legislation is really where this is at,” said Dr. Galvez. “The burden should not be on the consumer. The government should prevent these chemicals from getting into our homes in the first place, versus wondering later if they’re a problem.”

Basics to avoiding BPA

  • Buy BPA-free baby bottles, and stainless steel water bottles.
  • Do not microwave, boil or put plastics in the dishwasher.
  • Avoid canned foods, eat fresh.
  • Avoid #7 plastics. “5,4,1,2['good' plastics]…all the rest are bad for you.”

Other precautions include wet mopping and dusting, frequent hand washing, and shopping smart by reading labels.

LWV president Elisabeth Radow said, “Our obligation is to make a difference. We have to deal. We’re parents.” Nodding to New York State Assemblyman George S. Latimer in attendance, Radow added, “Write to George and to Albany. Public participation makes an impact.”

Latimer explained that, "every time regulation is presented, there is the counter-philosphy that we're killing business and jobs. That's the argument we have to overcome."

Acknowledging that the situation can feel overwhelming, Dr. Galvez said, “Parents can do the best they can by gathering information to make the most informed decisions for their family. And try not to stress too much, since stress is another known risk factor.”


Go to the "Uncle Sam" Google Government search for more information

EPA website

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry 

National Environmental Education Foundation

The Council on Environmental Health 

PEHSU toll-free number to speak with an environmental health expert, 1-866-265-6201

Katherine Ann Samon is a Patch columnist and reporter, and author of four books including Ranch House Style and Dates From Hell. Reach her at kathsam@aol.com, and visit www.katherineannsamon.com

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