Pre-Polluted: Canadian Babies are Getting a Toxic Start

July 1, 2013

By Anna Varriano

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I recently watched a segment on CTV News that highlighted the major findings of a new report released by Environmental Defence Canada, an environmental action organization that states its mission as follows:  “We challenge, and inspire change in government, business and people to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all.”

The report is called ‘Pre-Polluted: A Report on Toxic Substances in the Umbilical Cord Blood of Canadian Newborns.’  It contains first of its kind evidence that Canadian babies are getting a toxic start, with 137 toxic chemicals found in their umbilical cord blood.

The report was based on tests conducted on the umbilical cord blood of three anonymous newborns whose mothers lived in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas. I want to share with you the concerning results of this report, as well as some suggestions regarding what we can do to protect our health and the health of our future generations when it comes to toxin exposure.

Out of the 310 chemicals tested, 137 were found, in total, in the three babies. Of these 137 chemicals:

  • 132 are reported to cause cancer in humans or animals
  • 110 are considered toxic to the brain and nervous system
  • 133 cause developmental and reproductive problems in mammals

The CTV news report described these toxins as things that “shouldn’t be there”; however, if they are in the environment, why would it be a surprise to find them in anything and anyone who lives in that same environment?

The chemicals that were tested for fell into seven groups. These are:

  1. Dioxins and Furans. These are by-products of waste incineration and manufacturing processes such as pulp and paper bleaching.
  2. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These are flame retardants used in upholstered furniture, mattresses, electronics, clothing and other products (thankfully they’re being phased out in Canada)
  3. Perfluorocarbons (PFCs). These are used to make non-stick coatings used in cooking utensils, food packaging, and water-resistant clothing.
  4. Organochlorine Pesticides (OCs). Many of these are being phased out; however, residues from long banned ones like DDT are still in the environment
  5. Methylmercury. This is produced when mercury from things like coal burning power plants, mining and manufacturing, compact fluorescent light bulbs, thermometers, and electrical switches, enters the environment.
  6. Lead. Sources of lead include emissions from metal smelters, old leaded gasoline and paint, and impurities in products such as lipstick!
  7. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Even though these were banned in Canada decades ago, they are highly persistent in the environment and in the body; in fact, 96 different kinds were found in the umbilical cord samples.

Note: For details on the health risks associated with these chemicals, you can read the full report here.

Although this was a very small test, the results are consistent with larger tests around the world that all found a ‘surprising array of industrial chemicals in the human body’.

The CTV news report included a short interview with Douglas Haines, from the Health Canada Chemical Surveillance Bureau. What did he have to say about the results of this study? He made comments to the effect that the results were ‘not cause for panic’, that the levels found are ‘relatively low’, and that the potential impacts are‘very, very, small and subtle’. That didn’t sit right with me for a couple of reasons. First, it’s my understanding that toxicity assessments are usually based on what an adult can ‘handle’, and secondly, toxicity assessments usually relate to a single substance. The Pre-Polluted report relates to tiny, vulnerable babies, with immature immune and detoxification functions, whose cells, tissues, organs, and systems (in particular the nervous system, which includes the brain), can be easily overburdened by low level exposure to just a few toxins, let alone a cocktail of any combination of 137 of them! Thank goodness research is underway at the University of Montreal that will test 2,000 babies for chemical exposures in order to more fully understand the effects of these chemicals on infant health and development.

The other thing that didn’t sit right with me was a comment made by a parent who was asked how they felt about the findings of the report. They said something to the effect that “you can make yourself crazy worrying about everything all the time”.Well, there is some truth to that, but in this particular situation, I don’t feel that ignorance is bliss.

The thing that unsettled me the most wasn’t the findings of this study, but rather the news correspondent’s closing remarks, which were that until government and industries remove risky chemicals from consumer products, “mothers and babies have no way of avoiding them”.  I feel that is somewhat of a defeatist attitude.

While I absolutely agree that government and industry need to take action, it could take years for them to do so. Until then, do we all just throw our hands up in the air and say “Whatever! There’s not much we can do about it!”. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not a “whatever” type of gal, especially when it comes to issues that impact my health, the health of my family, and the health of others – especially when those others are our most helpless and vulnerable citizens – newborn babies – the only individuals involved in this situation who really can’t do anything about what they are exposed to. Poor little boos!

Yes, environmental pollutants are ‘everywhere’ – in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, and even in the dust in our homes. While we can’t 100% avoid them (unless we want to live like Seinfeld’s ‘Bubble Boy’), there are certainly things we can do to reduce our exposure to them and/or to do our part to avoid introducing more of them into the environment while we wait for government and industries to do the right thing. There are loads of things we can do, and I thought I’d share 10 things that I do to be proactive in an attempt to reduce my family’s exposure to toxins. I hope you will find at least a few, if not all of them reasonable and simple enough to start introducing into your day-to-day routine.

  1. Drink, and bathe and shower, in filtered/purified water. We have a reverse osmosis system installed under our kitchen sink that removes all chemicals and impurities from the water that we drink and cook with. We have another system installed where the main water line comes into the house to remove chlorine and other contaminants from the water, so that we are not bathing or showering in them. Remember that your skin is a super-sponge and can absorb toxins very easily (and then they will be absorbed directly into the bloodstream). We purchased our systems at Water Mart, in Bells Corners (Ottawa ON).
  2. When buying fruits and vegetables, I do my best to buy organic varieties of those that have the highest pesticide residues, especially if they are ones that we eat often. For an updated list, check out the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. It’s U.S. based, but since Canada imports a lot of produce from the U.S., I feel it’s still a relevant source of information.
  3. If you eat meat and animal products, whenever possible, buy them from local farmers who raise naturally pastured animals. There are so many farms and farmers’ markets in the Ottawa area to explore!
  4. Ditch your non-stick cooking pots, pans, skillets, baking sheets, etc, and use alternatives such as stainless steel, ceramic, glass, and cast iron.
  5. Get rid of all toxic household cleaning products. You can do most cleaning jobs with vinegar, baking soda, essential oils, and some elbow grease. There are also some great environmentally responsible, biodegradable cleaners out there. Do your research!
  6. Get rid of all toxic personal care products. Our skin absorbs things directly into our blood stream. My motto is that I wouldn’t put anything on my skin that I wouldn’t put in my mouth. I use coconut oil as a skin lotion and make-up remover. I often make my own toothpaste with equal amounts of coconut oil, baking soda, and a few drops of tea tree oil. Oh, and if available, buy unbleached toilet paper and other personal care products!
  7. Check out Health Canada’s consumption advice to avoid those types of fish that contain higher levels of toxic chemicals and metals such as mercury.
  8. If you have mercury amalgams or other metals in your mouth due to dental work, go and consult with a biological dentist. One that I know personally and can highly recommend in the Ottawa area is Dr. Farid Shodjaee.
  9. Eat more whole foods and avoid packaged foods with lots of ingredients you can’t pronounce or wouldn’t find in your own kitchen cupboards. This will minimize the burden on the liver, our major organ of detoxification, so that it is better able to deal with those toxins that we honestly can’t avoid.
  10. Regularly eat foods that will help to detoxify the body. There are loads of them. Here are a just a few:
    • Greens, green drinks, and sprouts. The chlorophyll they contain is a gentle and effective detoxifier.
    • Beets and beet juice. Beets support liver function and help it to process and flush out toxins.
    • Artichokes. Artichokes support liver function and help it to process and flush out toxins.
    • Parsley and cilantro. These herbs are known to detox heavy metals out of the body.
    • Mucilagenous (gooey/sticky/gel-like) foods such as aloe vera gel and juice, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and okra. They will ‘trap’ toxins and promote regular bowel movements, which are an important part of detoxification.
    • Fresh squeezed lemon juice. It supports liver function and helps it to process and flush out toxins.

For more tips on how to avoid other common sources of toxins in and around your home, check out this 2-page guide from Environmental Defence Canada.

Ideally, I feel that moms-to-be AND dads-to-be should take steps to ‘clean up’ their homes and bodies at least six months prior to conception, but it’s never too late to start!

One more thing. If this issue is of concern to you, I encourage you to take a minute right now to read and sign this petition which asks our government to improve the regulation of toxic chemicals to protect the health of Canadians. I just did.

Take control of what you can!

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