Three recent studies have left some parents wondering if the cards are stacked against them when it comes to protecting their kids. New research on dangerous chemicals in vinyl lunch boxes, canned foods and dozens of rice products suggests that what we don't know could hurt us.

Children are most at risk, because “their developing brains and bodies, their metabolism and behaviors make them uniquely vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals,” according to research by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). The advocacy group's study this summer on vinyl lunchboxes and other back-to-school items found high levels of phthalates in popular kids' products. The chemicals have been linked to ADHD, birth defects, asthma, diabetes and other problems.

Another study that raised concerns looked at a possible link between the controversial chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and childhood obesity. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers concluded that BPA exposure could affect the body's hormones and fat cells. Hundreds of studies have reported that BPA, present in many plastic products and canned goods, may be linked to numerous other health concerns.

In a third recent study, Consumer Reports found arsenic in rice products, including organic infant rice cereal. This seemed symbolic in an especially troubling way, with the first solid food most babies eat containing a toxic chemical. Consumer Reports now recommends limiting consumption of rice products. Meanwhile, the FDA is conducting its own investigation, with results due by the end of the year.

While the jury may still be out on arsenic-laced rice, health advocates say they do not need further evidence that chemicals like phthalates and BPA do not belong in our food supply.

“It's really scary and frustrating to parents, because it's hard to avoid these things. I think a lot of people just throw their hands up in frustration that there's nothing they can do,” said Dr. Sarah Janssen, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a phone interview.

But Dr. Janssen, a mom who has a medical degree and a Ph.D., says that there are some easy steps we can take to help protect our families. At the top of her list is avoiding processed foods, which often contain chemicals. For example, phthalates, which in 2008 were banned in toys and cosmetics in the United States, have been permitted as an indirect food additive since the 1950s.

“Most people are being exposed because of the ways food is processed and packaged,” says Dr. Janssen. “If you think about all the plastic tubing, for example, that something might be squirted through into a plastic container, that's how the food is getting contaminated with phthalates.”

She recommends eating fresh foods, when possible, to avoid phthalates. To steer clear of BPA and other chemicals, she suggests not using canned foods. While some companies now boast that their cans are BPA-free, it's not clear if the substitutes being used are an improvement. As previously reported in Squid Ink, some of the new can linings may carry the same possible health risks.

“Just because something is phthalates-free or BPA-free doesn't mean that it's safe, because most of the alternatives have never been tested,” points out Dr. Janssen.

Simple dietary changes like avoiding processed and canned foods appear to make a difference. Dr. Janssen cites a study done in the Bay area, in which participating families' BPA and phthalates levels were dramatically reduced after switching their diet for three days to mostly fresh foods.

Dr. Janssen reported on her blog: “At the end of the study, the families returned to their normal diets which included canned food and sodas, take-out or restaurant food, and other foods, such as microwavable meals, packaged in plastic. After resuming their regular diet their BPA levels went back up.”

Another tip that Dr. Janssen recommends is to use plain soap and water, rather than anti-bacterial soaps, which may contain harmful chemicals. She also says it's a good idea to leave shoes outside the door and have “inside-only” shoes, to reduce tracking pesticides and other contaminants into our homes.

Dr. Janssen believes parents can influence businesses to do the right thing. After all, it was pressure from consumers that convinced manufacturers (and eventually led to some state laws) to stop using BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. One mom now has a petition asking the FDA to remove cancer-causing chemicals from food packaging. Another has started a petition to Disney, asking the company to stop selling lunchboxes containing phthalates.

“The more that the public is informed and the more that they demand change, the more that the marketplace responds to it,” says Dr. Janssen. “And that's really great. It would be better if the federal government were doing their job and ensuring that our products were free of chemicals that cause harm to us, but, in the meantime having parents and the public be informed is really important to drive change.”

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