We’ve all seen plastic water bottles that advertise themselves as “BPA-free,” but what does that really mean? Agatha and Dr. Greene take a look at some of the synthetic chemicals that commonly show up at home and in our food, including how they affect the human body, and how to avoid them.
Thankfully, our bodies are resilient organisms very well adept at clearing out the things that don’t belong. So even if there is a concern about one of the 85,000 (!) chemicals approved for use within the U.S., there are simple ways to reduce toxic exposures and, chances are, given the right conditions, kids’ bodies are remarkably resilient.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
Full Episode Transcript
[00:00:00] Agatha: Hi, I'm Agatha Luczo, mother of four.
[00:00:08] Dr. Greene: And I'm Alan Greene, pediatrician.
[00:00:10] Agatha: Welcome to Bambini Furtuna's Podcast, Mom’s Driven.
[00:00:14] Dr. Greene: Doctor Aligned.
[00:00:15] Agatha: Helloooo!
[00:00:17] Dr. Greene: Hey.
[00:00:18] Agatha: Welcome to Mom's Driven, Doctor Aligned. We’re so excited to be here today, and we're talking about environmental toxins. Like you mentioned, this is so overwhelming.
[00:00:28] Dr. Greene: So, there are nearly 85,000 chemicals currently approved for use in the United States. And here's the scary thing. Only a few hundred of them have been reviewed for safety by the EPA.
[00:00:41] Agatha: That's really scary.
[00:00:42] Dr. Greene: There's so many that are out there that we know are bad...
[00:00:45] Agatha: Did you say 85,000?
[00:00:47] Dr. Greene: 85,000! And only a few hundred reviewed by the EPA for safety. And some of them, we have no idea whether they're safe or not. So, I want to tell you two things that will help make it really easy to cope with that and understand how this impacts kids.
[00:01:03] Agatha: Okay.
[00:01:03] Dr. Greene: One of them is basically don't freak out. And the reason for that...
[00:01:07] Agatha: But I'm freaking out already. 85,000 is a huge number.
[00:01:10] Dr. Greene: It’s huge, but one of the substances we know of the most about is tobacco smoke and tobacco smoke is nasty stuff. It's carcinogenic and when people smoke, they're actually pulling it deep into their lungs; some of the most sensitive tissue that's out there. Really bad for you and we know that it can cause lung cancer. In fact, not just most lung cancer, 90% of all the lung cancer in the world comes from tobacco smoke.
[00:01:33] Agatha: And secondhand smoke is extremely dangerous as well.
[00:01:36] Dr. Greene: Right. But having said all of that, it takes a long time of a lot of exposure, but even lifetime smokers, only about 15% get lung cancer.
[00:01:45] Agatha: Wow!
[00:01:46] Dr. Greene: So what we're trying to do here is not freak out about a single exposure or even a year of exposure, but to minimize the risk, just to tilt the odds and kids' favor by surrounding them with great stuff. And so that's the first thing is not to freak out too much that just because you get exposed to something that's gonna be bad.
[00:02:03] Agatha: Right? But all these toxins also appear in greater levels in children than they do in adults, right?
[00:02:09] Dr. Greene: That's right. Yeah. Kids pound for pound, eat more, drink more, breathe more, and so they tend to have higher levels of these things. In fact, I should tell you years ago, I'm not sure if we've even talked about this, but years ago I did a study with the environmental working group. I was a physician on a study and it was called, Born Polluted. And basically what we did is we took the umbilical cord blood from babies right after birth and just analyzed it to see what's in there because nobody had ever done that before to this extent.
[00:02:36] Agatha: That's neat!
[00:02:37] Dr. Greene: And we found 287 different industrial chemicals in babies at the moment.
[00:02:43] Agatha: Oh my God!
[00:02:44] Dr. Greene: An average of 200 chemicals in these kids.
[00:02:47] Agatha: Wow!
[00:02:47] Dr. Greene: Now, the levels were really, really small. This is just the population we have with the current conditions kids have. It's not looking for a bad thing in the future, but the levels are really small. There are parts per billion, and in fact, one of the criticisms of this was if this parts per billion, it couldn't even matter, right? It's so tiny amount.
[00:03:05] But having said that, we know that the erectile dysfunction drugs, Cialis, works at a concentration of just 30 parts per billion. And so, of course, these chemicals could affect sexual function. We know that the anti-depressant, Paxil, can work at 30 parts per billion in the blood. And so how could these things not impact kids' brains. They easily put them level and development. And we know that albuterol inhaler that people inhaled the open up their lungs works at just 2.1 parts per billion. So, these chemicals could impact his breathing. We know that Nuva ring the, the birth control, works at only 0.019 parts per billion. So, these things could affect reproduction too.
[00:03:49] Agatha: Yeah, but there are high level is also in a newborn....
[00:03:52] Dr. Greene: Yeah.
[00:03:52] Agatha: Baby.
[00:03:53] Dr. Greene: Right. So, here's the thing. Rather than trying to defend ourselves against 85,000 different chemicals, there's really only three things we needed to defend and those three things are; what goes in the mouth, what goes on the skin and the air we breathe, and every one of those is pretty easy.
[00:04:12] Agatha: It sounds a little bit more complicated. I mean, it sounds complicated because there are so many, you know, you look at plastic bottles, canned food, there's so many things to think about.
[00:04:23] Dr. Greene: Yeah. There are a lot of things to think about. So , yea.
[00:04:25] Agatha: And like vegetables, like the pesticides, that go onto our foods. So, I guess the best way is just to grow your own vegetables and it's a fun activity for children to do, but making sure you wash your vegetables and your fruits well before you eat them. I just feel like it becomes a bit overwhelming.
[00:04:44] Dr. Greene: It can for sure become overwhelming, but the basic concept is simple to choose real food without a whole lot of artificial chemicals added in either the food itself or the way that it's grown and cooked and prepared in containers that are safe and we can talk about each of those things.
[00:05:00] Agatha: And reading the ingredients on all the bottles. I mean, there's a ton of toxins like oxybenzone and some of them I can't even pronounce, so I'm like, if I can't pronounce some of them, then I am not even going to buy it because it's not worth it.
[00:05:16] Dr. Greene: Let's talk then on the food front, one of the chemicals that's not usually listed as an environmental chemical, but I think it belongs there is high fructose corn syrup just as a big ingredient there. And somebody could argue that sugar is not any better for you than high fructose corn syrup and that's probably about true. But added sweeteners, added sugars of whatever the kind that they are are such a big part of kid's diet today and it's not part of normal environmentally...
[00:05:42] Agatha: And isn't it added in a lot of the baby formulas as well?
[00:05:45] Dr. Greene: And it's added in all kinds of baby formulas, it's added in all kinds of different foods and toddler foods.
[00:05:52] In fact, just recently showed that most babies are getting way too much added sugar. Most kids are! The average child gets 81 grams of added sugar a day throughout the year, which over the course of a year they would get 30-gallon jars worth of added sugar just from their beverages. Looks like a bathtub full of sugar just from what kids are drinking.
[00:06:17] Agatha: That's crazy.
[00:06:18] Dr. Greene: That's a huge amount that's really impacting health. So when we're talking about some of these other things, many of them have much smaller impact.
[00:06:24] Agatha: So, we can't list all the chemicals today cause there's 85,000 of them in just a few hundred of them have been tested. But we know some of the chemicals are also human-made like BPA. And some of the pesticides and ________ that are found in skincare.
[00:06:42] Dr. Greene: Yeah, we can talk a little bit about each of those, but remember, you don't have to remember everything about every chemical, just remember protect what in their mouth, protect what goes on their skin and with the air they're breathing.
[00:06:52] So BPA, bisphenol A is an ingredient that was actually first developed as an artificial estrogen, but then it quickly became used in the plastics industry because it can make plastic clear and hard and just work really well. It's a plasticizer. And the problem is that it also has effects like estrogen.
[00:07:14] There was a guy, Dr. Feldman at Stanford, who was doing some work where he had this Petri dish that had yeast growing in it, and he found that there was significant amounts of estrogen. He was shocked that estrogen would it be made by yeast. And later found that it wasn't the yeast, it was the Petri dish that was leaking into the fluid where it was coming from.
[00:07:34] And then after that we found out that baby bottles were by and large made with BPA plastic, and there was BPA in the formula or breast milk the kids were drinking.
[00:07:45] Agatha: Yeah, that's scary. So, they also show that low dose exposure to BPA and consistently, can cause other problems like early puberty, different types of psychological problems, aggressive behaviors in children.
[00:08:00] Dr. Greene: Yeah, it's pretty nasty stuff. For a while it wasn't quite clear, but now there's lots of research sign that it's not good and especially not good for kids before puberty. And there's some good news and bad news. It has now been taken out of a lot of things. Baby bottles and infant products, but it's been replaced sometimes by something called BPS, which doesn't have as much research behind it yet, but it looks like it's about as bad.
[00:08:22] Agatha: So, for baby bottles, always stick with that stainless steel baby bottles or glass.
[00:08:27] Dr. Greene: I'm a big fan of glass and stainless steel for drinking and for everybody is a really nice thing.
[00:08:32] Agatha: Just yesterday preparing for this podcast, I actually threw out so much plastic because I became terrified.
[00:08:39] Dr. Greene: So, if you are going to choose plastic for a food container or for something you're gonna drink out of, I would pick something with a recycling symbol one, two four or five 1245.
[00:08:50] Agatha: Avoid three and seven.
[00:08:52] Dr. Greene: Yeah and six two Styrofoam is for different reasons, but yeah.
[00:08:56] Agatha: Right.
[00:08:56] Dr. Greene: Totally agree. And then you definitely want to avoid microwaving in plastic because it drives the plasticizers into the food.
[00:09:03] Agatha: Oh yeah, no microwaving and also putting them in the dishwasher overheating.
[00:09:08] Dr. Greene: And you don't want plastics that have been worn out. But one piece of good news about BPA is, there was a study that was done in animals where some of them had, the pregnant moms had BPA and the kids offspring had the obesity and the metabolic problems and other things you would expect. But half of them, the moms just got extra folate, still got exposed to BPA and they didn't have the problems.
[00:09:30] So that suggests that good nourishing food can go a long way towards preventing some of the problems there. So eat your green.
[00:09:37] Agatha: Yes, eat your greens, but also another good news about BPA is that it exits the body pretty quickly. So, if you avoid eating canned foods and you eat fresh foods and a good diet, like you mentioned for at least three days, it decreases the levels of BPA in your body.
[00:09:57] Dr. Greene: Exactly and that's a great thing. The body can heal so quickly if we just give it a chance. So nourishing foods, sleep, exercise and avoiding the toxins a little bit.
[00:10:07] Agatha: Yeah. I mean you have a lot to think about cause I can't, food is lined with toxic chemicals, so just being aware of everything that you purchase.
[00:10:17] Dr. Greene: Yeah. Minimizing canned food. And where practical choosing organic makes sense. Now a food being organic doesn't mean that it's necessarily healthy. It's not about health. It's about how it's prepared, what the ingredients are. So that means that there's no toxics, authentic pesticides, there's no added hormones, which is, I think very important.
[00:10:36] Agatha: And it's a shame that not everyone can afford organic foods. It's hard. I think that you have to be thoughtful and mindful of what organic foods you do buy.
[00:10:46] Dr. Greene: One thing that I often hear is that the foods that have a thick rind on them, you don't have to worry about the pesticides so much cause the inside is protected. That's not as it turns out, a really good rule of thumb.
[00:10:56] As much as I hear it, I cringe a little bit because it's true that bananas don't tend to get pesticides inside. So the organic or not organic are about the same for the health of the person when it comes to toxins. But some of the most contaminated foods on the planet are things that do have rinds like cantaloupe for instance.
[00:11:15] If it is grown with pesticides, it's sucked up right inside of it and potatoes too can get right inside of them. So, it's not a great rule of thumb.
[00:11:24] Agatha: All right, so we're going to need your list.,Dr. Greene, of your top 10 must buy organic foods.
[00:11:31] Dr. Greene: That probably deserves its own podcast to go and get into that story.
[00:11:33] Agatha: All right, we'll probably follow up with podcast cause I had no idea, but that makes complete sense about cantaloupes.
[00:11:39] Dr. Greene: But one of the nice things is, again, the body is super forgiving. So, one pesticide that's used quite a bit, it's called chlorpyrifos. It's an organophosphate pesticide. It's an insecticide. It was developed during World War II as a nerve agent because it damages the nervous system.
[00:11:55] And for some reason we thought it'd be smart to spray on our food. And it's now estimated that among kids age five and under, there are about 16.9 million IQ points missing because of exposure to this pesticide, which is...
[00:12:11] Agatha: Crazy.
[00:12:12] Dr. Greene: Not a lot per kid, but it's a lot overall because every IQ point makes a difference in our society.
[00:12:18] But the good news is this one mostly comes through food and it's really controllable. So, there's a study done in suburban Seattle by a guy named Alex Lu, who's now at Harvard, and what they did is they took a bunch of Seattle suburban kids and just measured their urine for the levels showing their chlorpyrifus exposure.
[00:12:36] And all of them had levels above what the EPA would suggest as the safe level, and then they had them go and switch their foods to mostly organic. If their nearby store had an organic version of it, they got it. They didn't, they didn't switch it just kind of, mostly if it was a previous apple, now it's an organic one, regular milk, organic milk, and within 24 hours they're at a level of chlorpyrifus plummeted to undetectable and stayed gone for five days while they were on this study, and then they went back to the regular diet and went straight back up again. But, that means on your very next shopping trip, you can change it for your family.
[00:13:12] Agatha: Yes, but it would still be great to get this list from you, Dr. Green, for our audience to know which ones are crucial to buy organic versus other ones, which they can skip out on. And let's mention lead toxicity.
[00:13:27] Dr. Greene: Oh yeah. Lead is really the important one. So, I talked about the number of IQ points lost from chlorpyrifus is even more from the lead, and I think that one deserves a whole podcast as well.
[00:13:37] But putting in perspective mercury, another environmental toxin we know a lot about, and we know is bad for people is only a 50th as much IQ lost this from chlorpyrifus . It's a much smaller problem, and that's mostly from mercury contaminated seafood that came from coal power plants.
[00:13:55] Agatha: All right, so avoiding big fish is good. And is there an amount per week that you recommend eating it or does it not matter how many times a week you eat the fish?
[00:14:06] Dr. Greene: Well, fish has so many great things about it. I encourage people to do it, but there are a number of lists out there that you can get of which fish tend to be lower in mercury and other toxins.
[00:14:16] And the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for instance, has a seafood watch app that's a really quick and easy one to use. And there are some big fish like tuna that are not smart to eat much of, especially for young kids, and there's others like salmon that are great to eat.
[00:14:31] Agatha: Let's talk about endocrine disruptors.
[00:14:34] Dr. Greene: Endocrine disruptors are a class of toxin that impacts the hormones in the body, and because of that, they can be really, really, really tiny amounts and some of those things are, would get in through the mouth, especially plastics and hormones added to meat would be another group of it. Some of it is on the skin, things like parabens that are in a lot of skincare products and definitely something to be paying attention to.
[00:14:59] Agatha: And should we talk about formaldehyde and benzene? I mean there's all these…
[00:15:04] Dr. Greene: Yeah, formaldehyde and benzene are found in tobacco smoke, but also can be found in pressed wood furniture and new furniture and some new mattresses.
[00:15:15] When you smell a new car smell, it's some of these aromatic toxins. And in terms of controlling the air that we breathe there is actually is, that sounds really daunting because there's air everywhere, but it turns out that kids are indoors much of the day and that indoor air matters more than outdoor air.
[00:15:36] In fact, in the U.S. on average, the EPA has estimated that indoor air is two to five times as polluted as outdoor air even if you live across the street from a power plant.
[00:15:46] Agatha: That's a huge number.
[00:15:47] Dr. Greene: Yeah.
[00:15:48] Agatha: So, having air purifiers in your house.
[00:15:50] Dr. Greene: So, having air purifiers in the house and avoiding things that are off gassing is a great way to do it.
[00:15:55] But air purifiers are great. I'm a big fan of those for families.
[00:15:58] Agatha: Yeah. And what about house plants?
[00:16:00] Dr. Greene: House plants are great. NASA is very concerned with air quality because when people are up on a space station or on a capsule, and there's all these different machines and plastics that are in use there, they want to have great air for the astronauts. And so they studied houseplants and found a list of 10 plants that can be effective at removing 90% of the toxins from the air. Peace Lily is one of my favorites.
[00:16:22] Agatha: Should do a blog post done for Bambini Furtuna and list all of these...
[00:16:26] Dr. Greene: I love it.
[00:16:26] Agatha: Plants for audience.
[00:16:28] Dr. Greene: So, I think that cycles us back. We've pretty well shown everybody that the 85,000 chemicals are overwhelming.
[00:16:36] Agatha: Very overwhelming.
[00:16:37] Dr. Greene: But that you don't have to memorize them all or pay attention to them all. Just look for clean things to go on the skin, to go in your kid's mouth and purify the air in your home.
[00:16:45] Agatha: So, for our conclusion today and our takeaways, I have four takeaways from our conversation today, Dr. Greene. One is decrease the use of plastic; use glass, stainless steel, and porcelain containers when possible. My second is wash all the produce extremely well and buy organic when possible. Number three would be buy lots of plants for your house and maybe put in a purifier and four, avoid smoke and secondhand smoke is dangerous as well.
[00:17:16] Dr. Greene: Really important. Yeah. I hope we've convinced everybody that the nearly 85,000 chemicals approved for use in the U S far more than approves in, say Europe, by the way, could be overwhelming, but you only have to defend three things, purer things to go in your kid's mouth, purer things to go on their skin, and to purify the air in the home. And the good news is that added nutrients, good food, good exercise, good sleep can go a long way towards reversing damage and preventing it. And even apart from that, kids are built to be resilient.
[00:17:47] Agatha: So, there's no need to stress out. Right. Dr. Green?
[00:17:50] Dr. Greene: Right.
[00:17:50] Agatha: All right. So just be mindful, thoughtful, and please join us next time on Moms Driven, Doctor Aligned.