Invisible Danger? Parents Look Inside the Lunchbox

Julie Bick, New York Times

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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 Administration
for 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 lunchboxes, 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, Reusablebags.com 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."

 

Correction: March 26, 2006

An
article on March 12 about some parents' efforts to buy healthful products for
their children misidentified a Seattle
food co-op whose newsletter helped one parent in her shopping decisions. It is
PCC Natural Markets, not the Puget Sound
Community Co-op.

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