Nutrition • Oct 22, 2012

Hidden dangers on our kids’ plates

A few weeks ago I read a Consumer Reports study showing concerning levels of arsenic in rice. It turns out that arsenic is fed to chickens and pigs to keep their intestinal tract bacterial levels down, so their fecal material contains arsenic. That same material is then used as fertilizer for rice fields. Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann wrote about the significance of arsenic in our children’s diets earlier this month. It is clearly something to be cautious about.

You’d think news that a substance that is lethal to man in high quantities, and is a carcinogen in low quantities, would be shocking to me. Instead, my reaction was, “Oh no. Not again.”

Serving as a Health Advisor

About a year after my first son was born, I began the process of becoming more educated about environmental toxins. I was asked to be the health advisor to the board of directors for my son’s preschool. The school was renewing its accreditation that year, and the director wondered if I might review the school’s health policies. Thrilled to help, I began reviewing the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accreditation guidelines.

I was dismayed to learn through my reading, that curtains contain carcinogenic flame retardant that is dangerous to infants, and that carrots grown in certain soils contain enough nitrites to be too dangerous for baby food preparation. I began to wonder what else I didn’t know, and there begins the saga of my slow decline into food insanity.

Reducing My Child’s Exposure to Carcinogens

For me, becoming a parent meant that preventable evils that were ‘not so bad,’ all of a sudden were unacceptable for the small person in my care. Children’s little bodies cannot tolerate the same amount of toxins as ours. If I knowingly give them, then I am giving them a lifetime of exposure to something that they are not able to choose to avoid for themselves. Feeding my children foods that contained known carcinogens seemed inappropriate to say the least, and in the worst-case scenario verged on cruel. So in an effort to be a good mom, I started reading all about food safety.

Toxic Household Items

Imagine my husband’s surprise when he came home one day to find paper bags filled to the brim with all the plastic containers and styrofoam littered throughout our house. The sippy cups, plastic ware, plates, and tupperware were all violators of good parenting.  My reading had taken me to the subject of bis-Phenol Acetate (BPA), and phthalates. That was just the beginning. I then read Michael Pollan’s books The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules, and saw the documentary Food, Inc. After that, we really couldn’t eat anything – which may have been for the best since we didn’t have anything to eat with or on.

I know by now you must be wondering if I’m still married and if my children are nutritionally replete.   Yes and yes. We have found a happy medium, and my husband is a saint.

Whether or not you have read about arsenic in rice (and apple juice) or BPA, or if you are just reading this blog in the hopes of getting some ideas on how to help a picky child eat, I’d like to share with you the happy medium we have found for our home in the hopes that it will be of some benefit, because though I am not a food expert, I am certain that my background in science and medicine has helped me to sort out the information that is available on food safety.

The Challenges of Proving Causation

First and foremost, when you are making choices about what is best for your family, remember this.  It is very difficult to PROVE environmental cause and effect in research studies. There are too many confounding factors. For example, if you get cancer, and you live next to a power plant that emits electromagnetic radiation, eat loads of arsenic-containing rice, have a strong family history of breast cancer, and fly internationally on a regular basis (there is radiation exposure when you cross the poles and go through security), then no one knows for sure which of those things cause the cells in your body to grow abnormally. So if a study sounds plausible, and your common sense makes you feel like it’s probably right, it may be worth taking the results seriously even if it does not definitively show that ‘x’ substance causes harm to humans.

Effects of BPA and Phthalates

BPA or bis-phenol acetate is a component in plastics that acts like estrogen in the human body.  There are new and ongoing studies looking at the effects it has on humans. The early evidence shows that BPA may effect brain development, behavior and prostate glands of children. Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic more flexible that are found in plastic containers and personal care products. They can disrupt normal endocrine function in humans.

To avoid BPA and phthalates, choose plastics with the recycling code 1, 2 or 5. Avoid heating food in plastics or styrofoam as this can increase the risk of transfer of compounds into the food.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener that is in sodas, juices, breads, cereals, ketchup, and yogurt. Studies performed on rats at Princeton University show that rats who drink HFCS have a significantly higher likelihood of becoming obese than rats who eat sugar. The Corn Refiners Association has been promoting the idea that HFCS is just a form of sugar made from corn. While the jury is out on the harm that may be caused by HFCS, one thing is clear. HFCS is ubiquitous in our diets and contributes to obesity just as table sugar does when consumed in high quantities. Moderation if not avoidance is encouraged.

Harmful Agents in Toothpastes and Soaps

Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent that is used in many toothpastes and soaps. It also can disrupt normal endocrine function in humans. The FDA is currently re-evaluating its safety in humans.

Food Preservatives

Butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, is an antioxidant used as a preservative in food and cosmetics.  It is thought to be a potential carcinogen, but is FDA approved in very small quantities. It is in McDonald’s chicken nuggets and the packaging in cereals. Like HFCS, it is ubiquitous in processed foods in the U.S. and is probably best consumed only in small quantities.

Tips for Keeping Your Family Safe

Because of these, and many other compounds used in food production today – including pesticides, genetically modified foods, veterinary antibiotic use, and growth hormone supplementation in animals – it can be difficult to know how to choose the right foods for a family. I encourage you to read labels, avoid compounds thought to be harmful, and seek out unprocessed foods as much as possible. As Michael Pollen says, avoid “edible food-like substances.” If your grandmother would not recognize what your children are eating as food, an apple may be a better choice.



  1. This is an excellent summary of the scariest environmental toxins that our generation faces. Well written!

  2. Great read! I’m still in my downward spiral of detoxing our home and our diets 😉 it was refreshing to read an article written from a Moms perspective/that didn’t scare the ever living outta me. it’s been fairly easy to cut out the harsh cleaning products and processed foods, but now I’m struggling with GMOs. I’d love to know your thoughts on how you approach this overwhelming problem in our country!

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