If you’re a parent concerned about the effects of environmental toxins on your child, you’ve probably heard of Dr. Alan Greene. A practicing pediatrician who currently teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine, Greene is at the forefront of an organic, environmentally focused movement in baby care. On this topic he has written several books, including his latest, “Raising Baby Green,” and established a website, DrGreene.com. Greene is Chair of the Board for the Organic Center and a consultant for the Environmental Working Group.
Can you define the concept of green baby care for our readers?
The health of the environment and the health of kids are very tightly linked, and what green baby care is all about is looking at ways to make those links positive. Ways that raising a baby can have a positive impact on the environment instead of leaving a big footprint and ways that the environment can have a positive impact on the baby’s health instead of negative stuff, toxins and pollutants.
As a mom, reading your book made me feel a bit overwhelmed—like I’ve made so many wrong choices in terms of bottles and skin care. What would you suggest are the most important elements of green baby and child care?
We’re talking about a whole lifetime. While it’s true that the best time to start is early on, you can start at any time with some of these things and have a really positive impact. Starting at 2 is fantastic; I didn’t start getting interested in these things until, like, 20 years ago, and it’s made a big improvement. I’d start by elimination; weeding out the negative exposures or taking steps that accentuate the things that help repair damage. I also would focus on getting kids great foods to help them build healthy organs plus the things they need to help prevent and repair damage. And then consider choices you make to minimize toxic exposures too.%uFFFD
Does this mean I should get rid of all my sippy cups and Tupperware?
When it comes to plastics, the biggest concerns that I have come from recycle symbols 3 and 7 (the numbers inside the triangle of arrows on a product or its package). Number 3 is PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and can release phthalates, which act like estrogen-like hormones. When they’re in plastics, they do tend to come out pretty easily, through your mouth or skin or by leaching into the water. And I’m concerned because these recycling symbols do show up in a bunch of baby toys. I would avoid recycle numbers 3 and 7. I’m thrilled that Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R Us have both taken steps to eliminate them from their product lines. Also, some of the most common polycarbonates have another endocrine disrupter called BPA in it. Stuff in recycling symbols 1, 2, or 4 is all good, or there’s a bunch of new, much healthier biosafe stuff that is made out of corn or soy or potatoes—they have a number 7 on them, but they’ll say ecoplastic or BioSafe plastic on them.%uFFFD
What about sunscreen and other skin care products?
I understand phthalates are often not listed on the label. They should be on the label. They aren’t marked in personal care products, such as waterproof sunscreen, and they’re used in a lot of them. Companies are starting to eliminate them, but until then, probably the best resource for parents is the Environmental Working Group web site (ewg.org), which has a tool called Skin Deep where you can type in any ingredient or brand name and it’ll tell you what’s in there. The site will rate everything on a scale of green for very safe, yellow for questionable, and red for avoid.
How else can a family live a greener lifestyle?
Organic milk is one investment that costs somewhat more in the short term, but recent studies have been showing fewer allergies among kids who get organic versus conventional milk and among the children of pregnant women who switch to organic versus conventional milk. And it has benefits for the environment: the animals are raised humanely, they’re fed on pasture, and they’re not raised with the hormones or antibiotics.
Organic potatoes and peanut butters are also far better than their conventional counterparts. Ketchup is another one. Organic ketchup is often about the same price, and it has up to 57 percent more lycopene, an important nutrient that prevents damage, which a lot of Americans don’t get enough of.%uFFFD%uFFFD
What are some alternative diaper practices that can benefit both the baby and the environment?
If you choose cloth diapers, the biggest difference you make is in how they are laundered. Opt for nontoxic detergents, like Seventh Generation, and use an Energy Star washer and dryer, if possible. If you choose disposable diapers, the biggest difference you can make is by choosing those that are made responsibly, without chlorine and without felling virgin trees. And a cool new option is a hybrid diaper, like gDiapers, which has a reusable outer layer that doesn’t need to be washed as often, and a truly disposable insert, the dirty part, that won’t stay in landfills for hundreds of years. It can be flushed, thrown away, or even composted in the garden.%uFFFD
Other than organic cotton sheets, what are some earth-friendly items that can be placed in a baby’s crib?
If I were going to invest in one green item, it would be the crib mattress itself. Conventional mattresses are often made of polyurethane foam, which is very flammable, and thus needs chemical flame retardants. It’s then often wrapped in a vinyl cover—think phthalates—and the baby spends many hours a day right up next to it, inhaling those new mattress fumes. A good organic mattress like Naturepedic is a great alternative.%uFFFD
How do you feel about the recent FDA warning to avoid using over-the-counter cold medicines in children under age 2?
I’m very pleased that they did that, and I hope they’ll extend it to kids under age 6. In tests comparing cold medicine to placebo, the cold medicine was not more effective in kids at those ages. And in the end, it had some serious side effects. So instead I recommend a lot of natural remedies that are far safer and work better. Honey is effective for coughs, although it should only be given to kids older than 1 year.%uFFFD
What would you say to a parent who is afraid to vaccinate their child for fear of autism?
The biggest concern linking vaccines and autism has been around that whole mercury/thimerosal issue. You can now get all of the vaccines without the thimerosal. And we know that the vaccines have prevented a whole lot of neurological illness and death. When the HIB vaccine (Haemophilus influenzae type b) started, meningitis cases plummeted. Yes, some babies have adverse effects from vaccines, but vaccines have also prevented devastating disease.
Do you have any thoughts or opinions on a link between autism and mercury?
Mercury is a neurotoxin that I don’t want kids exposed to. I don’t think that the final answer is in yet. Across the general population, it doesn’t seem like it’s made a difference, but there may be some kids who are particularly susceptible to it genetically. I found it interesting in California that after the mercury was removed [from vaccines] the autism rate continued to go up and not down. So, I don’t think mercury is the main cause.%uFFFD
I have read that a person’s eating patterns can be set during that first week of life. Do you see that as true?
There is a correlation between early feeding and metabolism and what we see down the road. That doesn’t mean it can’t be changed—you can change eating habits really at any point in life. Before birth, the amount of weight gain a woman has during pregnancy has an influence in her kid’s weight down the road. If mom either gains too much or too little weight, it tends to reset the baby’s metabolism, and the child will gain too much weight. I suggest breastfeeding newborns. Kids will automatically regulate how much they get during that period.%uFFFD
What else can you suggest parents do to promote a lifetime of healthy eating?
Minimize a child’s taste for junk food. This includes cutting out television shows with commercials for junk food. I’m also a fan of using sauces like a curry or what not to add other vegetables into, because once kids like the flavor of the sauce it’s easy to put new ingredients in it.