Young women need to listen to the canaries
I’m in my 60s now, ten years into my second marriage, and my wife and I have six children between us. We are at a stage in life when our children are having babies and our friends and relatives of the same age are also becoming grandparents. When we hear the exciting news – that we’re expecting a new grandchild – the combined feeling of joy and excitement is hard to describe, which helps to suppress the unspeakable worry; that the baby might be born with less than good health. And we have good reason for concern, because developmental disorders now affect one in six children.
Some people blame the increase in ASD on greater awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria, and we know that genetics sometimes plays a role too, but environmental factors likely account for almost 60% of cases.
With this in mind, a very interesting study was published this summer, which compared mothers of children with ASD to those whose children had no professionally diagnosed neurological, behavioral, or developmental disorders. The mothers of children with ASD were much more likely to have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Mothers with MCS were three times more likely to report having a child with autism. These kids were also more likely to have allergies and chemical sensitivity.
What’s the connection?
People with MCS describe themselves as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, warning the rest of the population that our chronic, relentless exposures to chemicals are dangerous, even though we are unaware of the effects. One reason that MCS patients become sensitized is that they are more likely to be genetically predisposed to be poor detoxifiers.
Our body has a natural detoxification system which breaks down and eliminates the toxic by-products produced by our metabolism. The more we are exposed to other chemicals from our environment, the greater the load on that system. If it is overburdened, which is even more likely to occur if one is not good at it to begin with, the changes inside cells can lead to a variety of dysfunctions, including sensitization to chemicals.
Unborn and newborn babies have an immature detoxification system, making them more sensitive to the effects of pollution, but being a genetically poor detoxifier makes them even more susceptible to developmental neurological damage, even before birth. Children with ASD are also more likely to be poor detoxifiers and likely inherit the trait from their mothers.
Being a normal detoxifier just means that the level of pollution that we’re exposed to typically is less likely to be damaging. Nobody is completely safe; it’s just that the poorer detoxifiers are worse off – it’s just one more risk factor. We don’t know what the safe levels are for the various chemicals and combinations that are in our bodies and found in the cord blood of our newborns.
The average adult is polluted with close to 200 chemicals. We inhale chemical pollution from the outdoor and indoor air with every breath, and our foods are contaminated with pesticides, additives and preservatives etc. Some of these chemicals are persistent and are stored in our bodies for a very long time. Others don’t last as long because we have the ability to detoxify them.
What is most concerning is that most of these pollutants can cross the placenta, which is why there is a similar number of chemical pollutants found in the cord blood of newborn babies, accumulating from mom’s steady supply during the previous nine months. In fact, more than 200 studies have been published measuring various chemicals in cord blood.
Pollutants in cord blood of newborns
If we are lucky enough that our grandchildren are born in good health, there is still much to worry about. An important outcome of pregnancy is no longer just a healthy newborn, but a human more likely to remain healthy from birth to old age. Unfortunately, those early life exposures can also alter how genes function, setting the stage for developing a wide range of common chronic diseases in later life.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the evidence that chemical pollutant exposures in utero can be harmful to an unborn child is robust. They recommend that advice should be given by health care providers to reduce exposures as early as possible, preferably before conception. They should start by taking an environmental exposure history and instructing the mothers-to-be on how to reduce daily exposures.
The problem is that most doctors have no training in environmental health, and therefore advising pregnant patients about decreasing daily pollution exposures is not even on their radar. On the other hand, most prospective mothers are highly motivated to seek out knowledge about risks to their unborn babies in a bid to make informed decisions and to maximize foetal health. They read avidly, conduct Internet searches and gather routine information from their doctor’s office. But no one is telling them how to decrease their exposures to protect their future offspring. Until now.
Please forward this blog to all the prospective mothers and grandmothers you know who might benefit from the following:
Setting the table for your new arrival..
In order to decrease the likelihood of your newborn being affected by developmental disabilities, decrease your own exposures, reduce your own level of contamination, and make a safe home.
You can’t do anything to reduce the outdoor air pollution that you are exposed to daily except for moving your home to a cleaner location. You can monitor the Air Quality Index (USA) or the Air Quality Health Index (Canada) in your community to know when to reduce activities in order to lower outdoor pollutant exposures. However, 90% of your time is spent indoors. How close do you live to a major roadway, to a busy intersection, to industrial polluters, to farms or golf courses using pesticides?
Indoor air is actually more contaminated than outdoor air. According to theEnvironmental Protection Agency, levels of pollutants may be 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor levels.
You can improve the air in your house significantly by increasing the ventilation. The best way to do so is by installing an air exchanger. This is now part of the building code for homes in Canada, but any home built prior to 2010 is grandfathered, i.e., exempt from the responsibility of providing a safer home environment. You can filter the air with an activated charcoal (carbon) filter, either installed on your ventilation ducts, or with a portable filter system and change or clean them regularly.
There are many sources of contamination in a typical home, depending on how new the construction is. Building materials off-gas chemical pollutants. Some, like paint, do that for only a short period before they completely solidify. There are other indoor pollutants, like fire retardants and stain repellents on your furniture and clothing, which continue to contaminate the indoor environment and its inhabitants for years. There is nothing you can do except increase the ventilation. But there are many contaminants that can be reduced or eliminated from your home, like cleaning products, scents (such as perfumes, personal care products, fabric softeners, air fresheners, scented cleaning products, candles etc.), and disinfectants. One of my favorites is the elimination of scented laundry products. Your newborn baby does not need to continuously inhale artificial ‘fresh’, floral or fruit scents emanating from its clothing or bedsheets.
You can advocate for a scent-free policy at the workplace.
Another major source of chemicals is food. Organically grown foods have less chemical contamination, especially pesticides. Try to eat organic when possible. Meat should be range grown, grass fed or organic. Fish should be wild rather than farmed, and the lower down in the food chain, the better. Try to follow a diet of minimally processed and contaminated foods. Eating 7 or more helpings of vegetables and fruit daily can provide more of the essential nutrients you need to bolster your detoxification enzyme systems and reduce the impact of damage.
Reduce your own level of contamination
Levels of toxins already stored in your body are hard to eliminate but you should still try to reduce your unborn baby’s exposures. Stored contaminants can be actively reduced by sweating for at least 15 minutes, daily if possible. This is best accomplished by exercise or dry sauna, preferably exercise followed by sauna.
Baby proof the bedroom environmentally.
The baby’s bedroom should be furnished and decorated well before it’s actually needed, to provide the longest time for off-gassing and ventilation. Air out the crib, especially the mattress. Use low VOC paints. Carpets also off-gas for long periods and are a major source of particulate matter, including allergens.
And when your baby finally arrives, remember that when you apply baby lotions and other products, it is not normal for babies to smell like apple-honey, citrus or vanilla. Even if these scents are derived from natural products, they are not normally and repeatedly inhaled by babies, and they require breakdown and elimination by immature detox systems.
Listen to the canaries
Canaries are more sensitive to chemical pollutants. Heed their message, that our chronic, relentless exposures to chemicals are dangerous, even though we are physically unaware of the effects until it is too late. The medical literature agrees.
Your unborn child is a canary too.