The Un-Toy: A Celebration

IMG_6368Toys, it must be said, can be as annoying as they are delightful. Toddler toys have gazillions of pieces, some of which are required for the set-up to work. Puzzle pieces and the like inevitably end up in the sofa cushions, the car seat, even the refrigerator, making it part of the puzzle just to keep the darn thing together!

So I’ll have to give credit to the inventiveness of Maya’s former preschool in showing me that excellent toys need not be, well, toys. They used tennis balls with mouths cut into them and eyes drawn on for holding buttons, lovely little thrift store change purses with zippers, snaps and clamps for practicing fine motor skills, and even several sizes of old sets of hair curlers with the bristles for building blocks. And of course, there is the always popular cardboard box, which can be a fort, hiding place, or other retreat.

Then there are natural un-toys, like acorns, dried leaves in fall, stones, pine cones, shells and other wonders. These can be displayed on a nature table seasonally with small dolls or building structures if you have the space and patience with all the bits that will inevitably end up on the floor.

Sadly, thrift store toy aisles are rather depressing, plastic-filled places. So get out of there and into the tchotchke aisle instead. Here are some things to look for while at thrift stores, on-line on places like Ebay, or at yard or estate sales:

  1. Old fantasy chess sets or other interesting game pieces, the more elaborate the better;
  2. Sets of interesting similar items, like the three bags of miniature painted duck decoys I found for a buck each;
  3. Small wooden figures;
  4. Small furniture that can serve for dolls;
  5. Glass baubles and stones for a light table (easily made with an upended plastic storage box and flashlight or light stick);
  6. Small figures for the sandbox or a shadow box;
  7. Craft supplies (I found a large bag of simple wooden blocks that Maya has had a ball painting; also birdhouses for painting and raffia for use in 3-D constructions);
  8. Dress-up clothes and small purses;
  9. Large pieces of nicer fabric and scarves to use as forts, dress-ups, etc.
  10. Stamps and batik blocks, rolling pins or cookie cutters for tracing and playdough;
  11. Muffin tins, measuring cups, wooden bowls and nesting bowls;
  12. Baskets to keep all the toys (and un-toys) organized and accessible.

Here’s some of our current items in circulation, including these cool stamps:

IMG_6370 IMG_6367 IMG_6366 IMG_6365 IMG_6362There’s nothing I enjoy more than inventing a new purpose for some castaway that gives it renewed life. What are some things you’ve scored along the way?

Related posts:

Asking Safeway: Who Will Mind the Store?

Yesterday, I gladly joined the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign to ask retailers to do a far better job of screening their products for hazardous chemicals. The group has developed a list of 100 plus chemicals identified by scientists or regulators as hazardous, including such substances as triclosan, which was featured in the recent Dateline piece, and parabens.

Before work, I ventured out with my friend, Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force, who writes about our visit eloquently here, to check out products and deliver a letter to the local Silver Spring Safeway store manager, to make the case that people in their own community care about getting rid of toxics. When we got to the store, we perused the aisles, looking at labels with their tiny print, and trying to figure what, exactly, was in what.

We had a hard time with many product categories — cleaning products, for example, don’t actually have to say what’s in them. For example, here’s one that is clear as mud:

mystery cleanerYet all the overwhelming smells of the fragrances and perfumes (that could be harmful pthalates, as Dateline explained) in that aisle actually made me a bit dizzy.

We did find some products with triclosan, clearly labeled, including the Hello Kitty hand soap Dateline identified — which is particularly upsetting given its cutesy child-appeal marketing — as well Dial Complete, another cleanser, which (dubiously) promises a “Healthier You.”

HK front

HK showing triclosan Dial complete triclosanIn addition, through careful scouring, we were able to spot some products with parabens in them, including this antacid called “DiGel:”

Digel frontdigel backIt was difficult, even with a list of chemicals, to decipher everything. Molly put it well in her great post:

We felt lost in a thicket of chemical names, tiny fonts on tiny labels, and terms we didn’t understand.

And we were aware that we weren’t able at all to figure out packaging concerns like the Bisphenol-A (a chemical which acts like hormones in the body and has been linked to numerous damaging health impacts) that is in most can linings and on receipts.

After wandering the aisles for half an hour with our brows deeply furrowed, Molly and I approached the store manager to present a letter asking Safeway to do this kind of work on behalf of consumers. The letter was an invitation for retailers to get ahead of the consumer wave that I truly believe is coming — which will demand that products we use in our everyday lives not damage our health.

Retailers — who have everything to lose when customers vote with their feet — also have tremendous power over what they sell. They could be major drivers for change, if they saw it as part of their job. So our job is to make them see the appeal of changes that would drive their supply chains to do better — not just for products with niche appeal to organo-Moms like me, but for all the millions of Moms, Dads and others who don’t compulsively read labels on everything they buy and really shouldn’t have to.

David, the store manager, was welcoming about our message and received our letter and the list of 100+ hazards with warmth, promising to pass it along. He even let us take a picture, which spoke volumes for the people managing retail stores like Safeway, who want an authentic connection to their communities and customers. There would truly be nothing better than if a retailer like Safeway were to take this letter seriously and work through its supply chain to remove these toxic chemicals from its stores.

Me and DavidThis action was fun, easy and made me happier all day long. Even if you don’t have a great partner like Molly, it’s easier than you think to speak a little truth to power while you are shopping. So go to the campaign Website and register, then empower yourself to be bold, friendly and clear about your priorities next time you go to pick up groceries — it only takes two minutes to let the store manager know where you stand and what matters to you.

And let us know how the conversation goes with tweets and posts! I’ve been very inspired by the other mom bloggers and activists who’ve joined in the campaign:

See you out there!

A Greener Easter

IMG_6266

Around here, the holidays of whatever sort are mainly good reasons for crafting. (We’re devout Unitarians, meaning that we go to Christmas Eve services religiously every year. Ha.)

This year, I eyed Easter on the calendar and decided, as is my wont, to de-plastic and unjunk the basket. No Peeps for us peeps. And none of that irritatingly static-y plastic grass, which is a pointless use for various poison plastics (including PVC), if I ever saw one.

I found a spare basket at the thrift store for .60 cents, rounded up green shredded paper (though paper from the actual shredder or a little tissue paper would work just fine), and picked up a few small but adorable toys from the stuff sold by Maya’s new Waldorf school, including this cute egg made by Fairyfolk and a chick finger puppet inside from Folkmanis.

IMG_6294I also allowed myself to finally buy these long-coveted pastel Tegu blocks, ostensibly for Ms. M, but really for me to play with.

IMG_6295IMG_6296I liked the idea of a real toy in the mix, and these are gorgeous, sustainably made open-ended building blocks unlike anything we have now. (I paid around $60 at a local store, Trohv, which is about half their current price on Amazon. That is still very expensive, but I believe in buying better toys for all these reasons if you can afford it, especially by not wasting your money on other kiddo junk. And I’ll get hours of fun out of them at least!)

We’re planning on dying eggs, of course, using this natural, food-based dye from Earth Paint, and decorating them with these smooth-as-silk and high quality beeswax crayons that the great mom who runs Stubby Pencil studio just sent me to try.

But that seemed predictable, somehow. So I decided to take it up a notch by making felted Easter eggs last Sunday morning. I’m pleased to report that this is totally the kind of project that is fun and manageable for a toddler, and that the only messiness involved is some soapy water, which is hardly a problem.

IMG_6269To make your own gorgeous eggs, you’ll need:

  • Some wool roving in nice colors (Fairyfolk sells it, as does Amazon)
  • Some wool or acrylic yarn in a light tone (tail-ends of knitting projects work nicely)
  • Some hot, soapy water
  • Some old pantyhose you are willing to ruin
  • A tray or towels to catch the water
  • A washing machine and dryer and laundry soap
  • Embroidery thread (optional)
  • Tennis balls (optional)

(Some directions call for you to use plastic eggs as the base, taped shut, but since my purpose was to have an Easter without plastic, I used yarn egg shapes instead. I would recommend using a thick but light-colored yarn, as the red yarn I used showed through on some eggs.)

First, set up your soapy water in a bowl on top of a towel and make your “egg” base with yarn by wrapping the yarn thickly around two fingers held together, then slipping it off and wrapping in the opposite direction to produce an oblong shape, until it is large and thick enough to form an egg even with some shrinkage. The toddler can help with this process as well.

IMG_6240IMG_6239Dip the egg baby into the bowl and squeeze to start the felting process. Next, grab a clump of roving wool and gently pull out some felt strands, flattening them a bit. Wrap the egg in the roving.

IMG_6246IMG_6253Next, wrap a second flat handful of roving around, with the fibers pointing in a perpendicular direction to the first batch (this is not nearly as hard to do as it sounds). Dip the ball and get it good and wet, forming it into an egg shape.

IMG_6251IMG_6248Decide what decoration you would like. For this one, we used a little yarn. You can also do stripes or dots with different colored roving, use multiple colors of roving to make the egg, or wrap embroidery thread around as well (as in the picture up at the very top).

Next, carefully maneuver your egg into the toe of an old cut-off stocking and use something to bind it off. (Yarn works and could allow you to re-use the nylon. I just knotted it and later cut it open, after struggling with yarn on the first try.)

IMG_6249IMG_6256When you’re done making your eggs, stick them in the washing machine on a hot setting with the tennis balls if you have them around and some soap. Check them to see if you want more than one cycle (I did mine for two), and toss them into the dryer when you are happy with the shape. Dry them until no water comes out when you squeeze, and then you may want to put them in the sun to ensure they will really get dried out. You could also sew embroidery, beading or decorative thread and ribbons on after the fact for additional cuteness.

IMG_6261IMG_6301Happy Easter!

Dear California, You Owe America a New Couch

IMG_3300Sent to: tb117comments@dca.ca.gov
Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation
4244 South Market Court, Suite D
Sacramento, CA 95834

Dear Governor Brown and Chief Blood:

After years of being duped by stooges from the chemical industry, you have finally taken a big step in the right direction.

Your proposed rule on flame retardants in furniture (TB 117-2013) would greatly improve the lives of both Californians and the rest of America, which buys furniture impacted by California’s standards, by allowing furniture makers to drop the use of IQ-destroying, fertility-lowering, carcinogenic chemicals.

In fact, your previous “fire safety” standards did not protect public safety, as tests by federal regulators show, because they delay a fire by only 2-3 seconds, while making smoke, toxicity and soot worse. A comprehensive paper by Arlene Blum and other leading scientists, “Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks?” from Reviews on Environmental Health in 2010 (pdf link here) explains, on pages 281-2:

Laboratory research on TB117 supports this lack of measurable fire safety benefit. A study at the National Bureau of Standards in 1983 showed that following ignition, the important fire hazard indicators (peak heat release rate and the time to peak) were the same in TB117-compliant furniture where the foam was treated with chemical flame retardants and in non-treated furniture. A small flame was able to ignite both regular furniture and furniture meeting the TB117 standard—once ignited, the fire hazard was essentially identical for both types.

A 1995 report from the Proceedings of the Polyurethane Foam Association provides further evidence that TB117 does not improve fire safety. Small open flame and cigarette ignition tests were performed separately on 15 fabrics covering TB117 type polyurethane foam, conventional polyurethane foam, and polyester fiber wrap between the fabric cover and the foam cores. The study found no improvement in ignition or flame spread from a small open flame or cigarette ignition propensity using TB117-compliant foam.

The authors also provide other reasons why the old California test, which exposed the internal foam directly to flame, is pointless — for one, because the fabric often also catches on fire and can provide its own ignition source.

In fact, though its not due to chemicals, the number of people (and children) who die in a fire has gone down dramatically over the past century, which makes sense when you think about the absence of headlines about cows allegedly knocking over lanterns and lighting whole cities ablaze. It’s a resounding victory for public safety measures, as these numbers from the National Fire Protection Association (pdf) indicate:

Out of a million Americans, average number who died of unintentional injury due to fire:
in 2007: 9

in 1992: 16

in 1977: 29

in 1962: 41

in 1947: 56

in 1932: 57

in 1917: 105

Nonetheless, California evidently was taken in by chemical company goons posing as fire safety “experts” touting lies and exploiting the tragic deaths of infants for their own profits.

Interestingly, California lacks a law that provides penalties under the law for lying to state officials or lawmakers. In contrast, federal law has criminal penalties for intentional deception of a federal official, and the federal rulemaking docket at the CPSC on flame retardants, curiously, does not have any comments on burned babies as a part of the submissions. My conclusion? You guys should get one of those laws that makes it illegal to lie to you about important things.

In this case, the consequences were awful. For all of us, really. Because of your terrible judgment, we have pounds of dangerous and pointless chemicals in our homes, in our indoor air, and in the bloodstreams of our children. As the Blum paper says:

Many of these chemicals are now recognized as global contaminants and are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function.

How many kids have you put at risk? Let’s make a rough estimate. A recent paper reported on by the New York Times, found flame retardants in the blood of 100 percent — every single! — toddler they tested. And a table under the Population tab on this page indicates that there are an estimated 50.7 million children in the U.S. ages 0-11 today. The CPSC study (pdf) as to chlorinated tris (just one of these chemicals) in 2006 specifically concluded:

The estimated cancer risk for a lifetime of exposure to TDCP-treated upholstered furniture was 300 per million. In children, the estimated cancer risk from exposure during the first two years of life alone was 20 per million. Both of these risks exceed one-in-a-million. A substance may be considered hazardous if the lifetime individual cancer risk exceeds one-in-a-million.

So the overall risk for a child from exposure to tris is 20 times 50 million children, or one thousand kids (extra) with cancer. And, sadly, childhood rates of the worst kinds of cancer are on the increase. According to the National Cancer Institute:

Over the past 20 years, there has been some increase in the incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of invasive cancer, from 11.5 cases per 100,000 children in 1975 to 14.8 per 100,000 children in 2004.

In fact, it appears that a person’s lifetime risk of dying of cancer is 192 times their risk of dying in a fire:

Lifetime odds of death for selected causes, United States, 2008*

Total, any cause 1 in 1

Heart disease 1 in 6

Cancer 1 in 7


Exposure to smoke, fire, and flames 1 in 1,344

And that’s just for cancer risks. There’s also reproductive harm, attention deficit issues, and other health damage linked to flame retardants. For just one example, here’s sobering coverage of a 2012 study linking maternal-fetal levels of PBDEs, another ubiquitous flame retardant found in 97 percent of the study subjects, to delayed development in the child at age 7.

In sum, you’ve royally screwed up. The best thing to do when you’ve made a colossal error in judgment? Apologize and try your best to make it right.

There’s really no two ways about it, California: you owe Americans a new couch. One that won’t poison our homes and make our children sick. One that won’t show up in our bloodstreams, ‘fer Pete’s sake.

Seriously. This is really not too much to ask, given the harm you’ve caused. IMHO, the chemical companies could pay for it out of the profits they made peddling all that cancerous stuff. Certainly, the good people of California, who have the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies in the world, have suffered enough.

At any rate, I look forward to hearing from you. A (flame-retardant-free) loveseat in a nice brown or beige would do just fine.

All best,

Laura

###

Related posts:

And now, for some things YOU can do on flame retardants…

Car seat 1

(Photo credit: treehouse1977)

I’ve been busy getting used to working again, getting Maya transitioned to the new schedule, working on my nascent book proposal, and hatching plans for a new on-line venture, about which you will hear more soon.

In addition, just this week, a terrible family tragedy has consumed all of us. We’re okay, but our loved ones are really hurting.

I will be back posting again shortly, as soon as I get my feet under me. In the meantime, here’s news you can use:

On a personal note, the latest CEH study makes me want to hork and have one of my classic post-hoc freak-outs about Maya’s $^%#!^ car seat. We’ve been using a Britax for its excellent safety ratings from Consumer Reports, but I was always upset about the flame retardants, as I ‘splained here. CEH says:

One product, a Britax infant car seat purchased from Babies R Us, contained significantly more Tris than the average amount in similar foam baby products tested for a 2011 national study. That study warned that baby products with 3-4% Tris could expose children to the chemical in amounts greater than the federal “acceptable” daily exposure level.

Oh, wow. If I was ticked off and worried before, I really should just chuck and replace them now. Britax did promise to phase the chemicals out by this past January, but has evidently missed that deadline, according to the good people who comment on such things in my posts. I will check out the other options asap, and share what more I find out.

And I will grapple with my normal dilemma of trying to resell what once was a 400-dollar car seat to some family less informed than me — if the past is any indicator, even my dire and honest explanations will not get in the way of a deal once proffered. So more kids get exposed, or it goes straight to the landfill and back to all of us as it degrades. What a crappy dilemma. Anyone know what the stores do with them that have buy-back programs? Maybe that’s an option…

If there’s big news I missed, please let me know. Next post, I promise to fix the glitch in my rant on toddler snacks and re-publish that bad boy.

Re-Entry: On the Razor’s Edge of Work/Life Balance

Full Moon and Stars

(Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

This week, I went back to work.

I started a terrific new job as Legislative Director of a progressive union of nurses, National Nurses United. It was as good as it could be — welcoming colleagues, a job with real meaning and opportunity, and even based close to home in Silver Spring. It is the position I was hoping for all along.

It is also an incredible luxury to be able to keep what I believe aligned with my paycheck, which is something only a few of us get to do. And it was delightful in many ways to feel that sense of autonomy from leaving the house behind, to get dressed in the morning with purpose, to eat lunch in a restaurant without asking them for crayons, or to read something without interruption and be able to form a thought. In short, it was nice to be out again in the world, beyond the solipsism, exhaustion and solitude of caring for a child.

And yet, it was still hard as hell to leave my girl. All week, in keeping with the turmoil, she’s been angry at me. She’s lashing out physically, hitting and kicking in the intense manner she only uses when she actually intends to hurt someone. She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much. And I’ve been short-fused as well, my normal responses to her misbehavior infused with guilt, sad understanding and my own small heartbreak.

On Wednesday night, or Day Two of the new job, she and I were snuggling in bed, everything cuddly again, and she started pleading with me to “stay home.” She incanted it over and over again, until, in desperation, I called to her dad to come in and distract us. I would have given her anything, but could not give her that.

On Thursday night I had a dream. I was exploring a beautiful, sun-dappled orchard with a friend, talking about grand topics like whether plants communicate to one another. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered I had a child, and she was nowhere to be seen. I panicked. I ran, panting hard, to the edge of the field only to see her small body under the wheel of a stopped car. “Maya,” I screamed, then broke into pieces and woke up in a cold sweat.

She was snuggled up next to me. I went to the next room and stared out the window, unable to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.

In an uncannily timely way, I had two wonderful friends from college over last weekend for brunch, both my age, and these subjects were on the menu alongside the eggs. One is married and does not want children, but spoke with genuine anger of the toll that time out to have kids took on her female peers in the academic world. Another is unmarried, and always assumed she’d have a family, but works at a law firm and has too many long hours to meet someone or to have a child on her own. She sounded sad, and not a little surprised, to find herself in her 40s without children. Knowing her, it surprised me too.

It struck me that me and my peers are really the first full generation of women to be able to work hard enough to make something of ourselves in the professional world, and to have widely internalized the expectation that we would do so. At the same time, many of us — though certainly not all — also want children, a family, and want to be good at all that as well.

I’m not the first one to notice this tension, of course. As I wrote with regard to the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece last spring, the institutions in which we work have a lot of work left to do to accommodate this balancing act, and women are equally bewildered by it much of the time.

I do know many women who seem fulfilled by not working, some of whom are home with children. I know many more who, like me, want a career and a family too, and live with the ambivalence of these half-measures — at work with an undeniable sadness in her heart, or home but stuck on the Blackberry or computer.

Talking with my dear friends, it became clear that some agonizing may be unavoidable. Women need and want to work, to be useful in the larger world. We have ambitions, and we have a right to them. But creating a life that includes the incredibly meaningful act of caring for children, should we so choose, is also so important that for many it ranks as a necessity. How to reconcile these imperatives? No one really knows, and the penalties and suffering in both directions are steep.

We can hope that someday, the political system will catch up a bit, and provide better supports for working families, including Slaughter’s proposals for more accommodations and the ideas I suggested here. But even with paid family leave and affordable universal preschool and paycheck fairness and an increase in the minimum wage and all the other things I dream about, there will be women like me and my friends:

Women who would have been amazing moms but forgot to work less so they could meet someone. Women who might have been moms if the professional penalties were less — or yet might not. Moms who give up a brilliant career to be where they are needed more.

And moms who want to work — who love their work — but love their children just as much. Those of us who live with a small but constant betrayal of some part of our heart, yet bear up under it, smiling through our confusion and loss, comforting our child however we can, and facing the nightmare of our inattention, late at night, alone.

A Bodacious Valentine’s Day

Be still my heart
 (Photo credit: EraPhernalia Vintage)

Yesterday, in honor of V-day, I had the pleasure of attending a ground-breaking panel on boobies. Because this is 2013, when the subject of breasts arises, so to speak, the topic of breast cancer isn’t far behind.

The purpose of the gathering was to announce publication of an important new report that — really for the first time — sets out an agenda for prevention of breast cancer and points to the significance of environmental factors like chemicals, instead of focusing almost exclusively on treatment. The 200+ page report was the result of two years of work by a group of academics, advocates and government scientists called the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee. (Oddly, the link to the report is not working on the government Website. The New York Times coverage is here. Update: Link fixed!)

In 2012, more than 200,000 women and 2,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,00 women will die from it. A large majority of breast cancer cases — some 85 percent — occur in women with no family history of breast cancer. We know that some environmentally widespread chemicals — including PFOAs, dioxin, the pesticide Atrazine, DDT, flame retardants, and hormone disruptors like Bisphenol-A (BPA) — are linked to breast cancer.

We also know — most recently from shocking and sad reporting by the Center for Public Interest (CPI) of a published, peer reviewed study of plastics auto suppliers and other workers in Ontario that there is very strong evidence linking acute exposures to plastics and chemicals to cancer rates: women working in the auto supplier and canning jobs had cancer rates of 5 times the control group.

Here’s CPI’s summary of the report’s list of chemical exposures related to breasts:

At least 216 chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting substances like bisphenol A, have been associated with mammary gland tumors in animals. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are used to make plastics and pesticides and found in products such as furniture, metal food cans and cosmetics.

Ergo, it would nothing short of dunderheaded to talk about preventing cancer without looking at environmental factors in the mix, alongside genetic, diet and other risk factors. We badly need the kind of paradigm shift the report tees up, as well as the focused attention on environmental risks from regulators and researchers that it recommends.

The arrow on this mammogram points to a small ...

The arrow on this mammogram points to a small cancerous lesion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In honor of the holiday, let’s get back to knockers for a sec. On the panel, author and reporter Florence Williams returned our attention to the physical facts by pointing out a number of novel features that uniquely describe the twin wonders on a woman’s chest.

She pointed out that breasts are among the fattiest organs in the body and that many chemicals are drawn (like men) to these fatty tissues, that breasts are filled with hormone receptors, and that they change over the course of women’s lives as biologically needed. Williams called them, rightly, a “sentinel organ,” noting that what happens to our breasts is an early signal for our overall environment and health. (I picked up a copy of Williams’ book, “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History,” and am excited to read it because she tests the level of flame retardants in her own breast milk, among other unpleasant but informative discoveries.)

Jeanne Rizzo, head of the Breast Cancer Fund, spoke next and highlighted the fact that we know that there are critical stages — called windows of susceptibility — that impact life-time risk for breast cancer, beginning in utero, and that due to the emerging science of epi-genetics, it’s now clear that genes and the environment interact throughout our lives in a complex dance of possibilities. Her wonderful op-ed is also well worth a read. (It’s for this reason that I do think a focus on reducing environmental risks for pregnant women and young children is important, and that consumers need help in this area.)

Linda Birnbaum, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Toxicology Program (NTP) was also powerful. I was particularly struck by her description of an ongoing “sister study” pairing women who are diagnosed with breast cancer with their sisters who have not been.

As she pointed out, we may have been over-emphasizing genetic factors when we see diseases linked in families, because although it’s true that they share genes, siblings also tend to share environmental influences. This study will attempt to distinguish genetic factors from the other shared conditions, including chemical exposure levels, thus helpfully sorting out what we can fix, given sufficient political will, from what we really can’t.

This got me thinking about obesity as another confounding factor in the research. We all know — and it was reiterated by panelists — that obesity is major risk factor for breast cancer, heart disease, and basically every other major health problem. Yet we also know that mice exposed to a teensy amount of BPA get much fatter than other mice. As Nicholas Kristof noted:

Among chemicals identified as obesogens are materials in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and jet fuel.

They’re everywhere, in other words. Yet the national report on obesity a big government panel issued last year barely mentioned the issue, instead focusing its major recommendations entirely on nutrition and exercise. Ditto with the President’s “Let’s Move” action plan.

Now, I’m not disputing that healthy foods and regular activity likely play an important role in obesity. But, as Jeanne Rizzo said the founder of the Breast Fund Center asked about breast cancer, I would still ask why we are so much fatter now than we used to be, and why Americans, who have far more chemicals in their diet and environment, are so much heavier than Europeans, when we eat basically the same types of foods.

The staggering rate of increase in obesity should be another indicator. A recent report found that adult obesity rates could exceed 60 percent in 13 states by 2030, and that:

If states’ obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, the number of new cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension, and arthritis could increase 10 times between 2010 and 2020—and double again by 2030.

Then there’s the stunning increase in childhood incidence of Type 2 diabetes. From a September 2012 article in the Times:

Before the 1990s, this form of diabetes was hardly ever seen in children….There were about 3,600 new cases a year from 2002 to 2005, the latest years for which data is available.

What has changed from before the 1990s until now? As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I can tell you: our diets were no paragon of health. We ate junk food, nutrient-poor school lunches, and canned green beans, white rice and pork chops for dinner. We binged on Halloween candy while playing Atari for hours. But this disease was for the full decade of my adolescent decadence still virtually unknown in kids. In fact, we know a lot more about healthy eating and healthier foods are much more widely available today, yet we’re still in deep trouble.

Researchers are basically at a loss to explain the obesity increase, as in this comically uninformative paper where they more or less throw in the towel. Could it be, instead, that the ubiquitous chemicals, drugs and fillers in food and industrial agriculture, along with the plastics that package virtually all of our foods, are at least in part to blame? That cheap calories from a degraded and ever-more industrialized food supply — eaten by people across the socioeconomic spectrum — come at a very high cost? What are those fat mice trying to tell us?

As in the breast cancer sister study, when we treat obesity as an inert risk factor — “don’t get fat, you!” — we are missing an opportunity to shift the paradigm to environmental health factors and instead substituting a far less helpful blame-the-victim mentality.

We should not fail to acknowledge obesogens may be a confounding factor in the data — that the same people who are obese are more likely to get breast cancer because the cause of both conditions could be related to the same chemical exposures (or chemical-epigenetic interactions that reflect a sensitivity to environmental influences). If it turns out this is right, and chemicals are a major factor in all of these kinds of health conditions, then the solutions are also shared, and the public health costs of inaction virtually incalculable.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I care deeply about preventing breast cancer, having seen its terrible toll on close family friends. And I am so excited for the publication of this major report that talks clearly and for the first time about the impact of chemicals on cancer rates, though I wish there was a least a small section on consumer can-dos, to counteract the doom and gloom.

But we also must be uncompromising as we outline the possible damage from toxins, and push this powerful new paradigm to its logical conclusions. To meaningfully address a host of public health threats, we will need one day soon to take the full measure of what our ongoing, uncontrolled experimentation with biology-altering chemicals has actually accomplished, in both our bodies and our brave, sentinel breasts.

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5 Toddler Transition Tips That (Sometimes) Work for Me

IMG_5777Just this morning, we were rushing to get out the door, late and harried, and I was putting our bags in the car when I heard Maya start to loudly bawl behind me. She had wandered out and was standing on the sidewalk leading up to our house, in bare feet, and she evidently didn’t much care for the cold. I ran and scooped her up and into the car. Just another morning with tears, I thought, wiping her cheeks and kissing her while I buckled her in.

There are many mornings I would like to throw a tantrum of my own. After all, like Maya, I would prefer to hang out and play instead of throwing us all willy-nilly into a vehicle. One of the hardest things about modern mommyhood is, perhaps, the amount of schlepping we all do. School, playdates, classes, even a trip to the library can be the trigger for an episode of push-a-me-pull-you that wears both parent and child to the edge.

For this reason, among others, I’m a big proponent of a simpler schedule for kids, especially younger children. As adults, we forget how stimulating the world is, more or less all by itself, and the lessons that come from being able to interact with relatively simple materials. To find that reverie in a quiet moment of play, children need lots of space and time. Rushing from yoga class to music class to kiddie gym does not allow enough stillness for kids to catch up to themselves or to invent the games and fantasy play that they need to experiment with the world on their own terms.

Yet life is full of schedules even when it’s not. Dinnertime, bedtime, the need to leave to meet up with friends — all these things require a toddler or older child to come along for the next thing, to get on board and with the program.

Of course, the gold standard in this area is the three “Rs:” Rhythm, Ritual and Routine. When we are really doing well, we use the natural rhythms of the day, their repetition and predictability, and the nature of our routines to establish the order of things. Around bedtime is the easiest, given that the order is so easy to maintain. But even for dinner times, our very simple ritual of lighting a candle when we sit down to eat can bring Maya to the table and establish the right mood for a nicer meal together.

And then there are the other times, when chaos and change rear up and obliterate all our good intentions. Maya, like me, is a dawdler and a homebody, and she often needs that extra push to leave the house. So here are five tricks we use to move things along that work at least some of the time:

1) An advanced warning and joint review of “the plan:”  I try to tell her, when I remember to, what the plan is for the coming day, highlighting the things I think she might find fun. Then I provide a 3-minute or 2-minute warning for each new thing — “In two minutes, we are going to stop playing and get ready to leave for Grandma’s house” — and ask for her “ok.” This tends to work best when the plan is something she’s genuinely excited about, and not so well for more hum-drum affairs, but even when it’s not enough on its own, the clear communication can’t hurt.

2) The direct request with consequences: I will ask her to come along a few times, but no more than two. If she is unresponsive, I will say, “If you won’t come, I will have to pick you up.” If there is still no agreement between the parties, a last step is to say, “Ok, I have asked you to come by yourself and you are not listening to me. I will count to three and then pick you up if you are still not coming along.” Sometimes, she makes me count and then comes along; other times, she just stares defiantly and makes me pick her up. Either way, the impasse is resolved. (In general, providing some warning with a count-to-three before swooping in tends to be a good strategy for preventing some meltdowns, and works in many situations, including when an interaction with another child has gone south.)

3) Beginning the action by skipping a step: If I think she’s unlikely to come to eat breakfast without a fuss, for example, then rather than asking her to come over, I’ll invent a question that will bring her to the table, like, “Would you like molasses on your oatmeal? Yes? How much?” She always, predictably, wants “a lot” of molasses. More importantly, she wants to come monitor the amount I am pouring, taking her seat as she counts the drops. Mission accomplished.

Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Bribery: Since we’re all in on it, let’s be clear: parenting a toddler is an unexpected education in all available means of extortion, in ways that might shame Tony Soprano. Phrases like: “if you come to the table/eat one last bite/clean up that mess… then I will read you a story/wear that silly hat/give you a treat” slip without much hesitation from the lips, because blackmail is preferable to a physical wrestling match which you will inevitably eventually lose, with your dignity (or even your shirt!) in tatters. The real art is in picking an incentive, as we can call it among friends, that doesn’t unduly compromise your values. Enticements like attention and special time together can work just as well as sugar, I’ve found, though they can also add delay. (And sometimes a little “chocolate-ish” milk can go a long way towards domestic tranquility and achieving a decent bedtime.)

5) Setting an alarm: Maya’s insightful preschool teacher suggested this, and I have to say, it works like the charm it is. I will set the timer on the microwave (or my cellphone if we are out and about) for 30 seconds, and warn Maya that “when the beeper goes off, it’s time to stop playing and come to dinner.” If we’re at home, I usually step away from the timer to let her know: hey, it’s not me, it’s the microwave that’s running the show. I’m shocked by how well she listens to the microwave. And unsure, really, whether to be pleased or insulted…

In moments of timer-less desperation, I have even been known to beep myself like an insistent and inane machine, and, believe it or not, that works as well, although I do tend to get odd looks from other parents who have apparently not yet learned the persuasive power of imitating household appliances.

Mikrowelle, microwave

The new Parent in town  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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What transition tricks do you use with your reluctant child? Do tell!

The Best and Worst Week, Basically Ever

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Photo credit: Cayusa)

I’ll start, as one always should, with the good news. On Friday, the state of California, acting at the direction of Governor Jerry Brown, has proposed a revised flammability standard for furniture that would require no chemicals!

The new rule, which is undergoing a 45-day comment period before being finalized, will require only that fabrics used in furniture resist a smolder test like that from a cigarette, and will not require that interior foams meet any test. Because furniture can be made to be less flammable through a good choice of fabric, this will allow better manufacturers to drop the use of chemicals altogether.

Because the California rule impacted the national market for furniture, this represents a tremendous step forward for public health. However, it is not a ban on the use of chemical flame retardants, so it does not mean that new furniture will necessarily lack flame retardants (FRs) — at least for a while. Consumers looking to buy new furniture should still ask whether the foam and fabric have been treated, because it takes time for manufacturers to alter their practices and research new foams and fabrics. (There’s a few sources here and here if you need ’em for FR-free furniture.)

But it’s great news! The Consumer Federation of America is organizing consumer letters for the comment period, here — you should go sign one to let regulators know that you also support flame retardant standards that do not require any chemicals.

Now for a less happy word on why, after my cheerily naive posts last week, it took me two days to catch up to Friday’s good news. I was slain by the Norovirus. And by slain, I mean decimated, flat out on the couch, unable to move. While Maya seemed a little under the weather late last week, I had no idea that her body was carrying a insidious viral passenger meant for me. On Sunday, I started to feel woozy, but by Sunday night, I was all chills and fever, in rapid cycling fashion.

On Monday morning, Maya woke me up at a brutally early 6:30 a.m., and I didn’t feel right. At all. In fact, my head was so wobbly on my shoulders that I worried that it would pop off and roll down the hallway like in that grisly scene from the first season of Louie. Maya pleaded with me to get up, so I struggled to my feet, making it only as far as the bathroom. I looked down at her, and she said, “Poopy.” Her diaper was straggling halfway down her leg, inside her pajamas.

I picked her up, got her up on the changing table atop the dresser, and then lost my grip on everything. It’s true what they say about the floor coming up to meet you. I fell backwards, and then passed out cold on the floor. I must have really gone down with a thud because my head hurt for two days despite the thick carpet.

When I came to (How could I have forgotten to put on my glasses?? Another bad sign.), I saw through the blur, and then remembered in real horror, that Maya was four feet off the ground. I struggled to stand up, which took a few tries, and then, in my addled state, somehow thought finishing her diaper and getting her pants on was the next relevant task. I got her dressed, and let her slide down to the floor along my body.

I was sweating like I had just finished a marathon (irony, pure irony), which the doctor later told me is a cortisol reaction to a blackout. I found the phone and discovered that my husband was still at the bus stop. He came right home, and we went to the hospital. After a battery of tests, they pronounced me flu-ridden, dehydrated and exhausted, with a soupcon of pink eye for good measure. They pumped me up with a drip and a pain reliever or two and sent me home with a scrip for the conjunctivitis.

Thus began my week from heck. Take it from me, the Norovirus is like a Dementor that saps your will to live. After laying both Maya and me out flat for several days, it lightened up a bit only to deliver a nasty set of secondary infections that required doctor’s visits and drugs. Then I had a very poor reaction to the (overly strong) antibiotic, and was kaputso for another two days.

We’ll just call it the Lost Week. Here are the questions I kept pondering in my still-queasy, half-alive state:

1) When you are sick and so is your kid, what in the samhey are you supposed to do? You can’t hand them off to someone else for fearing of giving another toddler the Bubonic, and you can’t really take care of them and get better yourself. After Monday, my husband had to go back to work and my mom (who did drive out to take care of Maya and stayed all day Monday) retired in fear of joining the germ-fest.

Then, it was just me and little Ms. Fellow Misery, and I’ll just say I did not love the company. I could not read to her, really, or play, and so the days were dreary, awful affairs. Needless to say, I violated every principle dear to me: we ordered (non-organic, and fairly gross) pizza; we watched a few videos. I couldn’t feed her or properly take care of me, I couldn’t see anyone or take her anywhere. It was isolating, and after the blackout, even a little scary.

2) How long will it be before Maya forgets what happened? Although I have never had this kind of fainting episode before, Maya keeps asking whether I will fall down, and before bed every night this week, has said she feels she is falling. She is also giving me lots of hugs and saying she wants to take care of me, which I have to admit is cuddlicious. Still, it’s clearly affected her. I know kids are resilient and all that, but it tears at my heart that I obviously scared her and seem less reliable in her eyes.

3) How can I prevent this from happening again? Everyone who has ever spent time alone with a child has feared a moment where they might be somehow, suddenly incapacitated. And this week, when it happened to me, it was just as terrifying as you think it might be. My resolution is to try to take better measure of my limits, and certainly (duh) never to put Maya in high places whenever I don’t feel well enough to stand.

But it goes deeper than that: before this happened, I don’t think I had really ever grappled before with this new responsibility to Maya that is really, first and foremost, about taking care of me. It’s like what they always tell us on planes: we have to get our own oxygen masks secure first.

We were lucky, and I am very grateful, but it could have been so much worse, as I shudder to think. Despite this awful, relentless illness, I think I found out the relatively easy way: when we don’t take good care of ourselves as parents, it’s our kids that could get hurt.