Panicked parents need pacifying

How a dubious story about baby pacifiers set off an anxiety attack among New York mums.

Nancy McDermott

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Topics Politics

Worry is a normal part of parenthood, but when we believe more in what we don’t know than in common sense and rational inquiry, being a parent becomes a whole lot harder and a lot less fun than it to needs to be.

It started innocently. A mother on my local parenting email list here in New York asked a question about weaning her baby from the pacifier. Moms and dads in my neck of the woods are a good natured lot and soon began a lively exchange of war stories, of pacifiers lost on long haul flights, of binkies exchanged for coins by the ‘pacifier fairy’ and how the dentist says they rarely affect teeth, so one shouldn’t worry. And then someone, half in jest, mentioned that she had read somewhere that pacifiers cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and wasn’t that just absurd? Debate and speculations ensued: ‘It was the plastic ones’; ‘No, the rubber ones’; ‘They don’t make that kind any more’; ‘What about the silicon ones?’; ‘Actually the real threat is plastic baby bottles’.

The story emerged in the form of cut-and-paste quotations with links to articles on the internet and went something like this: When plastic containers are heated, they break down, leaching a dangerous toxic chemical into the foods stored in them. The nasty chemical, bisphenol-A (BPA), supposedly mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen causing cancers, impaired immune function, premature puberty, obesity, diabetes and ADHD.

By coincidence a new study from the Environmental California Research and Policy Center purported to show that the levels of BPA leaching from baby bottles were far higher than previously reported and recommended 11 ‘simple and easy changes’ to help parents avoid exposing their children to toxic chemicals, including: avoiding canned goods and foods wrapped in plastics, buying aluminium or stainless steel sippy cups, selecting only plastics displaying the numbers one, two or five in the triangular recycling symbol on their undersides, while avoiding those displaying the number three (number four was not mentioned) and never allowing children to put plastic toys in their mouths (1).

And then things got a little torturous. It seems there are only a few local places that sell aluminium-lined sippy cups. Glass baby bottles, though aesthetically pleasing, are heavy and breakable. And it’s all a bit pricey. One woman got prepared to throw out every last plastic cup, plate and utensil. In the playground, parents joked nervously about the damage already sustained over months of wanton plastic gnawing. Scary stuff – if it was true. Except that the evidence was as flimsy as the wrapper on a juice box straw.

This particular scare traces its roots back to a 1998 study by Frederick vom Saal, a researcher and environmental activist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His work with mice exposed to low levels of BPA seemed to show side effects including the early onset of puberty in female mice and increased prostate weight in males.

The study caused some initial concern, but so far no other peer-reviewed study has been able to replicate vom Saal’s results. Scientists commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration, the European Community and the Japanese Ministry of Health have all tried and failed. Finally, last year, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis released its report reviewing the studies of BPA and found that there is ‘no consistent affirmative evidence of low-dose BPA effects for any endpoint’. (2) Among the inconsistencies they pointed to were: the effects seen in mice don’t occur in rats; effects seen in small numbers of mice aren’t observed in studies of larger numbers of mice; no studies have been done on animals more closely related to human beings; human exposure to BPA is typically significantly lower than even the low levels used in lab experiments on rodents. Furthermore, they pointed out that while estrogen and BPA share some similar properties, they aren’t exactly the same; large doses of the hormone estrogen, for instance, have been shown to cause cancer, while large doses of BPA do not.

You might think this information, coupled with the fact that many of today’s parents used plastic containers throughout their own childhoods with no apparent ill effects would be reassuring enough. But parents don’t get off that easily.

‘It’s all about exposure over time’, one mother explained. ‘There is no way, in our society, to completely protect ourselves or our children against the dangerous toxins in plastics, cleaning products, pesticides etc. So my attitude is: do what you can, but don’t make yourself nuts.’ And yet, the hyper-awareness of risk that has come to define parenting today seems uniquely suited to accomplish just that.

In January 2007, New York magazine ran a story by a woman who became worried about toxic chemicals in her home after fuel oil spilled in her basement. She called in professionals who tested the air and found it clean enough, but she became preoccupied with what might be lurking in the environment. She soon discovered other parents with the same concerns. It wasn’t just about air quality, but also plastic bottles and air freshener, fire retardant and fabric softener. It was volatile organic compounds (VOCs) ‘off-gassing’ into the air from the paint on the walls. It was the vinyl stroller covers and shower curtains. She writes: ‘There’s a lot of uncertainty: What does it mean if something is classified as a “likely” carcinogen? Is our children’s low-level, daily exposure to any number of chemicals perfectly fine, or causing subtle neurological damage? And if these things aren’t good for us, what are they doing to our overtaxed planet?’ (3)

And while it might be tempting to label New Yorkers as the ‘most neurotic and obsessive parents in the world’, as Manhattan gossip-mag Gawker.com did, anxieties like these are ubiquitous. In the past month alone, every major parenting magazine in the country ran a story about toxins in the environment. Mothering magazine, a publication all about ‘natural family living’, regularly advises parents about the dangers of vaccines, ultrasounds, epidurals, pesticides, non-organic baby clothing and other products.

Of course, parental anxiety is nothing new, but regular scares about what lurks in the environment take fear to a new level. Worries about our children’s development, how much they’re eating or the quality of their schools are at least somewhat finite. Juvenile eating habits change and school situations are subject to intervention of one sort or another. But what should parents do when everyday objects or experiences are seen as potentially dangerous, when it is said that vaccinating your child, using a plastic shower curtain or simply breathing the air could lead to long-term health problems like obesity, diabetes, allergies, ADHD or even autism? When conventional wisdom demands that we apply the precautionary principle – meaning that it is no longer enough to show that something is not dangerous, but it must be proven to be safe – to our children’s environment, parents just can’t win.

One mom told me: ‘I was just talking with a friend yesterday about the new studies about fish, which now say the advice to avoid it while pregnant (due to mercury) is wrong, and that children born to women who did not eat fish during pregnancy are at risk of lower IQ’s! I’m one of those who avoided most fish during pregnancy… It really is crazy making!’

It’s no wonder parents end up feeling as if they are twisting in the wind. The anxious response of parents in my neighborhood to concerns about plastic pacifiers and the dangers of BPA is a snapshot of how fear of the unknowable seeps into the fabric of everyday life, causing distress and confusion. But what, if anything, can we do to inject a little sanity into the discussion?

We should take a step back and consider whether we really want to be part of a parenting culture that encourages us to become preoccupied with what we don’t know and what we can’t control. This approach renders us powerless and ineffectual almost by definition. We all want the best for our kids, but the demand for parents to make their children safe in a world where it isn’t possible to know what is safe is a recipe for endless frustration and crippling doubt. Most parents eventually find a level of caution they can live with, but adopting a more critical attitude to the information we’re bombarded with, coupled with a focus on the weight of evidence, can help to put our fears into perspective.

In the end, perhaps the best thing we can do is to accept that though we will love our children for all time, we can’t keep them safe for all time. Nor should we feel obliged to try. To be a parent is to discover the world anew alongside our children. Whether they experience the world as something to be embraced or as a threatening place riddled with hidden dangers and risks depends on how we, the parents, approach it. That, at least is something all of us can control.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother-of-two based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Bill Durodié argued that gender-bending chemicals were more fiction than fact. Neil Davenport suspected that fewer women choose to have children due to endless panics about motherhood. Frank Furedi pointed out that parents shouldn’t be considered 24-hour chaperones. Jennie Bristow showed that efforts to turn parents in police officers are deeply dysfunctional. Or read more at: spiked issue Parents and Kids

(1) Toxic Baby Bottles: Scientific Study Finds Leeching Chemicals in Clear Plastic Baby Bottles Environmental Californian Research Center and Policy Center, 27 February 2007

(2) Risk in Perspective, George Gray and Joshua Cohen in Weight of the Evidence Evaluation Of Reproductive And Developmental of Effects Of Bisphenol A, Vol. 12 Issue 3, August 2004

(3) Indulge your paranoia, New York Magazine

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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