Having dealt with other peoples’ kids for much of my life, I know all too well that parents have a tendency to freak out and overreact to every little cautionary warning that comes along. So we felt a need to offer some cautionary advice in the beginning of this book that puts this risk into perspective. It’s important to absorb this information rationally and take steps to limit harmful exposures without getting alarmist or neurotic about it. There’s an often fine line between concerned parenting and irrational overprotection.

How concerned should parents be over harmful chemicals?

So just how harmful are everyday chemicals? The answer is, nobody knows for certain. On one hand, you have lobbyist groups such as the American Chemistry Council who try to downplay the risk of dangerous substances while deceiving the public into assuming that the chemicals around them have all been tested and proven to be safe. This position is simply laughable, yet virtually every news article on potentially toxic chemicals that comes from a mainstream media outlet will have some quote form a chemical lobbyist group trying to assure the public of just that. Dr. Andrew Weil sums it up best by saying, “do not believe people who try to allay your concerns about toxic exposures. This is a real threat, and you must learn to take protective measures.” (Weil, 1995, p. 156)

In fact, if you consider the number of deaths and hospitalizations each year attributed to things like air pollution or toxin-related cancer, or the number of fetal and newborn deaths attributed to toxic exposure, then this issue is easily as big as car accidents, drug abuse, or any other major public health concern. (See our facts & statistics pages or the information we offer on the Effects of Toxic Exposure for actual numbers on these issues.)

On the other end you have alarmist groups that tend to overhype the danger of chemical exposure. They take an almost religious stance against anything deemed “unnatural,” forgetting that the world is full of natural toxins as well (such as background radiation, natural arsenic or lead in the soil, and so on). They go to ridiculous lengths to try to shield their children from these things, often at great inconvenience to themselves and their families. They may take a position that puts their child in greater risk (such as the case of people who skip vaccinations over irrational and unfounded fears that the trace chemicals once contained in them might cause autism). There is often a tradeoff between one potential risk (plastics chemicals) and another (shattered glass bottles, increased risk of foodborne illness, etc.). Most of all, the fear and paranoia they bring into their lives produces a lot of added and unnecessary stress, and stress itself is a natural toxin that can be just as harmful as many of these chemicals. (See our information on stress in our book Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison.)

Both extremes are dangerous. Ignoring toxic chemicals puts your child at risk, and going to all ends of the earth to try and avoid them can substantially limit your family’s quality of life. Parents need to find a healthy median.

An overreaction to harmful chemicals

Let’s give an example of the flawed reasoning behind the extremist position towards avoiding chemicals. There are some parents out there who will throw an irate tantrum and act as though their youngster has been poisoned should their child get ahold of a sippy cup that isn’t marked as BPA-free. While many studies have shown that BPA is a chemical linked to many health risks, here’s where the silliness comes in:

The reality is that parents as a whole never thought twice about this issue until a few years ago, when the risks of BPA burst into public awareness through media reports. Yet BPA has been around since the 1940s. Amazingly, children survived. There are no doubt other chemicals in the world today whose dangers have yet to be discovered. You’re not concerned about them yet because you don’t know about them. Yet these unknown risks are just as harmful as those we know about.

Taking an extremist or alarmist position toward any particular chemical is what psychologists would refer to as irrational thinking. It’s like focusing all your attention on the snake or spider you can see, while ignoring the fact that there are snakes and spiders all around you that you can’t see. Parents should certainly take reasonable steps to limit a child’s exposure to chemicals that research shows to be harmful, and we also need greater parental activism on this subject. But to dwell on these things excessively and assume your child’s future pivots around this one particular risk is an exercise in futility.

Approaching the risk from chemicals in a healthy, rational way

Reducing a child’s exposure to chemical toxins is an issue very similar to avoiding obesity through healthy diet and exercise: While feeding a child candy and McDonald’s all day every day would adversely affect their health, it would be an unnecessary overreaction to restrict these things altogether. You will never be able to avoid all toxins in the environment. Your goal should be to minimize exposure to potentially harmful toxins wherever and whenever possible, while recognizing that some exposure is inevitable and doesn’t mean a child is doomed. This is not a zero-sum, all-or-nothing game.

There is no way to completely eliminate a child’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. We’ve polluted to the far ends of the Earth, so even if you moved your family off the grid to some remote place, you’re never going to completely escape it. Even the Earth itself has a certain degree of toxicity to it.

So please, use this information rationally. Become an informed parent who knows what the risks are, and take steps to limit your family’s exposure. But don’t lose your head or take a dive off the deep end.