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Green moms don't inhale (or shouldn't)

“Having a baby is likely to turn parents green.”

It sounds ominous, but it’s the title of a UK Cooperative Bank report
announcing that 7 out of 10 parents became more interested in the
environment after the birth of their child. You don’t have to take
their word for it. Julia Roberts and Britney Spears are
headline-grabbing proof.

Roberts’ transformation involves a Prius, a solar-powered house,
environmentally friendly diapers and a re-usable metal cup for takeout
coffee. She told Vanity Fair that she believes little things make a

“People think, well, I won’t be here when the planet implodes. But
maybe your grandchildren will, or your great-grandchildren will, or
your great-great grandchildren. And if you could give them one more day
on earth, wouldn’t you do that for them?”- Vanity Fair “Green Issue”, August 2006

Roberts has moved on to do bigger things like become a spokesperson for Earth BioFuels, but Britney is still content with the smaller tasks.

“Since becoming a mum I have become so green. I am making sure that
all my stuff is organic and I get rid of rubbish in a green way.
Actually it is fun.”

I’ve been getting rid of my rubbish in a green way since
my parents taught me to use our compost pile, so I didn’t expect
expecting to change me, but suddenly, I am holding my breath at gas
stations and around window cleaners or the smell of a recently mopped
floor. It’s an instinctual reaction, but could it be some “mother
sense” warning me that if I breathe these chemicals my child could
develop funny, or am I just crazy in pregnancy? I need something more
than instinct to guide me.

A few minutes online and I have found many links pointing me to the
same study by the independent consumer group Environmental Working
Group. It contains new research that gives all new importance to the
quality of the blood I’m sharing with my developing child. Apparently,
scientists used to think that the placenta protected the fetus from
most chemicals and pollutants, but when researchers cut open the
umbilical cords of a group of US newborns they found “an average of 200
industrial chemicals and pollutants”.

“The umbilical cord blood… harbored pesticides, consumer product
ingredients, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage… Among
them are eight perfluorochemicals used as stain and oil repellants in
fast food packaging, clothes and textiles — including the Teflon
chemical PFOA, recently characterized as a likely human carcinogen by
the EPA’s Science Advisory Board — dozens of widely used brominated
flame retardants and their toxic by-products; and numerous pesticides.
Environmental Working Group, July 14, 2005

From the sound of it the only safe place while pregnant is an ICU.
It’s enough to make you want to give up any kind of control and go eat
sushi in a jacuzzi. Of course, some pregnant moms do and everything
turns out fine, but the chemicals found in the umbilical blood were
pretty serious: “180 cause cancer in humans or animals… and 208 cause
birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.”

If Julia Roberts has changed her life to give her great-grandkids
one more day on earth, I can definitely change mine to give my child a
reduced risk of cancer or birth defects, but where to begin? I was
tempted to follow a rumor I’d heard about the Teflon chemical PFOA (as
mentioned above) and the off-gassing of non-stick pans, but I decided
to save it for another day when I noticed the EWG site had put together
a very convenient list of twelve basic steps to reduce your chemical

  • Eat fewer processed foods, which often contain chemical additives.
  • Eat organic produce. It’s grown without synthetic pesticides and preservative chemicals.
  • Don’t microwave food in plastic containers, use glass or ceramics.
  • Run your tap water through a home filter before drinking. Filters can reduce levels of common tap water pollutants.
  • Eat fewer meat and high fat dairy products, which contain higher levels of some pollutants.
  • Reduce
    the number of cosmetics and other personal care products you use, which
    can contain harmful chemicals and can be sold with no safety testing.
  • Avoid artificial fragrances.
  • Don’t use stain repellants on clothing, bedding or upholstery.
  • Reduce the number of household cleaners you use. Try soap and water first.
  • Avoid using gasoline-powered yard tools — use manual or electric tools instead.
  • Avoid breathing gasoline fumes when you’re filling your car.
  • Eat
    seafood known to be low in PCB and mercury contamination, including
    wild Alaska salmon and canned salmon. Avoid canned tuna — it contains

I was pleased to hear that my instincts around gas fumes (#10 &
11) and fragrances (#7) were justified. In a separate line of advice
for pregnant women they tell you not to wear nail polish and to paint
the baby room before you conceive. Those would have been breath-holding
events for me as well. Ah, the maternal instinct. Though looking at #9
maybe I should add “the paternal instinct.”

For weeks now, my husband has been insisting that I stop using our
dish detergent without gloves. I, being too lazy to peel them on and
off, have been ignoring his advice, but now I’m afraid he’s right.
Though the advice “try soap and water first” sounded like a research
scientist’s idea of a good cleaning, I know there are alternatives: to
begin with, all those organic cleaners I walk past in the supermarket,
and I have a friend who swears you can clean anything with baking soda,
vinegar and lemons.

I needed to explore my options for “clean” cleaning, but once again
I’ll leave that for another day. In the meantime I may try to take the
advice of the EWG’s last tip for expectant moms: “Is there someone in
your household who can take over using household cleaners while you’re
pregnant?” Suddenly, I’m in no rush to try anything new.