Is It Safe To Play? Children, Toxins and The Burden of Vigilance

But where's my princess tea set? Photo, the New York Times
Body burden (i.e. all the chemicals roiling around our kid's bodies)

It's the new term I learned in the cheeky New York Times article chronicling the ways in which parents are making themselves crazy scouring their children's lives for potential toxins.  Is It Safe to Play Yet? Going to Extremes to Purge Household Toxins.   

The body burden of many a child is supposedly mounting thanks to the growing number of chemicals in the US over the past few decades (80,000 - 140,000).  Naturally, the explosion of environmental toxins has been linked to a number of diseases according to Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University:
As the chemical load, or “body burden,” has increased, Dr. Trasande said, “we’ve seen an increase in chronic childhood diseases: asthma, developmental disabilities, certain birth defects, certain childhood cancers. And these aren’t just two trends that exist at the same time. There are scientific studies that have tied the two together.”  Is It Safe to Play Yet? Going to Extremes to Purge Household Toxins, New York Times, March 14.
Scientific studies.  If they reflect the BPA and phthalate studies over the past decade it pretty much amounts to correlational surveys and yes, rodent experiments.  Um, yeah, possibly two trends that exist at the same time that have not been sufficiently cleansed of potential confounding factors.  Developmental delays? Methinks he has in mind ADHD and autism too, but let's not take those disorders on right now.   

Cancer.  Forget asthma and delays, much less worrisome than cancer.  It's true, some childhood cancers have increased over the past several decades but the two that account for roughly half of all new cases (leukemia, brain/central nervous system) have pretty much leveled off since the early to mid-1980s according to the National Cancer Institute. Death rates have declined too.

I know this because I too fell prey to parental paranoia and had to check out the cancer claims.  I hadn't planned on skimming the childhood cancer stats for an hour.  After reading the New York Times article I  wanted to talk about the missing piece in all the talk of environmental toxins - the psychological effects, the psychological burden of vigilance.

Vigilance Burden if you will.

So often the psychological costs get dissed.  As epigenetic researchers are tracing children's illnesses and disabilities to their grandparents' behavior - you are now responsible for the health and safety of not only your children but your unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren - there's hardly any discussion of the psychological burden of keeping your off-spring cancer-free or otherwise physically thriving. 

At what point do the psychological demands of vigilance (with very real emotional, cognitive, social and yes - physical - consequences) outweigh the harm of suspected toxins? 

These "vigilance effects" are likely more direct, more immediate and perhaps consequential in a child's (and parent's) life then the remote effects of any one ingredient or environmental exposure.  If only we had that study. 

Oh well, we do have the new term though.  Someone please, I beg you, try to factor it into the next study. Vigilance Burden.


Awesome Mom said...

This makes me crazy. Also we are all going to die of something sometime, no one has figured out how to live forever so even if we figure out cancer there will be something to take it's place so why spend so much energy obsessing over the toxins you may or may not ingest? I understand the whole let's not live on top of a radioactive waste dump, but nitpicking over things that may not actually cause any harm is not how I am going to spend mt energy.

Barbara said...

An excellent suggestion, Polly. Would you hypothesize the body burden to exacerbate a prediposition towards OCD? Or legal action against puveyors of body burden for measureable vigilance burden?

I smell control issues, too. That is if my nostrils were not ruined in the 20th Century.

You never fail to entertain & enlighten at the same time.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Yes it's a lot of energy to expand for susbtances that may have no to some impact.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Oh Barbara, this body burden is manna for the OCD types, no? And the affluent, organic-minded "high need for control" personalities. Me, I'm still buying the organic milk because it lasts for weeks and prevents me from running to the grocery store every other day.

Nostrils, goodness, can we talk about the joints, muscles and vision lost sometime in the last century?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

As for the legal ramifications, though I'm no legal expert and never entertained law school, if there was room for the Twinkie Defense I'd assume The Body Burden or Vigilance Burden might hold up.

Yes, let's enter Vigilance Burden into the damages wraught by toxiphobia. Absolutely.

JuliesMum said...

Lovely to hear a voice of sanity on this one, Polly. I guess it's inevitable that these things take hold - after all, we're all wired to protect our children from danger - but we don't always seem to be wired to do a bit of analysis first!