All credit for this article goes to the New York Times, Sunday, January 19 edition.
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East Like a Mennonite
ON the second day of my chemical-detox diet, I was very hungry. I’d been eating like a rabbit, all carrots and greens that I’d gathered, barehanded, from the baskets of the farmer’s market, no gloves or plastic bags allowed. I cooked up some quinoa that I bought packaged in paper from the supermarket sometimes known as Whole Paycheck. I was effectively a vegan because I couldn’t find meat or cheese that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, and I didn’t have access to accommodating livestock.
My 7-year-old daughter and I were participating in a pilot study conducted in 2011 by the Silent Spring Institute and the Breast Cancer Fund (a follow-up study was published later that year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives). We had urinated into some glass containers a few weeks earlier, back when we were “normal” Americans, and now we were spending three days trying to reduce our exposure to plastics before supplying our urine again.
We wanted to see what it would take to nudge down our bodies’ levels of a handful of common chemicals with the potential to mimic or disrupt hormones, including phthalates (found in some plastics and added to products like lotions to bind fragrances), triclosan (an antibacterial ingredient in many soaps, toothpastes and cutting boards) and bisphenol A (or BPA, a plastic-hardener and epoxy additive that may affect children’s brain development and that some believe may be linked to breast and prostate cancers).
Manufacturers have phased BPA out of some products, and last year, the Food and Drug Administration outlawed its use in baby bottles and sippy cups. This month Suffolk County, N.Y., banned certain cash register receipts that carry it.
Risks aside, the normal phase was a lot more fun. My daughter and I painted our toenails, took floral-scented bubble baths, ate refried beans out of a can and drank a couple of sodas. Go America! For detox, I became an isolated Anxiety Mom. We scrubbed off the nail polish. I didn’t venture far from home because I couldn’t ride in a car (phthalates waft out of plastic interiors) or shop (because of those store receipts). That turned out to be something of a relief, since I couldn’t wear makeup or deodorant. I lost three pounds. It was practically like living in the 19th century, except for my trusty bicycle helmet, which I wore despite the fact that it is a terrific example of the technology BPA makes possible.
A study published in 2010 found a very effective way to reduce urinary phthalate levels was to live meatless in a Buddhist temple for five days. A study recently published in the journal NeuroToxicology found that pregnant women in Old Order Mennonite communities, which eschew many modern conveniences, had urinary BPA levels one-fourth the national median. Those Mennonites eat more fresh food than the rest of us and make their own dairy products, but they also buy fewer consumer goods, which can be additional sources of BPA. The chemical is found in dental fillings, eyeglass lenses and CDs, among other products.
In lab-animal studies, BPA has been linked to mammary gland tumors, prostate and urethra problems and cardiac irregularities. The Food and Drug Administration maintains that BPA is safe in low levels, although in 2010 it expressed “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children.” And yet, last year’s bottle announcement seemed to be less about protecting infants than about putting confused parents at ease.
If anything, it has had the opposite effect. Parents who were worried about exposing their babies to a hormone-mimicking substance are just as worried about exposing their unborn children to it in the womb, or passing it along to newborns through breast milk. New sippy cups won’t change that.
One thing that could is adopting my extreme detox regime. My original BPA level was 5.1 nanograms per milliliter of urine, putting me in the upper quartile of Americans. (Levels here are, incidentally, twice those of Canada, which began restricting some uses of BPA in 2008.) After my three days of detox, my level dropped to 0.8, for an 84 percent reduction (I was not quite able to out-Mennonite the Mennonites — their everyday level was 0.71). My daughter’s level dropped even lower, to 0.65. That’s my little cave girl. The researchers speculated that perhaps my polycarbonate eyeglasses kept me from shedding more BPA.
In fact it’s surprisingly easy to change our bodies’ BPA chemistry; it just requires a big shift in eating habits and behavior for most of us. The substance passes in and out of the body quickly, but we are fed it in a daily drip.
So is it time to crank up my crank meter and demand that my children step away from the rubber duckie and join a religious sect? No. I like modern life, and I really like those canned refrieds.
Parents have enough to worry about without scrutinizing labels of baby bottles and wearing hazmat gloves to the grocery store. That’s why we should be relieved when the F.D.A. and local governments like Suffolk County help take over this doleful parenting task for us. It’s why we need the government to require testing of commercial chemicals for hormonal effects, and to regulate them in a meaningful way. And it’s why we need manufacturers to design products with safer substances in the first place.
As far as my family is concerned, we can eat only so much quinoa out of a paper bag.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 19, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the level of bisphenol A, a chemical compound used in consumer products, in the writer’s urine before she went on a detoxification diet. It was 5.1 nanograms per milliliter — not millimeter.
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