Given the rising tally of smog days every summer and warnings about the risk of toxins lurking in everything from apples to baby toys, it’s not hard to understand why Stephen and Laurie Collette, who live in Lakefield, Ont. with their two young daughters, are seeing a growing interest in earth-friendly lifestyles. Stephen is an environmental building consultant and Laurie runs an annual Green Expo. “Attendance is up every year,” she says. And when I go to my mommy’s group, people are asking me about cotton diapers.”
Having kids can be a powerful motivator for greening our lifestyles, as CBC broadcaster Gill Deacon well knows. “When my son was born, awareness of pesticides in foods was growing. I found it hard to go to the store and buy grapes from Mexico that might be coated with pesticides to save 69 cents, and then feed them to this baby that I loved.” Deacon’s concern for her children’s health blossomed into a career focus on environmental issues. She hosted the CBC show Code Green, and is the author of Green Tips: How to Save Money and the Planet. She’s dedicated to spreading the word that green choices not only benefit your family’s health, they help protect the planet and can save you money too.
We asked Todaysparent.com users to tell us whether they’d made any environment-friendly changes in the past six months: 690f over 650 respondents said yes. Almost 100 people agreed to tell us more about their choices:
88% Have a pesticide-free yard
70% Buy organic or locally grown food
51% Drive less and walk more
47% Use non-toxic cleaning products
There’s good reason to be concerned about our children’s health. Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, explains that smaller bodies are more susceptible to chemical overload. “Kilogram for kilogram kids eat more, drink more and breathe more than an adult. Let’s say a child has a banana and a glass of water. If there are contaminants in there, they will affect that child more than an adult.”
Then there’s the health of the planet to consider. “When you have kids, you’re considering the impact of your choices beyond the immediate convenience,” observes Deacon. “At first blush, that frozen dinner in the microwave seems like a good way to get dinner on the table in a hurry. But consider the packaging that has to go somewhere, and that the food is processed before being packaged…. Suddenly that dinner in a box isn’t looking so good.”
All of these experts insist your wallet will benefit when you make planet-friendly choices. For instance, says Forman, using the cleaning agents our grandparents relied on, rather than more costly (and more toxic) household cleaners, saves you money while protecting your baby from exposure to harmful chemicals.
Safeguarding our children from environmental pollutants and leaving a cleaner world for them to grow up in is a daunting task. But take heart, says Randi Kruse, who is the nature challenge specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver and mother to a two-year-old. “Environmental change is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You don’t have to live in a cave and eat tofu. If we collectively make good choices, it will make a big difference.” Deacon agrees: “This is something you can grow into.”
Making the switch to organic food should be your number one priority if you have young children, says Forman. To qualify as organic, produce must be grown or produced without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or, in the case of meat, without growth hormones and tenderizers, and from animals fed only organic feed.
What about the cost? We do pay a premium for organic food, so Deacon suggests prioritizing. Definitely go organic in the dairy section, she says. Then when buying produce, be selective. Peaches, apples, lettuce, bell peppers, imported grapes, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries are among crops that carry the most pesticide residue, so buy these organic if you can. Broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, onions, asparagus and peas tend to be less contaminated, along with produce with thicker skins like pineapples, bananas, kiwis and mangos. Also consider your family’s preferences. For example, if your little two-year-old is addicted to apples, search out an organic grower and buy by the bushel.
Choosing locally grown foods is also important when you’re buying groceries. “There are so many benefits to buying locally,” says Kruse. “It protects green space, helps sustain viable farming communities, supports local farmers, produces less greenhouse gases by reducing food transportation. Not only that, the food has higher nutrient values, and it tastes better because it’s fresher.”
The rule of thumb for grocery shopping is “choose organic local food first, local non-organic second, and imported organic third (read the signs in the produce department),” says Deacon. “Organic soup in a can that was manufactured in Texas isn’t as good an option as something non-organic from your local farmers’ market.”
“During the First World War, chlorine was used as a poisonous gas to kill people. Now we clean our houses with it,” says Collette. “In our desire for a sparkling clean and sanitary house, we’re exposing our families to all kinds of toxic chemicals.”
But don’t governments protect consumers from dangerous chemicals in household products? “No,” says Deacon. “The law doesn’t require proof that chemicals are safe before they’re on the market.”
To keep your house clean and green, look for products that clearly state they’re non-toxic on the label. Better yet, rely on old standards like vinegar to clean your windows, lemon juice to scour out a pot, and baking soda (and a little elbow grease) on the bathtub to do the job without leaving toxins behind.
Kids are crawling around on the grass all the time,” observes Deacon. “It’s simple logic that if a lawn pesticide is designed to kill something, it’s going to be harmful to your baby.”
“Research continues to show a link,” adds Forman, “between exposure to pesticides, sprayed on lawns, gardens and fruit trees, and cancer, including childhood leukemia.”
Does that mean a nice lawn is a thing of the past? “No,” says Forman. “It’s a question of changing our cultural practices.” Cutting high, watering less often but deeply, and using compost rather than fertilizer are good ways to maintain a lawn — albeit dotted with a few dandelions — that you’ll be happy to let your baby play on.
If you’re a gardener, you know that a square metre is all that is required to set up a compost bin. Get your toddler to help you tote raw fruit and vegetable waste, grains, eggshells, baked goods, tea bags and coffee grounds to the bin and watch how the amount of garbage you’re lugging to the curb shrinks. In a few months, use the composted material to nourish the plants in your garden.
Think about the last time you opened a new vinyl shower curtain. Remember that plasticky smell? That’s the smell of VOCs — a.k.a. volatile organic compounds — which are dangerous chemicals emitted as gases from many manufactured goods including carpet and flooring, building supplies, air fresheners and cleaning products…the list is endless. “They’re volatile because we don’t smell them for long, but these toxic chemicals remain in the atmosphere for a long time and are a major contributor to indoor air pollution,” explains Collette.
How to reduce exposure? When you’re redecorating your toddler’s bedroom or setting up a playroom, think wood, says Collette. Solid wood, rather than vinyl or carpeting, is always a better choice on the floor, and old yard-sale finds a better option than new particle-board furniture that off-gases formaldehyde. If you’re painting, use low-VOC paints from such manufacturers as Benjamin Moore or Farrow & Ball.
“We all need to reduce the amount of plastics we have in our houses,” says Forman. Chemicals called phthalates are added to some plastics, including those used to make toys, to make them pliable, and studies have shown these to be linked with liver, kidney and reproductive-system damage. This is especially worrisome with young children because they tend to put everything in their mouths. The harder the plastic, the fewer additives it will contain. The ideal alternative is a wooden toy with a non-toxic finish.
Few of us can manage to reduce our plastic inventory to zero but, says Forman, we can look for the PET stamp which means the plastic can be recycled.
Driving our cars does more harm to the planet than any other human activity, causing smog, global warming and water pollution. Start by walking with your kids more often, especially in the nice weather.
There are ways to lessen your impact when you do drive. If you’re car shopping, choose a fuel-efficient vehicle, say these experts. No matter what your vehicle, small measures, such as obeying the speed limit (speeding burns more gas), maintaining your engine properly and not leaving your car idling, yield big savings in fuel consumption.
The bottom line is that making environment-friendly lifestyle choices allows us to live well and do good — for our families, our communities and the world our children will inherit. As Kruse says, “People need to understand that the future isn’t inevitable. We invent it every day with the choices we make.”
If you really want to leave a cleaner world for your kids, says Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, you have to become politically active. Politicians are more likely to implement measures like the Kyoto Protocol, shut down coal-fired generators or impose municipal bans on pesticides if large numbers of citizens demand these changes.
How to Save Money and the Planet by Gillian Deacon. To order, contact Green Living (416) 360-0044, ext. 315, $4.95.
ewg.org Click on Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to download a wallet-sized shopping guide
lesstoxicguide.ca This Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia site provides information on the risks of commonly used products — everything from diapers to dish soap — and safe alternatives. Click on Household Cleaners
greenup.on.ca For advice on how to have a nice lawn without chemicals. Click on Factsheets
vehicles.gc.ca Find out how fuel efficient your car is
myfootprint.org This quiz tallies your ecological impact on the planet
How healthy are the products we use on our babies? Environmental consultants Stephen and Laurie Collette pass on the simple ways they have found to give their daughters, Malaika and Nadarra, a green start:
Use some cloth diapers
The Collettes’ baby sometimes wears a chlorine-free, biodegradable disposable but, for the most part, she’s in cotton diapers. Even when you tally up water use, cloth diapers are a more environment-friendly option than conventional disposables, which clog landfill (taking generations to break down) and contain harmful chemicals in the plastic liner and the absorbent material.
Use natural skin care products
“Our bodies absorb whatever we apply to our skin,” says Stephen Collette. Health food stores and specialty beauty shops are good sources for all-natural, edible skin products like Gaia Natural Baby; shop online for Munchskins baby skin care products at cheekymonkey.ca. You’ll find non-toxic products like Burt’s Bees in drugstores now too.
Dispense with wipes
Instead of disposable wipes, use a stack of inexpensive cotton washcloths for diaper changes. For travelling, look for chlorine-free wipes.
Give new duds a milk bath
New clothing, bedding and change pads should always be washed before your baby uses them. These dry goods usually contain fire retardants, and formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, as sizing, which is used to stiffen cloth for a tidier display. You can neutralize formaldehyde in fabrics by soaking in milk (use powdered milk) and then washing.
Many parents have managed to clothe their young kids mostly in recycled second-hand clothing and hand- me-downs that have been through the wash a few times.
Look for organic cotton
If we buy it, they’ll make it! Look for organic cotton baby clothes from such sources as Cotton Ginny and Sage Creek Canada.
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.