Chemicals are everywhere ~ they are in food packaging, skin care, soil and even the air we breath. Dr. Sarah Lantz explains how chemicals have a greater health effect on children than adults, and how we can raise our children in a more ‘green’ way.

Sunday morning at first light, we lift our small sleepy children from their warm slumber and make our way to our local organic farmers markets.

This early morning ritual means that we are sure not to miss out on the choicest morsels of grass fed organic meat, the tastiest fermented kimchi and kombucha, raw, cultured butter and cream from the cranky dairy women, eggs with yolks as bright as a sunset, and local fruits and vegetables snap fresh the previous day.

Supporting organic farmers is the main part of our family’s spiritual practice. And I want to tell you why.

Our children today live in an environment that is vastly different from that of a generation ago. They faced hazards that were neither known nor imagined a few decades ago.

The global chemical industry has risen 400-fold since 1930, escalating from around one million tonnes a year of industrial chemicals in 1930 to some 400 million tonnes being produced annually today. This is not to deny the many benefits and immediate conveniences that the global chemical industry has made to our fast-paced, consumer driven lives, but to also recognise that the production of chemicals is moving faster than our ability to thoroughly assess the risks of these chemicals.

Over 80,000 chemicals are now registered for use in Australia (38,000 industrial chemicals) and 75% of these have never been tested for their toxicity on the human body or the environment. And one thing is certain – children suffer a disproportionate share of the chemical burden.

They are particularly vulnerable due to their lower body weight, lower metabolic rates and fewer detoxifying enzymes that do not process or excrete toxins the way adults’ bodies do.

They digest more food and water and breathe more than adults per kilo of body weight. They have a higher skin surface area to body weight ratio than adults, and the skin of children is more permeable resulting in enhanced absorption of chemicals.

Physiologically, children also dwell closer to the ground exposing them to residues from gardens, car exhausts, flooring and carpets and can experience sustained exposure due to their restricted mobility. And babies, when they are born and for months after, have an open blood-brain barrier that welcomes most chemicals through its membranic structure.



Pesticides, brominated ame-retardants, dioxin, methylmercury, parabens, triclosan, vinyl, phthalates, bisphenol A and other synthetic chemicals are regularly detected in the blood and tissue of our freshly birthed babies, young children, and women of reproductive age.

These chemicals come from our everyday personal care products, cosmetics, food and food packaging, on surfaces and in the soil, water and air, building materials, and cleaning products. We inhale them, we ingest them, we absorb them into our bodies.

And while the long-term health effects of these toxicants are yet to be fully realised, what we do know, is that exposure has been linked with a range of new childhood morbidities including congenital malformations, diabetes, allergenicity, generalised immune disorders, obesity, intellectual impairments, autism, asthma, neurological and behavioral conditions, and preterm birth. But I am sure we must have regulations that protect our children from such wickedness?

While Australia has taken some significant steps in relation to environmental health, ratifying a number of international conventions and agreements pertaining to the right of the child and chemical regulations, such that we have some recognised concern for the future, it currently does not convert this concern into a recognisable moral imperative to legislate.

There is currently no specific legislation to protect children from environmental hazards. Nor is there any comprehensive national program, policy, agenda or organisation that specifically focuses on children’s environmental health in Australia that I know of. This lack of a regulatory framework in Australia means that the domestic routines of family life with young children – whilst often seeming isolated and detached from public life – are inextricably bound to the most urgent public health issues of our times.

As a mother I watch how school lunches are linked to global systems of agriculture (predominantly industrial agriculture such as feedlots and corn subsidies); most family sunscreens can be linked to some of the most powerful known carcinogens on the planet; the persistent brominated flame-retardants that are woven into the fabric of our children’s pj’s are without proof of safety (and showing up in the blood cord of newborn babies); and our Sunday outing to pick local strawberries – fumigated by the vaporous pesticide methyl bromide – can be directly linked to the stability of the stratospheric ozone layer. (The imperative to phase out the use of this fumigant is to hastily replace it with methyl iodide which exhibits a remarkable propensity to target the brain and nervous system, and damage the developing fetus – not much of a choice really).

It makes me think about the lack of soul it takes to build such an industry where profit comes before health – in particular our children’s health.

A salient feature of chemical exposure though, and one that gives me great hope and possibility, is that chemical exposure is largely an act of human activity, and because of this, it is a preventable and modifiable risk factor for most diseases.

The decisions we make today – as parents, policy makers, chemists, governments – in relation to the use of chemicals in the environment will directly (and indirectly) affect the health of our children – both the current generation and future generations. And for us as parents of two small children, toxicity, of any kind, is not a consumer choice. Nor should it be for any parent! This is precisely why we choose to put our money to support an agricultural system that does not rely on toxic chemicals to produce the food we eat, the creams and lotions we put on our bodies, or the cleaning products for our household. We choose to support prevention. And organic farmers do just that. By buying organics I nourish my families body and skin and at the same time work towards the prevention of cancer, birth defects, asthma and behavioral disorders in my local area.

For us, the spiritual practice of organics is ethical, cost-effective (because it is also disease and illness preventative)and connects us to a vibrant, earthy community. It also importantly connects me to the earth. And I don’t know about you, but when I am connected to the rhythms of the earth – the seasonality of local vegetables and fruit, the endless heartbeat of the ocean, the times of bee pollination – I am a much more peaceful parent.

Richard Louv coined the ‘nature-deficit disorder’ i.e. the disconnection we have from nature. His goal is to reduce this ‘disorder’. Why? Because it is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it.

Exposure to nature reduces diseases, improves cognitive abilities and resistance to stresses. John Muir’s quote is also apt here:

‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature, (s)he finds it attached to the rest of the world’.

Last Sunday morning at the markets, after collecting our fresh bounty for the week, I watched my children (and kids generally) forage in the connecting children’s garden – dig their hands into fresh compost, pull out worms and weeds, dig holes, plant seeds. I watch them nibble on the rocket flowers, and shamelessly climb the orange laden branches of the mandarin tree to pick the juiciest fruit at the top. And when they come back to me laden with grimy covered clothes, fruit stains on their faces, and dirt under their fingernails, I know I am on track as a parent. And this gives me peace.

Raising em’ green is awesome. And it’s a choice!

Dr. Sarah Lantz is a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, mother and author. Photography by Rachel Gray Photography. As published in issue #1 of Nurture ~ in print, and available by digital download.

Subscribe to Nurture – Australia’s Natural Parenting Magazine – From pregnancy to the early childhood learning years, Nurture Parenting Magazine is Australia’s premier magazine for modern parents and parents-to-be.

Packed with the latest in natural health and holistic parenting — from childbirth, breastfeeding, baby and child care to nutrition, gentle discipline and home remedies, Subscribe to receive the gift of Nurture!