Living - and parenting - in a toxic world


By Robyn Monaghan


Parents of a certain age remember the slogan, "a better world through chemistry" in the 1950s and '60s, which promised new compounds as the key to a life of luxury in a carefree future.

It seems toxins are everywhere these days, but purging chemicals from life can be a hard pill to swallow.

A couple of generations back in the gene pool, those parents are mostly grandparents, and contemporary science is telling us that the chemical cures to our ills and irritations may be worse than the nuisances they were created to eliminate.

Making connections between our chemical frenemies and runaway rates of developmental disabilities isn't just for tree-huggers and hippies anymore. The link between toxins and the American pandemic of autism, attention deficit disorders and allergies is moving into the mainstream, say agencies supporting people with disabilities.

Dr. Peter Orris, who co-authored an American Medical Association resolution calling for federal reform on chemicals, says experts are just beginning to connect the dots between chemicals and developmental disabilities.

"Many substances that we previously thought were toxic only at higher levels, we are beginning to understand now in fact incorporate in people's bodies," says Orris, professor and chief of service in Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center School of Public Health.

This generation of children is exposed to an enormous number of toxins before they are even born, says Cindy Schneider, medical director of the Center for Autism Research and Education and the mother of two children with autism.

"Doctors and medical researchers are just now beginning to realize the cumulative effects of the many, many toxins to which we are exposed each day," she says.

Everyday enemies

But purging chemicals from life can be a hard pill to swallow.

The culprits are so much a part of our everyday world, it boggles the mind to imagine how we could cope without them.

Cathy Ficker Terrill, of Elmhurst, took on the overwhelming task of detoxifying her family's living space. When Terrill started tracking her 4-year-old daughter Beth's meltdowns, she saw how they came in tandem with home projects: When they resurfaced the driveway, when they scrubbed with ammonia-based cleaners, when the lawn service sprayed the lawn.

Terrill and her husband took extreme tactics. They built a new house as a fortress against Beth's neurological-based allergens. The house has all-wood floors and low-chemical paint that was baked on the walls to minimize chemical emissions. The family stopped using perfumed personal products, banished pesticides and fertilizers from the yard and stopped cleaning with chemicals. Now they just use vinegar and baking soda.

Terrill says she figured it out the hard way.

"Parents of children with learning disabilities need to take a long, hard look at their environment and the chemicals that are all around us and start making some critical connections," she says.

Robyn Monaghan is a freelance writer living in Plainfield.

See more of Robyn's stories here.


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