talking about toxics; baby shower

Sharyle & AvaTalking about Toxics; What to Say at a Baby Shower

Most of the time, I’m an organizer that works for better regulations for toxic chemicals. I’m interested in making sure that none of the “stuff “ we use everyday, such as shampoo, lotions, dishwashing detergent, floor wax, toys, couches, rugs or flooring, contains chemicals that could harm our health and our communities.

Many of these toxic chemicals can leach out of everyday products and enter our bodies through the air we breathe, the food we eat, or through contact with our skin. I know because my job is to test people’s bodies for the presence of toxic chemicals found in everyday products. This work is called “biomonitoring,” which means the testing of human tissues and fluids for chemical substances. The results from biomonitoring studies can guide us in working for better regulations about how toxic chemicals are made, used, and disposed of.

Working with Washington Toxics Coalition’s Erika Schreder, we invited a group of very brave first-time moms to be biomonitored during their second trimester. The moms and the research team learned that all tested were carrying levels of toxic chemicals at the same time they were carrying their babies. The results of this study ( are in Mothering’s archives, if you want to know what kinds of chemicals we biomonitored for.

The news about their toxic chemical body burdens was heartbreaking, but not unexpected. All of us carry a body burden of hundreds of man-made or industrial chemicals, and women who are pregnant are no exception. But what is worrisome is that a developing baby is extremely vulnerable to toxic chemicals, since this is a time of rapid growth, and the natural mechanisms that give protection from some of the effects of toxics haven’t yet kicked in.

My own sense of concern deepened when my daughter in law, Sara, and my son, Jim, announced that they were pregnant and that I would be a first time grandmother in a few months. It hit home when I was at Sara’s baby shower. As part of the festivities, we each were asked to give advice to Sara about giving birth, about taking care of a newborn, about being a mom, whatever we thought would be helpful and would support her through the upcoming years of motherhood.

I heard many wise words from Sara’s family and friends, and I thought about how it seems to be true that when we open our mouths to speak to our children, our own mothers’ words come out, usually the words that were the most meaningful and that gave us a sense of love and encouragement. I thought that Sara would find this out for herself the first time she sang a lullaby, comforted a tired child, and called for a time-out. She would find herself speaking words from her mother, her grandmother and her great grandmother.

But I knew I had something to say that the grandmothers and great-grandmothers had not said. I knew that there is a new message, which did not exist in the experience of previous generations. The message is that now, for the first time, the world is newly full of industrial chemicals, most of which did not exist one hundred years ago. And most of these chemicals have not been tested for their effects on human health. The tests we do have tell a troubling story. For example: bisphenol A , a chemical used in and emitted from everything from baby bottles to carbonless paper, has been linked in laboratory studies to diabetes and behavior abnormalities, and alters mammary and prostate gland development in ways that likely predispose to later cancers. Chemicals called phthalates, used to soften plastics and in fragrances, are connected to lower sperm count, undescended testes, and asthma. And so on.

What could I say that would be helpful, something not overwhelming but truly useful? At the time, I simply said that I knew Sara’s own wisdom, which is considerable, would give her many answers and that she should trust herself and the memories that she carried.

But then I found an opportunity when the gifts were opened. A well-meaning person had given Sara a set of baby products such as shampoo, baby soap, and an assortment of lotions. Of course, when I sidled over to unobtrusively (I hope) read the labels, the ingredient list of unpronounceable chemicals was like a roll call of harm, nothing that should ever be put on a new baby’s delicate skin.

So a few days later, like the meddling grandmother I had suddenly become, I sent a note, saying that I would be sending over some child care products that had been tested and found to be toxic chemical free, and suggested that the new parents might want to consult a website that can tell them which personal care products are safer to use.

The database is called It’s easy to explore and tells you how many and what kinds of toxic chemicals are used in making a wide array of personal care products. The database also tells you why you should care, because it tells you what kinds of diseases have been linked to each toxic chemical. This is information the manufacturers don’t tell you.

So this is the beginning. Next month I’ll send over phthalate free-baby toys, and then later, bisphenol A free-baby bottles. We’ll see.

Today, I’m a very proud first-time grandmother of a baby girl and am full of wonder and gratitude. And she is clearly full of sugar and spice, as you can see from the photo. I plan to continue to sweetly meddle, with the hopes that this precious baby girl’s body will not carry anything that nature didn’t intend. I’m interested in hearing how other Green Grandmas are helping new moms create safe and healthy environments.

Sharyle Patton

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