Health and safety scares explained

The truth behind the scare stories surrounding baby health and safety.

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Pesticides in food, socks scarring your baby’s legs, toys with lead paint, BPA dangers when bottlefeeding, radiation in baby monitors. Just what should you believe when news headlines make scary claims about risks to your baby’s health and safety?

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We look at the most recent scare stories, to find out what the true risk is – and what you can do to protect your baby.

What the papers say – “Pesticides in fruit and vegetables can harm children”

News stories have suggested that levels of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables contribute to a range of problems, including cancers and damage to the nervous system.

The real story

The Food Standards Agency states that when a pesticide is approved for use in the European Union, limits are set on how much residue can legally remain in food. The Food Standards Agency says these limits are usually well below the levels that would be of concern for people’s health.

Monitoring results indicate about 98% of samples tested did not contain residues above legal limits.

But a spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) argues, “With as much as 40% of food produced in the EU containing pesticide residues, we believe there is serious cause for concern. As babies are still in the early developmental stage, they are particularly susceptible to being affected.”

What can you do?

Buying organic is a good way of avoiding pesticides. Alternatively, washing and peeling fruit and removing the outer leaves of vegetables may remove residues of certain pesticides, says the Food Standards Agency.

Processing, including cooking, generally reduces the levels of pesticides in food too. Some fruits and vegetables have higher levels of residues than others. A full list of the worst offenders is available at PAN UK.

What the papers say – “Socks could scar children’s legs”

In September 2007, newspapers reported that doctors at Washington University had discovered that too-tight elastic in babies’ socks could cause marks that may lead to permanent scarring.

The real story

The reports were based on letters in a journal from two doctors about a handful of cases they’d seen.

A report by the NHS states, “The few cases seen have not been followed up over a long time-period and there is no suggestion that scarring is permanent. We do not know whether the problem may be related to use of a particular type of sock. It’s also unclear whether these children had eczema or dermatitis that may have predisposed them to irritation caused by tight elastic bands.”

What can you do?

“This only affects a handful of children, but it’s worth choosing socks carefully to make sure the elastic is not too tight,” says Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists. “If you notice any marks that don’t fade or any chaffing, switch to looser socks.”

What the papers say – “Chemicals in baby bottles could be a threat to health”

Research in America raised concerns about Bisphenol A (BPA) – a chemical used in the manufacture of polycarbonate, from which most plastic baby bottles are made. When BPA was fed to mice, it reduced fertility, affected sex organs and increased the risk of cancer in their offspring.

It was also suggested that BPA might leach out of bottles, especially those that were worn or exposed to very high temperatures. This has since been disputed.

The real story

The European Union’s Scientific Committee for Foods has concluded that the levels of BPA in polycarbonate pose no danger when in contact with food, even following repeated use, heating or chemical sterilisation.

However, Peter White, chief executive of the Baby Products Association does recommend that parents who are bottlefeeding follow manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

What can you do?

Make sure you buy a reputable brand of bottle. If you’re worried, you may want to discard any bottles showing major signs of wear, such as a cloudy or crackled appearance.

Alternatively, some companies sell polycarbonate-free or glass bottles.

Mum’s stories:

“We give our children organic food”

“Ever since the children were babies, we’ve tried to eat organic food as it’s likely to contain no pesticide residues at all. We have an allotment and grow a lot of our own food. We also try to avoid the most potentially contaminated food, which includes flour, potatoes, bread and apples.”

Sally, 40, mum to Felicity, 5 and Reah, 2

“I found the perfect socks for my little one in Baby Gap”

“I was given some Baby Gap towelling organic Cozy socks when Cam was born. For little feet, they are the only socks I use. Not only do they not mark, but they actually stay on! I’ve tried others, but always return to these.”

Henrietta, 34, Jem, 8, Michael, 6, Robert, 4, and Annie, 9 months

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The industry is now double-checking toys, so they’re safer than they’ve ever been

What the papers say – “Radiation from baby monitors ‘poses risk’ ”

In May 2007, the Independent on Sunday reported scientists’ claims that digitally enhanced cordless telecommunication (DECT) technology, used in some monitors, may expose infants to high levels of radiation.

The real story

Biologist Roger Coghill, who runs a laboratory specialising in bio-electric magnetics, says, “Most baby monitors use infrared radiation frequencies and there’s very little evidence that infrared radiation causes any harm. Even with DECT monitors, the transmitter and monitor are only metres apart, whereas a mobile phone and its mast can be kilometres apart, which means the signal, and therefore the potential risk, for phones is far greater.”

Research in this field, he adds, is limited and ongoing.

Baby monitor manufacturers are confident that their products are safe. Philips AVENT states, “Our DECT products comply with all applicable standards regarding electromagnetic fields. These standards include substantial safety margins to protect people.”

What can you do?

If you’re still concerned, Roger Coghill suggests placing your DECT monitor 10 feet away from your baby. There are also plenty of other types of baby monitors available.

What the papers say – “Toys recalled in lead paint scare”

In August 2007, Mattel issued a voluntary recall of 94,000 Chinese-made toys, amid fears they included paint containing unsafe levels of lead.

The real story

“Mattel has some of the most rigorous testing procedures in the industry,” says Sarah Allen, spokesperson for Mattel. “The recall arose because a minority of our manufacturers circumvented those procedures. Following a review, all paint must be tested before it is used on our toys – no exceptions.”

What can you do?

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Natasha Crookes, director of communication for The British Toy & Hobby Association, says, “The industry is now double-checking toys, so they’re safer than they’ve ever been. The most important thing is to buy from a reputable dealer and check the age warnings supplied.”

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