toxins

‘Dr. Lowry, I read on the internet that I shouldn’t feed my child rice cereal. Is this true?’

Introduction by LaTonya Sanders

October is Children’s Health Month. In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics established October as Child Health Month in order to focus national attention on children’s health issues. This month and throughout the year, EPA works with parents, teachers, health providers and other partners to promote healthy environments where children live, learn and play.

Only through partnerships and collaboration can we make a difference and leverage the needed resources and support to guard all children against environmental health threats.

PEHSUEPA is proud to partner with people and organizations that are on the forefront in protecting children’s health and the environment, which is consistently true for Dr. Jennifer Lowry and the Mid-America Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. Dr. Lowry is a crucial partner to EPA, and her work is instrumental in creating a healthier future for our children.

By Jennifer Lowry, MD

Jennifer Lowry, MDPediatricians love children. We love helping children become the best people they can be. We love doing what is needed to make the world a better place for children to be healthy.

What pediatricians don’t love is being caught unaware of the latest blog, internet chat, or media storm regarding environmental health issues. Media and other news outlets often inform parents of possible environmental exposures that can cause harm to children.

Unfortunately, not all of the information is true, which causes undo concern for parents and confusion to pediatricians who are asked about these effects.

A World of Stuff

What is a pediatrician or family to do? It is important to realize we are surrounded by stuff. We, or the people who have come before us, have made choices that puts stuff in our world that is supposed to make things “better” or “easier.” Unfortunately, not all of the stuff we encounter fits both descriptions.

Cell phones, plastics, better beef, lead in paint, and synthetic athletic fields are just a few examples that may make life easier, but might not (or definitely not in some cases) make life better. But today, everywhere you turn, someone is saying our children’s lives are being damaged by the chemicals we have in the environment. Is this true?

A Matter of the Dose

As a toxicologist, I have been taught “Everything is a poison. It is just a matter of the dose.” Paracelsus was a Swiss-German Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer and general occultist. Born in 1493, he founded the discipline of toxicology. Paracelsus rejected the medical conditions of the time, and pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. He is credited with the phrase “the dose makes the poison,” but is also known to have said: If given in small doses, “what makes a man ill also cures him.” Thus, he realized medicines can be beneficial at low doses, but cause harm at higher doses.

Paracelsus, founder of toxicology

Paracelsus, founder of toxicology

But what about chemicals and metals, both synthetic and natural? What about plants? Is it true there is no harm at low levels? Well, it depends. Medications used to treat illnesses are rigorously tested for safety and efficacy. Chemicals used in the environment are not. Alternative medications (dietary supplements) are not.

We know some medications have benefits at very low doses (micrograms), but can cause toxicity at the milligram dose (or 1,000 times the microgram dose). Some medications have no efficacy at the milligram dose and require much higher doses (grams or 1000 times the milligram dose) to have effect.

Why would we expect plants, supplements, chemicals or metals to be any different? Each chemical is different and has a different profile for efficacy and toxicity. Some chemicals (botulinum toxin, for example) are toxic at even lower doses. Unfortunately, we are finding out doses that were presumed safe were really not safe to begin with.

Arsenic and Lead

Chemical symbols for arsenic and lead

Chemical symbols for arsenic and lead

At one time, we erroneously thought because arsenic was “natural,” it could be placed in soil as a pesticide. However, arsenic is relatively immobile so anything that grows where it was placed (such as rice fields) can incorporate it into the food. Thus, higher levels of arsenic are found in foods grown where arsenic was used.

The same is true about lead. Pediatricians know that children are not little adults. But the level associated with toxicity in adults was applied to children early in the 1900s. However, it was soon realized children were more vulnerable and action was required at lower levels. Lead has not become more toxic over time. Our recognition of the toxicity of lead has changed for us to realize that even low levels of blood lead may result in harm.

So What Do We Do?

Can a 6-month-old child eat rice cereal? YES. Should they only eat rice cereal? NO. Does it have to be the first cereal they eat? NO. Can my teenager have a cell phone? YES. Should they be on it all the time? NO. Should they carry it in their pants or in their bra? NO. Should an infant or toddler play with a cell phone or tablet as their entertainment? NO.

How do you discover these answers? Great resources are available to help you sort this out:

  • Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSUs) – Staffed by health care professionals who are experts in pediatric environmental health, they can help to best inform health care providers and the public on how to keep children safe from environmental toxins.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics – Through the Council on Environmental Health, health care professionals can learn about the latest science on pediatric environmental health and how to incorporate this knowledge into their practice. This website is a great resource for families to find out what experts in children advise.
  • Poison Control Centers – Staffed by health care professionals, they are best able to help you with acute exposures. Some PEHSUs collaborate with poison control centers. Call 1-800-222-1222.

Lastly, be smart. Do you really need that stuff? Do you really need to throw it away? Reduce, reuse and recycle. It is easy to blame others before us for where we are now. But who will our children blame with what we leave them?

About the Introducer: LaTonya Sanders serves as the children’s health coordinator in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs in Lenexa, Kan. Her EPA career expands over 20 years in public affairs, communications, outreach, education and congressional relations.

About the Author: Jennifer Lowry, MD, is the medical director of the Mid-America Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, among several other prestigious titles. She served on EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee from 2012 to 2014.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Keeping Pets—and People—Safe from Toxic Algae

Visible green slime in Lake Needwood during harmful algal bloom outbreak in September 2012.

By Patty Scott

Two years ago, our family planned to take our Yellow Labrador puppy Fiona to Lake Needwood near our home in Rockville, Maryland for a swim. Our puppy needed somewhere to exercise and the scenic lake near Rock Creek Park seemed like the perfect place. My husband, however, mentioned something about a warning for a harmful algal bloom. At the time, I had just started working on EPA’s National Lakes Assessment, the agency’s report card on the condition of the nation’s lakes, and thankfully knew about the dangers of harmful algal blooms. Blue-green algae can produce harmful toxins that can be fatal if ingested. Since people are not allowed to swim in Lake Needwood, the dangers are not as great for humans. However, dogs are especially at risk if they swim in or drink the water. We decided against taking Fiona anywhere near the lake.

While Montgomery County did not know the cause of the outbreaks in Lake Needwood, harmful algal blooms are often triggered by excessive levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Many of our lakes, rivers, streams and bays are becoming overloaded with nutrients from a wide range of sources. Excess nutrients spur the growth of algae to the point where they can explode into vast — and sometimes toxic — colonies of slime. Algal blooms often peak during the summer months, but in some parts of the country they occur year round.

Nutrient pollution is a growing concern because it threatens public health, recreation and our economy. National data is not easy to find on impacts to our four-legged friends, but sadly dog deaths have been reported due to harmful algae.

Warning sign advising residents and their pets to avoid direct contact with the water at Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Like many pet owners, we treat Fiona and Jake, our other lab, like part of our family, and we’d be devastated to lose them. It’s best to keep pets away from the water anytime there is visible surface scum, if the water is discolored or if there is a strong musty smell. Also, keep in mind that not all waters are monitored. You can check EPA’s new How’s My Waterway app to find out about the condition of your local waterway and whether it’s been tested.

Everyone can help make a difference. One easy way to combat algae is to take care not to over-fertilize. And always remember to pick up pet waste. To learn more about how you can prevent nutrient pollution, visit

About the author: Patty Scott works in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds on communications and outreach.  She loves fishing, kayaking, cycling and other outdoor pursuits.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Lead in Lipstick

By Marcia Anderson

For us ladies, we may not think twice when putting on our favorite lipstick or getting a hair-straightening treatment to fight the frizziness, but exactly how safe are these beauty products? Truth is, these products may contain toxins such as formaldehyde (found in hair-straightening treatments) and heavy metals (such as arsenic and lead in lipstick) that are harmful to your health.

Lead is in lipstick either because the raw materials are contaminated with lead, or the pigment contains lead. Lead in lipstick is not new. In the 1990s, reports of analytical results from a commercial testing laboratory suggested that traces of lead in lipstick might be of concern. You could be paying a high and harmful price to get those ruby red lips each day.

A study completed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) in 2007 reported finding lead in most brands of lipsticks.  The amounts found in some brands are of concern. FDA scientists found lead in all of the 20 lipsticks they tested. Lead levels ranged from 0.09 ppm to 7.9 pm.

Some people may think, “how much harm can something that’s just going on my lips really cause?“ Lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels over time. Women swallow somewhere between three and nine pounds of lipstick over the course of their lifetime.

Unfortunately, on packages you will not see lead listed in its ingredients, but there are lists and other tips out there that can help when trying to find a safe shade to compliment your lips.  Stay away from products that say they are “not easy removable” or “longer lasting”. These lipsticks are not easy to “remove” because they contain more lead.

Don’t be overly concerned, however. There are a number of lipstick brands that have been tested and are found to be lead free. You can get plenty of information on these brands on the internet. And, here, in the New York Metropolitan area, you can find many of those brands at the corner drugstore.

Years ago, you could play with your mom’s makeup without her thinking they could be harmful. We now know that mom should exercise caution with her cosmetics. Our bodies store lead and having more lead in your system puts you at a greater risk of cancer and other health problems.  Remember, there is no safe lead level.

You may also want to look at your other cosmetics. The average woman applies 168 different chemicals to her face every single day. The average man applies only 85. But of the thousands of chemicals in today’s personal care products, only 11% have been tested for safety. What other toxic chemicals might be lurking in your cosmetics?

Concerned about lead in your environment? Go to www.epa.gov/lead , or call 311 in New York City or  the National lead hotline: 1-800-424-LEAD (5323).

About the author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Communication Challenges 1: Harmful Algal Blooms

By Jessica Werber

At EPA, there is a lot of discussion about connecting the dots. How do you help people go from A to B to a desired conclusion? When it comes to communicating the importance of harmful algal blooms, helping the public make connections between the health of their water bodies and their own health is a formidable challenge.

Algal blooms are confusing because they are simply the result of “too much of a good thing.” A little bit of algae is actually good for a water body, but too much becomes harmful.

Let’s say a landowner applies excess fertilizer on his or her land, or applies it at the wrong time. Then it rains and nitrogen in the fertilizer trickles into a nearby stream. That stream also receives nitrogen from stormwater, wastewater, and other sources like pet waste, and it becomes saturated. Algae feeding on the nitrogen proliferate, blocking the sunlight, depleting oxygen in the water, causing bacteria and…Well, the visual result is green goop, or surface scum on the water, which is pretty common in many states around America:

After the algal bloom subsides, the waterbody may still be overloaded with nitrogen. Certain types of algae, such as blue-green algae, create toxins that can make people and animals sick. When popular lakes and ponds are covered with scum, the local economy loses out because tourists will be unable to play or fish in the water.

The reality is that most people don’t think about water pollution in their everyday lives. Do I think that people care about their water? Yes, but they do so in different ways. Some care because they place an inherent value in the natural world. Others care because they have a vested interest; their child or pet is getting sick or their business is affected by the pollution. To successfully explain why harmful algal blooms are so detrimental, it is increasingly important for EPA to investigate the motivations behind why certain people care, to adapt our messaging and outreach efforts accordingly, and to clearly connect the dots in our own minds before we reach out to the public.

EPA’s new nutrient pollution website contains local stories about nutrient pollution and suggested actions you can take. So tell me…why do you care about harmful algal blooms and what can you do to make a difference?

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney. This post does not represent the views of the EPA or Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.