I have a very active fantasy life. Before you start snickering, let me just tell you that my imaginings are more along the lines of Mary in In Plain Sight or Madonna in "Express Yourself" rather than Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat. Anyway, over the last few months, my daydreams have become extremely mundane. I fantasize about what sports my son will play when he's older (Gabe is just a year old) or how he'll make me laugh when he's in the second grade and thinks Martin Luther King Jr. was a real king like I once did, or even how I'll foil his attempts to sneak out of the house when he's a teenager. I tell you this not to make you gag, but to communicate how much I love my son. He's the absolute center of my world—my past, present, and future. And I also tell you this because I know that's how most people love their children—WITH every fiber of their being.
But the flip side of that love for Gabe is a fear (close to panic) that something bad will happen to him. The vagaries of life that make it interesting (and funny and tragic) to be a grown woman in the 21st century are the kinds of things that strike terror in the hearts of parents. What if there's a home invasion? Is the sun getting ready to explode? Do they sell slipcovers made of bubble wrap or even better, bubble-wrap clothing? If Gabe accidentally sipped my Diet Coke, would his growth stop? My fierce desire to keep my kid safe from all harm is constantly bumping up against my equally fierce desire to make sure he grows up to be a good person without the kinds of neuroses that are rumored to beset kids with helicopter parents (narcissism, addiction to praise, inability to do laundry, disrespect for people who look and act in a way different than they do, etc.). That's why I'm always looking to experts for the best ways to combine my parenting obsessions. So when a colleague handed me Smart Mama's Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child's Toxic Chemical Exposure, a new book by Jennifer Taggart, my radar immediately went up. Finally, some tips on how to keep Gabe safe in a world surrounded by industrial dangers. (Quick quibble: How did smart papas get off the hook? Why are moms the only ones ever called upon to keep the kids alive?)
But something strange happened to me on the way to the end of this book. I became furious. It was page after page about the dangers of lead, arsenic, plastics, and pesticides. The book should have been titled Silly Mamas: Your Home Will Kill Your Baby. I think the only point was to scare the bejeezus out of me. Each chapter is sprinkled with "Smart Mama Scary Facts," which are little bits of horrifying trivia like: "At least 240,000 babies born each year are at risk of learning disabilities resulting from fetal exposure to mercury." What the heck is that info good for except keeping you up at night? Oh yeah, like so many of the other parenting guides, Taggart says she's not trying to frighten you; but her endless ruminations on rare causes of harm to an infant's health and seemingly willful avoidance of common things that do put a child's life in danger (such as accidental suffocation or drowning) means that she's either trying to drive me crazy with worry or get me to buy something. The big hook into Taggart's book: "With environmental exposures being closely linked to 70 percent of birth defects, new parents faced with the overwhelming responsibility for their babies' health frequently turn to organic products. But they quickly find they don't have the time to practice a completely green or natural lifestyle."
So Taggart is going to show you how to get your baby's toys tested for lead, check your dwelling for asbestos, killer mold, and radon, I assume, in an attempt to lower the risk of harm to a baby and get parents to practice a more green lifestyle. But what Taggart doesn't explain is that many "environmental exposures" are actually a parent's fault. Secondhand smoke, fetal exposure to alcohol, prescription drugs like Accutane, illicit drugs such as cocaine and untreated syphillis are all known environmental factors that can cause birth defects. Once you factor out these kinds of exposures, as well as the ones that rely on a genetic predisposition, you have just a small percentage of birth defects caused by chemicals lurking in our house and maybe not even that many since the science is far, far, far from certain. The World Health Organization has estimated that 5 percent of all birth defects are attributable to environmental causes, while both the March of Dimes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that the cause of 70 percent of birth defects is unknown.
I think it is dishonest and worse, cruel, to let new parents worry that invisible substances in their homes are hurting their children. Taggart does give herself an out by saying that even if the risk is small or unknown, it's worth tackling it, just in case there's a problem. "If I'm willing to die for my children," Taggart writes, "wouldn't that mean that I would do anything to protect them from toxic chemicals?" Yes, it is true; I would die for Gabe to save his life from a clear and present danger. But I don't appreciate Taggart using this fact to guilt me into panicking over household cleaners. Taggart reports that radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, which is true. But she fails to tell you that nine out 10 lung-cancer deaths happen to smokers, the number of nonsmokers who die each year from radon-induced lung cancer is 2,900 according to the EPA. She tells you all about the powers of organic food but leaves out the fact that the American Dietetic Association doesn't know and won't speculate on whether it's healthier or safer, instead choosing to concentrate on the known—such as the benefits of a well-balanced and varied diet and portion control. If parents followed Taggart's logic to its extremes, we'd keep our kids off the playground in case of spree killers. Perhaps Taggart thinks I should home-school Gabe rather than take the risk that one of his teachers might have bubonic plague. I joke, but I'm actually serious. Authors of parenting guides should be waaaaay more responsible when they wave the fear flag—I mean, they're trying to help, right? Not just make money off our insecurities?
So go get Smart Mama if you're worried about toxins and your kids. I'm not going to discourage you. It does have some great info on making homemade cleaners. I just need to caution you to treat the book the way a lawyer treats a hostile witness. For every fact that makes you want to jump off the couch and escape with your son to an island paradise—like the 38 million homes in America that still have some lead paint or the 82 percent of children who are exposed on a weekly basis to chemicals that can harm the brain—go to the internet and get some context. Check the March of Dimes Web site, as well as the one from the American Academy of Pediatrics or WebMD. Call your kids' doctor. Ask lots of questions. Just don't buy every cock and bull story about the sun exploding in your living room due to too much television watching by children under the age of 2. If you don't do your homework and you're anything like me, it'll just put your sanity at risk.