By Jane Sheppard
The pollution in today’s environment is pervasive. Our air, food, water, homes, and schools are polluted with over seventy thousand chemicals. What can be surprising to many people is that the outdoor air is often less polluted than the indoor air of most homes. It is estimated that more than 40 million people now have some form of chemical sensitivity or environmental illness due to allergic or toxic reactions to various substances in our environment.
The numbers of children who do not feel well are sadly increasing. Parents are puzzled because their children do not seem to remember things as well as they used to, or they may not be able to learn at their natural level of ability. Mood and behavior changes are also common. According to a recent survey, 71 percent of teachers say they are now seeing more children with health problems than ever before. Up to 20 percent of American children have developed chronic illnesses. Asthma and allergic coughing are common complaints. The soaring number of children diagnosed with hyperactivity, ADD, or other behavior and learning difficulties is disturbing. Sometimes these problems are encountered only at home and not at school.
Is our environment triggering these problems? According to Doris J. Rapp, M.D., a leading specialist in Environmental Medicine, our present environment is causing a growing number of children to be sick. The intensity of a reaction can range from mild to very severe. Exposures to chemicals and natural allergens (dust, molds, pollen) can trigger serious physical, neurological, and psychological problems. Certain foods can be the cause of an allergic response, as well as many substances in water that can make a child ill. Among the most common toxins in water are chlorine, fluoride, pesticides, copper, lead, plastic and styrene (from the water containers).
We are all exposed to numerous chemicals on a regular basis. Usually, these exposures do not show any immediate adverse effects. Our bodies can handle a certain amount of toxins. Over time, though, if our food, air and water remain polluted, our bodies can become increasingly toxic until, eventually, they are in a state of overload. When a child’s body becomes overloaded, it cannot deal with any more toxins. The child may begin to have adverse reactions to certain exposures such as new carpet, paint, cleaning materials, dust or molds. A minor exposure can make a toxic overloaded child very ill.
Chemical sensitivity or environmental illness is difficult to diagnose and most doctors do not even know what to look for. In addition to the typical allergy symptoms of asthma, congestion, intestinal and skin problems, the symptoms of environmental illness may include a long list of other perplexing problems. One or more of the following symptoms may be present:
Of course, there can be other reasons for all of the above symptoms, but many doctors do not even consider chemicals, foods or other allergens as a possible cause of a child’s problem. The child could easily be labeled with ADD/ADHD, a learning disability, or any number of diseases. This could set up a child for endless medications and struggle.
Dr. Rapp, author of Is This Your Child? (a NY Times best seller) has written a fully documented, 600 page book entitled Is This Your Child’s World? How You Can Fix the Schools and Homes That Are Making Your Children Sick. This book is a wake-up call for parents, teachers, school administrators, doctors and other health practitioners, including everyone who cares about the future of our children. Is This Your Child’s World? provides detailed information that explains how to approach certain aspects of chemical sensitivity and environmental illness, including diagnostic testing and treatment.
Detecting the source of a child’s problem includes highly detailed record-keeping of symptoms and the substances to which the child has been exposed. Dr. Rapp’s “Big Five” approach is a simple, systematic, inexpensive and fast way to pinpoint exactly what is causing your child’s problem. This involves comparing five variables before and after an exposure. Changes in a child’s behavior, appearance or physiology should alert parents that something has gone wrong. The key question to ask is: What was smelled, eaten or touched just before some change became evident? Compare these five variables before and then ten to sixty minutes after an exposure. Food reactions could take fifteen to sixty minutes to become apparent. A reaction to dust or molds can occur within an hour.
1. How does my child feel, behave, and remember?
2. How does my child look?
3. Is there any handwriting or drawing change?
4. Is there asthma or a breathing problem present?*
5. Is there a change in the pulse rate or rhythm?**
* Use a Peak Flow Meter if wheezing is a problem. Note a drop of over 10 to 15 percent
** Check for a pulse increase over 20 beats per minute or a change in pulse rhythm.
A big solution to indoor air quality in your home is to use a HEPA home air purifier in the rooms that are most toxic, especially in the rooms where children sleep. The best air purifiers use medical HEPA and are certified to remove 99.97% of airborne particles 0.3 microns or larger. They also contain granular carbon and zeolite for the adsorption of odors, gasses and chemicals. Air purifiers should be run continuously to keep the air fresh and clean.
Treatments for chemical sensitivity or environmental illness may include avoidance, allergy diets, allergy extract treatment, improved nutrition, detoxification, psychological counseling and family support. Homeopathy or herbal therapy can also be very helpful. The specific diagnostic evaluation and treatment that each child may need should be highly individualized; therefore it is beyond the scope of this article. If you are the parent of a child who is manifesting some combination of the above symptoms, I urge you to read Is This Your Child’s World? and find a qualified specialist in environmental medicine.
Dr. Rapp also includes five chapters in Is This Your Child’s World? on what we can do about an environmentally sick school or home. She presents answers for air-quality problems, indoor and outdoor chemicals, food and water, lead, asbestos, pesticides and carpet chemicals. There are a wealth of resources provided for protecting the health of our children as well as fast, easy, practical tips for parents, teachers and school administrators.
I completely agree and align myself with Dr. Rapp’s statement: “We urgently need to address these issues by recognizing the causes and removing them, and by more quickly and effectively treating the individuals who have already lost their health and learning ability. We must do this immediately, for the sake of present and future generations.” She goes on to say that our current challenge is much more than increased dust and molds. It’s the “seventy thousand chemicals that presently permeate what we eat, breathe, touch and smell. We can no longer wait for our government to protect us.”
Doris J. Rapp, M.D., FAEM, FAAA, FAAP, is a board-certified environmental medical specialist and pediatric allergist. She was clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is the founder of the Practical Allergy Research Foundation in Buffalo, NY and past president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine.