Whether it’s to protect your health or to preserve the health of the planet, reducing our use of chemicals and choosing more sustainable options are all part of shaping a brighter future for all of us. But, for busy parents, it also has to be realistic. Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of the UAE's longest-running environmental initiative Goumbook, gives us her tips for the small changes you can start today that could make a big difference in the long run. After all, the minute you've started a family you have a vested interest in keeping the world as nice as possible for future generations...
1. Filter your water
"The most economical and environmentally sound choice you and your family can make is to buy and install a water filter for your home," says Tatiana. "You can save resources and money by drinking from your own tap or home filtration system with a reusable water bottle. Many will argue bottled water is the best choice: ironically, many bottled water companies use municipal water sources – tap water – and their labels will read ‘pure drinking water’. Also, many billions of plastic water bottles are sold annually worldwide, with less than 20 per cent being recycled (and even recycling them wastes unnecessary energy).” As well as being good for the environment, it's also better for your health (and your children's) to avoid using plastic bottles, as endocrine-disrupting chemicals from the plastic can leach into the water, particularly if they are left out in the sun for periods of time while being transported (see point 2 below).
It's advisable to first test the quality of the water in your home before installing a filter as, although the UAE's standards for tap water are rigorous, its quality ultimately depends on factors such as the maintenance of the pipes in your particular building. Home tests such as the Watersafe Drinking Water Test Kit (Dh102) are available, or you can hire an expert from a company like Hitches and Glitches, which can send a technician to your home to test your tap water professionally (Dh300). When it comes to choosing a water filter. there are many options available, and they don't have to be expensive; under-the-sink options from Liquid of Life start at Dh500, which is more than most families are likely to spend on bottled water per year. And as you scale up, you save more; Tatiana has worked with businesses that have saved Dh20,000 per year or more on swapping from using mineral water dispensers to filtered tap water. Top-of-the-range home water filter systems include the stylish tap from Quooker, which provides filtered cold or boiling water straight from the tap, while those who are more budget-conscious may prefer a water-filter jug, which can be bought for under Dh200.
2. Avoid plastic in general, even if it is BPA-free
While many people are aware of the dangers of plastics that contain BPA, they may not be aware of the potentially harmful chemicals that are found even in BPA-free plastics. “BPA can be found in all plastic containers like baby bottles, sippy cups, and other feeding containers, plastic food packaging, and canned food liners," says Tatiana.
"The good news is that in many countries the use of BPA has been banned since 2012. The bad news is that research is emerging that its replacements (BPS, BPE, BPF and numerous others) are also toxic. Some studies suggest that almost all plastics have estrogenic activity and therefore could leech endocrine-disrupting chemicals." Endocrine-disruptors upset the hormone balance in our bodies and have been linked to cancerous tumours, as well as to developmental problems in children and babies."
If you have a very young baby then Tatiana advises breastfeeding if possible, otherwise, "Look for baby bottles with nipples made from hospital-grade silicone. Swap plastic feeding bottles for glass and stainless steel containers and bottles where possible. Never microwave plastic, as heat causes chemicals to leach.”
3. Say no to plastic straws
“Talking about plastic, did you know that over 500,000,000 plastic straws are used each day in the United States alone? These short-lived tools are usually dropped into a garbage can with no further thought, instantly becoming a source of plastic pollution." Plastic straws don't biodegrade, rather they gradually degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, which get ingested by marine and land animals, and wind up back in our food chain. According to the campaign The Final Plastic Straw, every piece of plastic ever made is still in our environment: "Even if incinerated, we are breathing the toxic dioxins released into the air, and eating them as they settle into our crops and get bioaccumulated into animals and humans. It is found in mother’s breast milk and stored in fat."
Tatiana urges all of us to make a personal commitment to say “no” to plastic straws. "Whenever ordering a drink, politely request 'no straw, please.' Encourage your children to do it too! Use your own paper straw instead, available at Waitrose or Spinneys and in many party centres.”
4. Think twice about make-up if you're expecting
OK, so pregnant women already have to give up brie, sushi and pretty much anything fun – we’re not going to advise you to give up make-up as well. But it’s good to be informed: parabens (preservatives found in many cosmetics and toiletries) and triclosan (found in many soaps and toothpastes) may disrupt growth of boys during foetal growth and the first years of life, according to a study published in the journal Epidemology in 2014. Meanwhile, your mani-pedi could also be harmful – that distinctive nail polish smell is often due to a potent mix of artificial fragrances and other chemicals, specifically triphenyl phosphate, aka TPHP. This is a suspected endocrine disruptor, and a study by the EWG found that up to seven times the amount of TPHP was detected in the urine of women who had recently had their nails polished. Snails nail polish is non-toxic, water-based, chemical- and cruelty-free and safe for kids and pregnant women (safe-nails.com), while Zoya Nail Polish is free of toluene, camphor, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin and DBP (dibutyl phthalate) and is available at Jam Beauty Lounge Dubai.
“As a pregnant mum, you already possess a beauty no products can match. Make-up just isn’t necessary,” says Tatiana. “If you can, dare to go entirely bare! If you want to at least powder your nose, try using fewer products than you have been using. And swap what you want to continue to use for a new, more natural product free of ingredients that may hurt you and your growing baby. Where possible, choose natural versions of the essentials—from toothpaste to deodorant to belly creams. If switching to all new natural products isn’t in your budget, try organic food grade oil like coconut. Keep in mind, though, that the word “natural” is largely unregulated, so look for products with third-party certification and a solid roster of organic ingredients.”
5. Choose baby-safe sunscreen
“Though lotions and sticks protect little ones’ skin from cancer-causing UVA and UVB rays, doctors advise mothers to use physical barriers — SPF clothing, umbrellas, and shades — rather than lotions on babies younger than six months old,” says Tatiana.
“Once tots reach the six-month mark, though, we need to keep them protected from the sun without harming them in other ways.
“The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends staying away from SPF products over 50 as the lower SPF 30-50 products are perfectly fine and products with higher SPFs often contain more harmful ingredients and can encourage people to stay in the sun longer without providing any additional protection.
Also look at inactive ingredients on the label. If possible, avoid products that use retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) – some studies suggest it could potentially be carcinogenic – and avoid products that use oxybenzone, another potential endocrine disruptor.
“Avoid spray products — they’re convenient but not the best choice: given the concern about the ingredients in these products, we really don’t want to coat the inside of our babies’ lungs with sunscreen…
Check the EWG’s site and app for a list of the safest and least safe options for your family.”
6. Use plants for better air quality
Because we spend as much of 80 per cent to 90 per cent of our time indoors, indoor air pollution has been ranked as one of the world’s greatest public health risks. Common indoor plants may provide a valuable weapon in the fight against it: the Nasa clean air study has found them them to be surprisingly useful in absorbing potentially harmful gases and cleaning the air inside homes, indoor public spaces and office buildings.
The indoor pollutants that affect health are formaldehyde, Volatile Organic Compounds (benzene and trichloroethylene or TCE), airborne biological pollutants, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, pesticides and disinfectants (phenols), and radon. These pollutants contribute to ‘sick building syndrome’, which causes symptoms ranging from allergies, headaches and fatigue through to nervous system disorders and cancer.
Top ten air-cleaning plants:
- Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)
- Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)
- Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
- Rubber Plant (Ficus robusta)
- Dracaena “Janet Craig” (Dracaena deremensis)
- Philodendron (Philodendron sp.)
- Dwarf Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii)
- Ficus Alii (Ficus macleilandii “Alii”)
- Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata “Bostoniensis”)
- Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum “Mauna Loa”)
7. Go organic
Organic food is a healthy choice for all of us, but especially for kids. Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals because their immune systems are still developing.
We choose organic because we know, for example, that children fed an organic diet have much lower levels of metabolites of high-risk insecticides in their bodies. We also know that choosing organic food reduces the risk of exposure to toxic pesticides in our diet. Many of these chemicals are known or suspected to cause cancer or disrupt our hormones, mimicking testosterone or estrogen. Nearly 1,400 pesticides registered by the US Environmental Protection Agency for agricultural and non-agricultural uses have been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian cancers as well as Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and more.
Choosing organic meat and dairy for your kids is also the best way to ensure that they’re not exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like the synthetic hormones given to non-organic livestock to speed growth and alter reproductive cycles. And choosing organic meat and dairy means your children are not fed meat that was raised on daily doses of antibiotics to speed growth, leading to dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
8. Check your child’s toys
“You’re probably careful about avoiding choking hazards and other common safety issues with toys, but did you know there are a wide variety of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals that could be in them? From lead and cadmium in paint, plastics, and jewellery, to xylene, toluene, and phthalates in play cosmetics.
Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that are linked to reproductive malformations in baby boys, reduced fertility, developmental disorders, asthma, and increased allergic reactions. They’ve also been identified by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks) as “a prime example of chemicals of emerging concern to brain development.”