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What Does "Dangerous" Really Mean?
Overand over we ask ourselves a simple question: is it dangerous or safe? We wonder, should I take this medicine? Eat this food? Buy this product? All day, every day, we make mental calculations that boil down to this black-and-white question: dangerous or safe? When we ask this question about ourselves, it is usually easy to answer. But when it comes to our children, nothing seems clear, and the gray zone feels enormous. For ourselves, we may be comfortable accepting uncertainty when the answer isn't obvious. But for our kids we are not: for them we need concrete, clear answers without risk or ambiguity. When it comes to our children, we worry more.
I suppose it's human nature—we simply don't have enough brain space to worry about everything for everyone all the time. So we pour our angst into our highest priority, our children. Should they be drinking out of plastic bottles, using cell phones, eating processed foods, taking antibiotics, receiving vaccines? Some of these questions have real answers; others just hype. Regardless, we parents have hit a point where we torture ourselves over every detail of our children's lives—all while sipping from our own plastic bottles, talking on cell phones, snacking on processed foods, and swallowing medications.
I am the mother of two young children. This means that I belong to the parenting generation that has been accused of being overbearing, worrying about every little thing, and trying to control every aspect of our children's lives. Generally the accusers are our own parents. "You survived childhood," they say, in a slightly mocking tone, "and we never worried as much about every little thing as you do."
This is true. But our parents lived in a very different world. When our parents had young kids, information was largely limited to the newspaper and the evening news. As a result, the news focused on the most important issues of the day. Today news is a constant barrage that includes twenty-four-hour cable networks, live Web streaming, and anything that might fill a few minutes of screen time or a few inches of crawl space along the bottom of your TV. This lends itself to Breaking Alerts! about pediatric-health horror stories: "Child stops speaking after receiving a vaccine!" "Flesh-eating bacteria spreading through school community!" And then there are the headlines about product recalls: "Don't Give Your Child a Toy Train Because the Paint Is Leaded!" "Don't Let Your Child Sleep in Flame-Retardant Pajamas Because They Are Toxic!" With these arriving on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, how can we possibly be expected to ignore them?
Beyond being a mom, I am also a pediatrician. A big part of the job is fielding phone calls from worried parents. With each breaking news story, parents want to know what to do for their child. Some take the time to do research on their own, but most people have learned that if you Google long enough, you'll find two sides to every story. This leaves parents even more confused than they were at the outset. So they call the doctor, looking for the simple yes or no answer. When do I need to worry? That's all parents really want to know.
It is ironic that despite our need for simple, straightforward answers we crave more and more information. So much news is coming at us all the time, but most people have no sense of what to do with it, how to prioritize it, and when to worry about it. This is certainly not to say that information should be kept from the public. But as a result of the onslaught, we begin to fear that danger lurks at every turn. With so much to consider, it is easy to lose sight of both the true and relative risks.
Relative risk simply means the risk of an event occurring in connection to an exposure. If one group of people is exposed to something and another is not, the relative risk is the probability that the exposed group will have a specific outcome. In medicine, that outcome may mean developing a disease or even dying.
Risk assessment is a calculation we make many times every day without even knowing it. What is the chance that I will be hit by a car if I jaywalk? What is the chance that I will get a sunburn (or one day even skin cancer) if I don't put on that sunscreen? What is the chance that I will be late to work if I roll over for five or ten more minutes of sleep? Risk assessment can be applied to every decision in our daily life, down to the most mundane.
Relative risk can also be used in a broad sense, forcing us to step away from the trees and look at the whole forest. There are things in our world that are relatively more dangerous than others. For instance, playing with a loaded handgun is a heck of a lot more dangerous than taking a break to get a drink of water out of a plastic bottle. We all know this—no one would disagree. But millions of Americans keep guns in their homes, loaded and accessible to their children.1 This may seem like a ridiculous example, but during the past few years the debate over the safety of plastics has been a continuously covered news item while guns in the home rarely make headlines. Ultimately, what we read about in the paper or online, hear about on TV, and talk about with friends tends to be in the forefront of our minds, often magnifying the actual risk. These days, because we are increasingly focused on specific issues, we may overlook things that are relatively more dangerous.
Whether we agonize over the foods we eat or the chemicals in our environment, it is easy to lose sight of the actual number of people affected in a negative way. When we blow potential hazards out of proportion, we think intently about tiny decisions and start to see much of our world through a narrow lens. Many parents tell me they don't like approaching the world this way but they just can't help it.
The inspiration for this book came from my desire to unburden parents while also educating them about what is truly dangerous for their kids (and themselves). There is good scientific data available out there; unfortunately it is often difficult to decipher unless you are trained to read medical articles. That's why you are reading this book: so that you can understand where the hype ends and where the truth begins, so you can learn to identify what might really endanger your kids and then be able to avoid those hazards like plagues.
The fact is that we do have to worry about every little thing more than our parents did, because life has changed. Since we were children, many new chemicals have been invented. In addition, many materials once used sparingly have now become ubiquitous. Just look at plastics. Phthalates and bisphenol A—chemicals used to increase the functionality of plastics—aren't new, but they are now used in thousands of household items. When a chemical is utilized in every corner of our lives, it is reasonable to ask whether it is dangerous or safe.
A generation ago, a medicine or chemical needed to have catastrophic consequences (like birth defects, cancers, or deaths) to qualify as "dangerous." Now far subtler outcomes are analyzed. Does something cause a fall in test scores, depression, premature breast development, or acne? We remain concerned about disastrous results, but we also want to avoid even the most minor repercussions. This is why it is fair to ask these questions—just because something doesn't have catastrophic consequences doesn't necessarily mean it's safe.
Dangerous or Safe? examines the foods we eat, liquids we drink, chemicals in our environment, and medicines we take. I do not need to write a chapter about why my children will never be allowed to ride on motorcycles, because the answer is obvious. This book concentrates on the cloudy waters of the more subtle questions. It translates the data and provides clear answers. It is not meant to perpetuate drama but rather quite the opposite—to put to rest unfounded and overhyped fears.
There is an army of devoted physicians, scientists, academics, consultants, and journalists studying how exposures to various chemicals may or may not affect our future health. There are people who look at issues on the microscopic level, literally studying one cell or a single chemical reaction, and there are others who analyze how a food or piece of technology or a lab-manufactured additive impacts an entire population. Dangerous or Safe? takes the current data and distills it down to its core facts so that you get the bottom line: what is safe and what is not.
There are answers to questions about whether many of the things we use regularly are safe. The chapters that follow provide you with concrete evidence and advice. To do so, each chapter is organized into four sections: What Is the Question?
What Is the Data?
What Is the Bottom Line? What's in My Home?
The question section takes a broad issue (like plastic bottles) and defines it more specifically (is bisphenol A really dangerous?). The data section summarizes the history of the question and then provides a translation of scientific literature into layman's terms. I use published data from reputable journals and peer-reviewed articles. I also provide government data from the NIH, CDC, FDA, and other agencies because these materials form the basis for many of the guidelines and policies currently in effect. Since the abbreviations and terminology can be confusing, I've put the acronyms and medical terms in bold print the first time they appear within a chapter; any term in bold is defined in the glossary at the back. In the bottom-line section, I offer my own opinion, as a mom and as a pediatrician, about whether something is dangerous or safe. And finally, I answer the question that all my patients and friends a...
I had high hopes for this book when I saw Deepak Chopra's quote on the cover as I respect him but this book turned out to be a big disappointment. Read morePublished on September 13, 2010 by Megan M. Jeffries
This book has been such a useful tool for me. As a first time mom, I had so many questions about the potential dangers of various foods and medicines. Read morePublished on May 13, 2010 by First Time Mom
As its title clearly suggests, this book tells you exactly what you need to know about foods, meds, and chemicals, which you may or may not be aware of, that can be harmful to... Read morePublished on May 13, 2010 by P. Guzman
Oh, those poor trees. They would have been better used for kindling for Girl Scout campfires.
Leafing through this book, everything is out of date, superficial and a lot... Read more
This book holds so much promise. Who doesn't want to know what's safe for their kids? I was, however, sorely disappointed. Read morePublished on March 1, 2010 by PrairieMom
Kids don't have all the questions. Parents have plenty of questions of their own - and Dr. Natterson's book offers them answers. Read morePublished on October 30, 2009 by Deeds