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Dangerous or Safe?: Which Foods, Medicines, and Chemicals Really Put Your Kids at Risk Hardcover – October 8, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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About the Author

Cara Natterson, M.D., has treated thousands of children in private practice and has written two books on pediatrics. She works closely with Telepictures Productions, contributing to momlogic.com, and has appeared as an expert on CNN and the Today show. A graduate of Harvard and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Dr. Natterson lives in California with her husband and two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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...


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Hudson Street Press; 1 edition (October 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594630623
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594630620
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,980,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Caring parents want the best for their children. The problem is, "the best" is all to hard to determine. The internet often makes things worse. Yes, it provides information about vaccinations, baby food, and environmental hazards. The problem is, it provides too much information: solid scientific research mixed in with outdated beliefs, exaggerated or simply false claims from both sides of a question, alarmism, and plain old superstition dressed up in scientific jargon. Simply figuring out which sources to listen to is hard enough. Weighing carefully researched and opposing claims against each other can be nearly impossible, even for specialists. Then, the search for real information has to be repeated again for each separate issue affecting us and our children: environmental pollution, food additives, medications, cell phones, ... the list seems endless.

Natterson, in her role as pediatricion, has heard all these questions from concerned parents. In her role as mother, she's had to answer them for herself. This book offers her answers. More than that, however, Natterson offers the data she has collected on each question, followed by the kind of reasoning she follows in turning the data into decisions. Far too often, the question is not "safe or not?" but "safer than what?" For example, oils in some foods can oxidize to form known carcinogens. So, when weighing potential effects of preservatives in food, potential effects of not using them need to be weighed, too. Seeing Natterson's reasoning won't make you agree with her in all cases. I know I found a few things to dispute. But, when the whole discussion is laid out, the reader can intelligently decide what to dispute, and why.
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Format: Hardcover
As a mom of two young kids, I always have so many questions about the potentially "scary" things--milk, plastics, pesticides, soy. It was great to read a book that is no-nonsense and, best of all, tells me what a pediatrician does in her OWN home. I own all of Dr. Natterson's books and find them to be very useful reference tools. This book encourages readers to ignore the hype and consider the facts when making decisions on what their kids put in and on their bodies.
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Format: Hardcover
Have you ever wished your pediatrician had all the time in the world to sit with you, and really go into detail about what is healthy for your child? I'm not talking about the 15 minute sick visit, I'm talking full out discussion about what you are putting in your child's body. Well, this pediatrician took the time. Dr. Natterson has written a fact filled yet highly readable version of that chat you wish you could have with your child's doctor.

Dr. Natterson has taken the hype and hysteria out of today's most common worries (micro waving food in plastic, vaccines, peanut allergies and the like), and lays out a solid explanation of the safety or dangerous nature for each topic she covers. She provides a great deal of scientific data, but you do not need a degree from Harvard or Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to understand it (she has degrees from both schools, by the way). And, if you want, you can cut to the chase, and skip the wealth of information to simply get the answer. At the end of each chapter, she provides a section called "What's the bottom line?". It puts the information in a nutshell. She then proceeds to tell you what she has/does in her own home, with her two children. (Interesting to know she is operating not only as a doctor, but as a mom).

While the book covers all the topics I expected in a book about children's health, there were a many pleasant surprises. I have a 4-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, so the chapters on cell phones, cosmetics and antiperspirants don't really apply to them. Yet, they were still very informative, as they are products I use in my daily life. I didn't expect to find pearls of wisdom for myself, and yet, there they were.

The timing of this book couldn't be better.
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Format: Hardcover
Kids don't have all the questions. Parents have plenty of questions of their own - and Dr. Natterson's book offers them answers. Well researched, reasoned, and written answers to questions that are a lot more complicated than "why is the sky blue?" or "how do I know if my goldfish is a girl or a boy?". The book is a clear and engaging narrative for parents and caregivers, but it is also the kind of book you will find yourself referring to over and over again as you contemplate how and when to expose the children in your life to everything from cell phones and antibiotics, to juice boxes. We can't child-proof the world. But this book will go a long way in helping you sort out what you can and should do to make wise decisions about what your children eat, drink, touch, take and do. If you buy it you will read it and refer to it over and over again. You will be tempted to loan it to friends - but the truth is they should probably have their own copy.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I like how interesting and useful the information was, as well as the organized manner it was presented in the book.
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