x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When science starts to feed parental fears

Research about a chemical found in plastics has this father feeling guilty about inadvertently putting his child in harm's way.

No matter what you do as a parent, there’s always a nagging sense that you’re doing something wrong, a creeping paranoia that your actions now will reverberate in unforeseen ways through your child’s future.

For one thing, there’s a guilty feeling that you cannot avoid the inevitable transmission of your own shortcomings to your child. The only thing you can do, I suppose, is try to be the best parent you can in the knowledge that, regardless how hard you try, you will sometimes fail in one way or another. 

The other way you can potentially wreak havoc on your children is more clear cut: you can do imperceptible damage to their bodies. You can, for example, feed them too much salt or sugar. The effects of a poor diet may not be visible straight away, but they will emerge later on. By then, all you can do is feel bad.

The most pernicious parental errors occur when you don’t think you are doing anything wrong at all. Only many years later, after scientific research unravels the problem, do answers emerge. We are in the midst of one such case at the moment. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that has been widely used in food and drink packaging since the 1960s. It is tough, light and heat resistant. According to a study conducted by a company called Chemical Market Associates, 2.8 million tons of BPA were produced in 2002. It would be surprising if you haven’t come into contact with it this week: it’s used in computers, baby bottles, CDs and food cans.

Astrid’s plates and cups have this chemical in them and, according to the industry group supporting the use of Bisphenol A, this should not be a problem. On its website it says that “the weight of scientific evidence clearly supports the safety of BPA and provides strong reassurance that there is no basis for human health concerns from exposure to BPA”. Various scientific studies discovered that the chemical seeps from the finished plastic when heated, but the levels were considered low enough to avoid any adverse effects.


Some more recent studies have found otherwise. According to them, even low levels of the chemical can alter the way foetuses develop and possibly lead to health problems such as hormone imbalances and obesity. The situation is made more complex by the fact that BPA is not a normal toxin. It is an endocrine disrupter. It imitates the behaviour of oestrogen, a natural hormone in the body, so it is difficult to determine exactly what it does. In January, the Food and Drug Administration in the US ruled that although the effects of BPA were concerning, more research was needed before it would take further action.

In the meantime, the FDA has published some recommendations for parents (www.hhs.gov/safety/bpa) to help avoid exposing children to BPA. They are simple enough and worth following to help cut down on nagging parental doubts.

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Sifting through the contents of my trouser pockets at the end of a day, I find all manner of detritus: tissues, a yellow ping-pong ball, torn fragments of an envelope, a dirham, a 50 fil piece, two 25 fil pieces, a ring tab from a can of fizzy drink, a handful of sand. I don’t remember picking most of these things up, but I must have done.

My pockets came to resemble a dustbin after Astrid started to crawl. As she moves around she picks things up and tries to put them in her mouth. If the item is dangerous, I take it from her. Often the safest place for it to end up is in my pocket.

In many ways, the contents of my pockets are like a parallel universe, a snapshot of what the contents of Astrid’s stomach would look like without parental intervention. They are a sobering reminder of the numerous, split-second, almost subconscious decisions parents have to make every day to avert disaster. Most of the time you don’t even think about these choices or notice them. Only when you empty your pockets do you see the cumulation of these decisions. It seems parents need deep pockets – literally.