Protecting your children from environmental toxins requires efforts on several fronts and may even need to begin before conception. Consider the following suggestions to help keep your child healthy:
* Protection begins before birth. There is evidence that parents exposed to toxic chemicals, such as pesticides, as well as radiation have a greater risk of producing a child who develops cancer. Before conceiving, it is worthwhile for parents to consider their own environments and health. Fathers who smoke, for example, may contribute to the development of cancer in their children (J Natl Cancer Inst, 1997; 89: 238-44). Consulting groups such as Foresight (01483 427 839) may be helpful.
* Mothers should avoid X-rays. X-rays during pregnancy are usually of little value and have been associated with a 50 per cent increase in childhood leukaemia (J Natl Cancer Inst, 1962; 28: 1173-91).
* Breastfeed for as long as possible. In spite of studies showing a range of toxic chemicals in breastmilk, the general conclusion of scientists and paediatricians is that the benefits of breastfeeding, such as a possible protective effect against childhood cancer (Int J Epidemiol, 1995; 24: 27-32; Br J Cancer, 2001; 85: 1685-94), far outweigh any risks.
* Opt for oral vitamin K. Oral doses of vitamin K are not associated with cancer. In addition, colostrum and hind milk contain significant amounts of vitamin K, another good reason to breastfeed.
* Use good-quality supplements. Once your child is on solid food, supplement with important minerals such as vitamins C and E, potassium, selenium and zinc. In addition, make sure your child receives adequate doses of essential fatty acids. Hemp and sunflowerseed oils are good sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, respectively.
* Consider alternatives to vaccination. In healthy children, mild childhood diseases are rarely dangerous. If your child is at particular risk and you wish to strengthen their resistance to disease, try homoeopathy. Evidence from 50 years ago suggests that homoeopathic prevention can be effective. If you have decided on conventional vaccination, it may be better to wait until your child is nine months or older before vaccinating. Prepare your child to receive vaccines with a course of Thuja or Bacillinum, or vitamin C.
* What are they putting in their mouths? The more organic fruits, vegetables and wholegrains your child consumes, the less the risk of ingesting harmful pesticides. However, many foods aimed at children contain other known carcinogens, such as the nitrites in cured meats (Cancer Causes Control, 1994; 5: 141-8) and the food colouring used in so many drinks and sweets. Cutting out convenience foods or being more selective about what you serve will have a substantial effect on your child's health by removing potential carcinogens as well as boosting overall health to a level that may help your child fight off the effects of toxins.
* Avoid artificial sweeteners. The foods children eat are implicated in increased cancer rates. In one study, researchers found what they believed was a 'promising' connection between the artificial sweetener aspartame and increased rates of brain cancer (J Neuropathol Exp Neurol, 1996; 55: 1115-23).
* Keep kids safe from electrical gadgets. Less radiation exposure means lower cancer risk. Apart from rethinking how many gadgets you have at home and where they are placed, think seriously about your child's bedroom environment. Babies do not need electric light and musical devices to soothe them. Children don't need clock-radios or TVs in their rooms. Keeping your child's room as free from domestic electrical appliances as possible means that the eight or more hours they spend sleeping each day can heal rather than harm.
* Minimise exposure to heavy metals. In particular, lead and mercury are potent neurotoxins. Left to accumulate in the body, they can cause the kind of chronic illness that may predispose to certain cancers. To minimise exposure from the water supply, install a reverse-osmosis water filter in your home. If your child needs dental filings, make sure they are composite rather than amalgam. Use lead-free paint and replace all old lead water pipes.
* Stay informed. Many environmental groups produce excellent reports on environment and child health. Friends of the Earth's Poisoning our Children: The Dangers of Exposure to Untested and Toxic Chemicals is a good overview (www.foe.co.uk ; tel: 020 7490 1555). In the US, the Natural Resources Defence Council produces many useful publications, including Our Children at Risk, available online at www.nrdc.org.