Parents know the world can be a dangerous place. So we do our best to keep our kids safe: We teach them to stop, look and listen before they cross the street. We childproof the cabinets and the windows, and buy childproof bottles of Tylenol. We strap them — securely and according to code — into their crash-tested, carefully crafted seats each time we start the car.
These are the dangers we see. What about the ones we don’t? Inundated with info — online, offline and that from old-fashioned word of mouth — we hear frightening stories about cell phone hazards, about the evils of too much television, about what can happen if we let our kids sip from plastic bottles.
What’s a worried parent to do?
For starters, don’t panic. Find out the latest available facts from sources you trust, such as reputable academic institutions or organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Talk with your family doctor if you have concerns. Stay away from chat rooms filled with rumor, innuendo and misinformation, and do your best to filter the fluff and target the truth.
We’ve taken a close look at five popular (and scary) theories that persistently resurface, and address the question: Are our children really in danger? While the answers are not always clear, we can offer information that will help you sort fact from fiction.
1. Do vaccinations cause autism?
Old myths die hard, especially terrifying ones like this.
A report linking a childhood vaccine to autism, first published in 1998 and now thoroughly discredited, resulted in a steep decline in vaccination rates and a resurgence of potentially deadly childhood diseases like measles and whooping cough.
The report, by British researcher Andrew Wakefield, made international news after it was published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. The report suggested a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The paper’s conclusions were later renounced by 10 of its 13 authors, and The Lancet retracted it last year. In addition, Wakefield lost his right to practice medicine in Britain.
An examination of the report, completed in January of this year, found that Wakefield and his colleagues had altered facts about the patients they studied. An editorial in the British Medical Journal called Wakefield’s study “an elaborate fraud.”
But the damage was done: Panicked parents in Britain and the United States decided not to vaccinate their children. Vaccination rates dropped sharply in Britain, falling as low as 80 percent by 2004. In the U.S., more cases of measles were reported in 2008 than in any other year since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unvaccinated children contributed to measles outbreaks in California, Illinois, Arizona, New York and Washington state.
In Washington, the vaccination exemption rate has more than doubled over the last 10 years, rising to 6.2 percent for the 2009-2010 school year (The national average is less than 2 percent.) According to a recent Centers for Disease Control study, the state has the highest rate of kids’ vaccine exemptions in the country.
Previous state policy made it easy for parents to exempt a child from school immunization requirements. But a state bill, recently signed into law, requires parents or guardians to show they’ve received information from a health care provider on the benefits and risks of immunization before opting out of school vaccination requirements.
Numerous studies have failed to find a link between autism and vaccines, says Dr. Wendy Stone, director of the University of Washington Autism Center. Lately, attention has been focused on environmental factors as a cause of autism, she says. “It’s very unlikely there’s going to be one simple cause, one simple environmental factor. Autism is a very complex disorder.”
Experts worry that it will take time for frightened parents to regain confidence in the safety of vaccinations. “This scared people, and it’s hard to unscare them,” says Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Stone agrees. “It’s such an emotionally charged topic,” she says. “It’s very difficult to convince parents that something isn’t the cause when we don’t know what is the cause.”
2. Does TV watching by young kids cause ADD or ADHD?
When he hears this one, Dr. Theodore Mandelkorn has a good laugh. “Every week it seems there is another fabricated cause for ADHD,” says the Mercer Island physician, who specializes in treating ADHD in children and young adults. “Either it’s premature birth or pesticides or popcorn or too much TV. It just keeps coming.”
The idea that watching TV causes ADHD may have gotten its start from a study that wasn’t about ADHD at all. In April 2004, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital, published a study in the journal Pediatrics indicating that television watching by children ages 1 to 3 had a direct effect on subsequent attention problems.
For example, a child who watched two hours of TV daily before age 3 would be 20 percent more likely to have attention problems by age 7. But the results were based upon parents’ assessment of their kids’ early TV habits and later behavior. None of these children, as Christakis points out, were diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.
Mandelkorn says the major cause of attention deficit disorder is genetics. “A huge percentage of people who have it know someone in their family who has it.”
Still, Christakis suggests parents think carefully about their young child’s exposure to television. For years, the AAP has urged parents to eliminate all TV watching for children younger than 2 and to limit screen time for older kids to two hours a day.
Subsequent studies have been inconclusive about a link between watching TV and attention deficit disorders, says Christakis. “But the best available evidence questions the benefits [of watching TV] and points to possible harm for very young children. That remains my belief.”
3. Can bisphenol A (BPA) plastics cause early puberty?
We hear about it; some of us have kids experiencing it. Experts say we’re seeing more and more cases of early puberty. Why the change? Genetics play a big role, and it’s possible that environmental causes, from hormones in milk to plastic containers, are contributing to early sexual maturity.
BPA is a chemical used to make plastics and is frequently used in sports equipment, water bottles, baby bottles, medical devices and as a coating in food and beverage cans. Under some conditions, it can leach into liquids and foods.
In 2008, BPA experiments on mice linked the chemical to precancerous lesions in the prostate and mammary glands, and to early puberty in female mice receiving BPA dosages comparable to human exposures. The report, by the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program, recommended additional study, concluding, “The possibility that bisphenol A may alter human development cannot be dismissed.”
“What we do know about BPA is that it is an estrogen agent,” says Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, an environmental medicine specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “And we know that things like estrogen cream can definitely lead to early puberty in girls.”
Seattle Children’s recommends against microwaving food or beverages in plastic, putting plastics in the dishwasher, using hard plastic bottles for warm or hot liquids and eating canned foods. Safer alternatives include using glass or polyethylene plastic and finding phthalate-free or BPA-free products.
“I think results are inconclusive about whether it causes early puberty,” Sathyanarayana says. “But there are precautions that should be taken.”
4. Can video games make your child violent?
Murder and mayhem in video games like Grand Theft Auto can make parents cringe. Cars crash, bullets fly, body parts scatter. We know that all this aggression can’t be good for kids. But can it make them violent?
A 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics reported that children in the U.S. and Japan who spent time playing violent video games later exhibited more aggressive behavior than their peers who did not play the games.
Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, argues that there is no conclusive evidence that violent video games lead to violent behavior by children. “According to FBI statistics, youth violence has declined in recent years as computer and video game popularity soared,” Gallagher writes in the May 2010 issue of U.S. News and World Report.
But experts and researchers disagree. The case is closed, they say, and parents should keep their children away from these games.
Pediatrician Christakis puts it this way: “The evidence that exposure to violence on screen is linked to real-world aggression is as strong as the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.”
5. Can cell phone radiation kill your child?
Cell phone use is so pervasive, it sometimes seems the phones are literally sprouting from our children’s ears. But is talking on a cell phone increasing their risk of cancer?
Federal government agencies have concluded there is little or no evidence that cell phone use is associated with brain tumors.
University of Washington scientist Dr. Henry Lai has been studying this issue for decades. He and a colleague first studied the effects of nonionizing microwave radiation — the same type of radiation emitted by cell phones — on the DNA of rats. That study, published in 1995, found that the DNA in the brain cells of the rats was damaged — or broken — by exposure to the radiation.
A major international study completed last year was inconclusive about the link between cell phone use and two types of brain cancer. Authors of the 10-year study of 13,000 participants say further investigation is necessary before they can conclude with certainty that there is no link between cell phone radiation and brain cancer. But, as Lai points out, heavy use of cell phones for 10 years or more doubled the rate of glioma, a type of brain cancer.
In a recent CNN report on cell phones and radiation, Dr. Keith Black, neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, compared the radiation in a cell phone to the radiation in a microwave oven. “It does what microwave radiation does,” he says. “In the most simplistic terms, it’s essentially cooking the brain.”
Experts point out that no definitive studies have been completed on children, whose skulls are thinner than adults.
“The brain is still developing,” says Lai. “A developing brain may be more susceptible to radiation.” But he adds, “There’s no proof of that. It’s conjecture at this point.”
Lai urges parents to take precautions. Limit or eliminate cell phone use for very young children. Encourage texting or the use of headsets for teens. “Texting is a good idea,” he says. “It keeps the phone away from the head.”
Lai acknowledges that we are a long way from definitive information on any link between cell phones and cancer.
“At this point, it’s too early to say anything. Brain cancer is very rare and it takes a long time to develop,” he says. “In the meantime, there is some indication that there is some cause for concern.”
Freelance writer Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle.