Sunday, December 26, 2010

Skating Through Life

Once upon a time, someone sat down to figure out how they could combine the clumsy awkwardness of childhood with the improved control one gets while stumbling around on roller skates, in order to bring the two together into a total package intended to grace a child's feet as they go throughout their daily lives. Oh, if only we could bring the thrill of skating out of the roller-ring and into our homes. Rather than a flat, wide open surface buffed to perfection, we can have our kids skate around tables and chairs, up and down stairs, all with the thrill of sharp, pointy objects a mere arms-length away. At least, these are the thoughts that run through my mind anytime I see a child with roller-shoes.

Of course, it didn't start out that way. I remember the love affair the first time a child showed up in the classroom with a pair. There were the 'ooohs and aaahs.' The drools from the other children, alongside a well placed "well I'll be darned." There we sat, marveling at this wonderful feat of human engineering. Both awestruck at the ingenuity of our fellow mankind and ashamed that we didn't think of it first. Any 'ole fool could dream up space flight. But to put skates on the bottom of everyday footwear? Now that's true genius.

Then came the inevitable: "can you try them out Megan?" Happy to comply, the little girl popped out the wheels and was helped to her feet. For several moments she strolled around the carpet at a safe pace to exclamations of "that's so cool" and a low-pitched murmur of coos coming from the other children. Then she hit the tile area. The first skate was planted without a hitch. However, as she shifter her weight to put her other foot in front, like a child stepping on a sudden ice patch, her feet were swept out from under her. She plopped butt first to the ground, sending a chair flying across the classroom in the process. Apparently no worse for the ware, she looked back to the class with a big smile on her face. We all laughed and laughed.

It turns out; this little trendsetter wasn't the only one taking a spill. Doctors around the globe report treating injuries such as cracked skulls, broken wrists, arms or ankles; and dislocated elbows, all in children whose spills didn't go as well as Megan's. In the U.S. alone, around 1,600 emergency room visits occur each year after children take a spill while on shoe-skates, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In the grand scheme of things, this isn't exactly a child's most pressing danger, but it's hardly chump change either. As a result, many schools have even taken steps to ban the trendy footwear.

The skates come in several different varieties. Some are set up so that a wheel in the back of the shoe engages when the child shifts their weight to their heel. (So not only are they skating, but they're off-balance.) Others function like regular roller skates, with pop out wheels that a child can use to transform their everyday shoes into a pair of wheeled recreation devices. Whatever the style, the concept is to combine roller skates with everyday shoes.

We won't fault parents if they want to get their child a pair. Be honest, we know you can hear the voices in your head urging you towards them. One reason parents buy them, I suspect, is because laughing at kids when they fall is half the fun of the experience. Just be aware of the potential for danger, and remember that a skate is a skate, no matter what form it's in. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends a child wear full wrist and knee pads, along with a helmet, anytime such shoes are in skate mode. Kids should at least have a helmet anytime they want to skate around. As for their use in everyday life to zip around malls or down sidewalks, we don't see any more harm in it than usual, so long as a child is holding the hand of a firmly anchored adult. This should prevent any serious injuries if they slip. A couple of extra bumps and bruises won't hurt. It's good to toughen them up, or at least that's what my Dad always told us as he was trying to stop the bleeding. We just don't like seeing hospital visits.

In the meantime, I'm working on a little patent of my own. It's called the fire-cycle, and it combines the joy of fireworks with the utility of bicycle riding. There's a button on the handlebars that shoots bottle rockets and another one that releases jumping jacks and cherry bombs at will, which is great if you need an impromptu obstacle course, or if you just want to keep your little brother from following you. Nobody steal my idea.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Warning about Sleep Positioners

The FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently issued a warning infant sleep positioners. Parents should avoid using them, as they increase the risk of SIDS. At least 12 babies in the last 13 years have been suffocated by infant sleep positioners, likely because they slid down and got their face wedged up against the foam device.

Other interesting tidbits from around the world:

Attack of the Elderly
A chiropractic center in Wicheta Kansas, found itself under particular attack, after two different cars crashed through the front of the building on the same day. First, and elderly woman rammed through the front of the building and landed in the reception area. A few hours later, an elderly man crashed into a different wall, shattering a window. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Twitter Birthing
Most women in labor are focused on the process of childbirth. Rachael Ince, a woman from Lancaster, England, was also focused on her Twitter account. She posted a 190 tweets while she was giving birth, including: "Ohh, I actually groaned during that contraction -- things are looking up!"

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to Survive An Avalanche

Squarely in the realm of "you'll probably never need to know it but just in case you do..." category, sits the topic of avalanche safety. To some people, it may seem akin to learning how to dodge a meteor strike; information that isn't pertinent to their life and probably won't ever come in handy. Yet if you and your kids are winter sports junkies or prone to exploring avalanche prone areas, then it doesn't hurt to take a moment to sit down with them and cover the basics of how to survive an avalanche. During the 2007~2008 winter season alone, 36 people in the United States were killed in avalanches, a record that experts largely attribute to the growing popularity of back-country sports. And as remote as the risk my be, it's still higher than the likelihood of your child being murdered by a registered sex-offender. So before you head out to the back country, take a little time to go over avalanche safety. It can be entertaining if nothing else.

1. Don't bother trying to outrun the snow. An avalanche can pick up speed to 80 M.P.H. in a matter of seconds. If on skis and you think you're far enough ahead of it, your best bet is to veer sideways at a 45 degree angle and try to have it miss you. When you're the one who triggers it, you've got about 3 to 5 seconds to ski off it. But racing it is a losing cause.

2. If that doesn't work, grab a tree and hang on for dear life. No, that's not a joke. If you can manage to keep your grip, trees often form natural air pockets on the opposite side of the avalanche. It may buy you extra space or even provide the ability to climb out once things settle. It can also act as a shield against some of the deadly debris. Even if you can't hang on for the duration, the more snow that slides past you, the better your chances are. It's always best to be at the upper end of the avalanche as opposed to buried under the bottom of the pile.

3. Paddle. That's right, paddle. Humans are 3-times denser than dry snow, so if you're not swimming, you'll sink like a log. Either that, or perhaps safety experts just have a sense of humor.

4. Create space, or make air pockets. Once the snow stops moving, it will set like concrete. So as the snow slows, cup your hands in front of your mouth, and take a deep, breath so that your lungs will create extra space. Try to move as much as possible. The more space you create to move, the more air pockets and maneuverability you'll create, and the better your chance for survival.

5. Reach for the surface. As you're tumbling along, raise a hand and try to break through to the top. If you can manage to get any body part or piece of clothing showing it will help rescuers find you.

6. Stay calm, and breathe slowly. Don't bother yelling until you hear rescuers directly on top of you. Any farther away and it's unlikely they'll hear your muffled cries for help. It will only use up your precious oxygen, while filling your air pocket with carbon dioxide.

7. If you or a loved one is out in the high country often, invest in a good avalanche beacon or some of the other safety products that are available. You can find these in our safety store.

The key to surviving an avalanche is getting out quickly and avoiding collisions with deadly debris, such as rocks or tree trunks. Those who are uncovered in the first 15 minutes have a 90% survival rate. Yet as time ticks away, spending between 15 minutes and 45 minutes under the snow lowers your odds of survival fall from 90% to 30%. So there you have it. Information you'll probably never need but that all winter sports junkies should have just in case. See us next time for tips on how to dodge a meteorite. Hint: it involves using the Michael Jackson moonwalk.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

The New Owner of the Sun

Off Topic (Yet amusing)
In the realm of the utterly absurd, a spanish woman recently filed legal papers claiming she owns the sun. 49 year old Angeles Duran claims in notarized documents that she is now the official "owner of the sun, a star of spectral type G2, located in the centre of the solar system, located at an average distance from earth of about 149,600,000 kilometers." What comes next? Why, she wants to charge a fee for usage of the sun's energy, of course. Where others might see a telltale sign of diagnosable insanity, she sees a business prospect with a fortune to be made: "Anyone else could have done it, it simply occurred to me first," says Duran. Yes, anybody could have done it; just like anybody could, if they wanted to, wear their underwear over their head and run down the street singing "Are You Sleeping," if it occurred to them. Most of us don't, because we have an ounce of common sense.

Let me know how the biz prospect goes, Angeles. Especially since I hereby lay claim to legal ownership of the earth's atmosphere, of which the rays from Angeles' sun could certainly pass through . . . for a hefty fee, of course.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Childhood Obesity In 16 Minutes A Day

For all the complicated, hyped up weight loss theories out there, scientists have long known that the obesity problem boils down to a simple equation: if you take in more calories than you burn you will gain weight. Period.

A new study by the University of Southern California, conducted for the National Institute of Health, explored one half of the equation. They found that the tipping point between health and obesity for children may be as little as 16 minutes a day. That is how much more exorcise normal weight gain kids get over their obese friends. The kids in the study (N=3,106) wore accelerometers to track their levels of physical activity for a period of 4 days. Normal weight children ages 6 to 17 averaged 59 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, (right in line with NIH recommendations that all kids get at least an hour), while obese kids logged in only 43 minutes daily.

This may not seem like a lot, but averaged out over weeks, months, and years, it is a significant difference ... one that would certainly distort those calories burned equations in the wrong direction. (30 minutes of bike ridding, for example, can burn more than 250 calories.)

Girls, who averaged 20 minutes less daily physical activity than boys, are particularly in need of more exorcise. There was also a disturbing drop around adolescence, when daily physical activity plummeted -- to an average of 33 minutes for kids 12 to 15 years, and a mere 25 minutes for teens 16 to 19 years.

In the fight against obesity, little difference and daily habits matter. That is why parents should do whatever they can to squeeze in more physical activity -- weather it be getting up to dance, doing jumping jacks during commercials, or taking time to chase kids around the yard. Because it turns out that 16 minutes might make a world of difference.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

More Dangers to Kids from Third hand Smoke

As most people are aware, smoking is bad for one's health. Also as most people are aware, second-hand smoke can be bad for anyone who breathes it in, particularly children. Yet a recent field of research has been documenting the dangers of third-hand smoke; a term used to describe the residual chemicals that can be left over from cigarettes even after the actual smoke clears. And a new study published earlier this year in the February 8 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA shows just how harmful such exposure might be.

A research team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory warns that third hand smoke may be even more hazardous to children's health than first or secondhand smoke. The reason is that the remnants of cigarette smoke do not just benignly settle on surfaces to create a harmless chemical coating. Rather, their study found that leftover nicotine compounds can react with nitrous acid vapor--a chemical that is "environmentally common," and emitted from a variety of everyday sources; everything from gas appliances to vehicles. When this happens, the reaction produces carcinogenic compounds referred to as tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or TSNAs for short.

It's not merely the presence of these compounds that make third hand smoke so dangerous. After all, secondhand smoke contains TSNAs as well. But the presence of nitrous acid in a room or car can increase the numbers of these compounds several times over in the hours after a person stops smoking. More importantly, because this nicotine residue can linger on surfaces for weeks or even months, it can be a more persistent form of exposure than first or secondhand smoke, exposing children to carcinogens on an ongoing basis. This is what makes it so potentially dangerous.

TSNAs can be inhaled, ingested and absorbed through the skin. As usual, children are the most vulnerable to third hand smoke, just as they are with any cigarette smoke. Their small size means they get a much higher exposure per body weight, and with still developing bodies they also have the most to lose from hazardous chemical exposures of any type.

Though these findings are preliminary, they join a body of other research which has documented the dangers of third-hand smoke. Cigarette smoke--complete with all of its toxins--does not just vanish into thin air, despite the visual illusion that the wafting smoke gives of such. Its contents settle onto the surrounding areas in microscopic amounts too small to see, but they're there. Smoking and non-smoking parents alike need to be aware of this.

Children, and young children especially, are then exposed to these chemicals when they sit on a couch, put a toy in their mouth, or do any of those other things normal kids do. Perhaps the most toxic form of exposure can occur when a parent smokes in a car. Even if they do it when their kids aren't present, it's a confined space that will concentrate nicotine residue. If parents then use the same car to transport their kids, it can expose them to these TSNAs.

Public education campaigns have gotten most people to cease smoking around their children. Yet this needs to be taken one step further. Parents should avoid smoking anywhere their children share space, which includes the house or the family car. If you're not one of the 20% of Americans who smoke, you might tactfully spread this information to any of your friends that do.

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How to stop a misbehaving child

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Traumatizing Tadpoles

Just admit it. Somehow, someway, I've managed to peer inside your head once again to find out exactly what you're thinking. Or are you going to try to deny that such a thought has ever crossed your mind? The idea of intentionally traumatizing baby tadpoles apparently crossed someone’s mind, as I was intrigued when I came across the practice in a science article. Why would anyone want to traumatize tadpoles, you ask? Aside from giving the future axe-murderers of society ideas for something to do on Friday nights, the concept was employed to test the ability of tadpoles to learn from their environment, even before they hatch.

A research team at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada exposed wood frog eggs to water which had been doused with slurry of freshly ground-up wood frog tadpoles. Naturally, such an environment could be scary to aspiring tadpoles. Imagine taking your child to a daycare with ground up baby bits everywhere. Researchers then paired this experience with water from the tanks of fire-belly salamanders. Since the salamanders don't live around wood frogs in nature, their scent by itself shouldn't provoke any reaction, as they're not a natural predator.

Yet when the eggs hatched, tadpoles that had been exposed to the scent of the salamander alongside the slurry of their ground-up nursery school friends, considered the scent of the salamander by itself to be threatening. Un-traumatized tadpoles didn't have the same reaction.

In a follow up study by another team led by Maud Ferrari of the same University, the same type of embryos were exposed to salamander scent, this time with no morbid slurry of dead comrades. Instead, they exposed them to this mix of salamander scent and dead playmates after they hatched. In theory, this alarming exposure could give the youngsters a life-long fear of the salamanders. Yet tadpoles who had already been exposed to the scent earlier in their life, when nothing seemed to be amiss, disregarded the scent as irrelevant. So tadpoles are capable of learning not only what to be afraid of, but they also learn when it isn't time to panic. Turns out the little fellas are smarter than most people would have ever thought.

What all this nonsense accomplished, other than allowing us to create one of the most intriguing blog post titles ever, is to show that even among some of the earth's lowliest creatures, learning takes place from the very beginning. Its part of a new wave of research revealing that right from the start, baby creatures of all kinds show an extraordinary knack to absorb their environment and adjust accordingly.

The moral of the story: fetuses can be aware of their environment to a degree that most don't fully appreciate. That, and under no circumstances should you expose pregnant women to a slurry of ground up baby bits. If a tadpole is capable of learning before birth, imagine how much more so a baby human picks up from their surroundings.

When I read about this study, I began to think about all the other research I've explored regarding the consequences of things such as conflict or maternal stress on fetal development. The studies are numerous and the research conclusive: negative environments can adversely affect fetal development. Yet something about this study gave me a whole new perspective on things, and maybe it will you as well. At the very least, it's an interesting example of how wonderful and complex life can be even at the smallest levels.

So before any future little ones get here, remember: friendly voices, calm tones, and a healthy, nurturing environment babies are learning from you, even before they're born. They're absorbing their surroundings; reading any conflict in the environment and observing the tones of voices in their future caretakers, and even adjusting their development accordingly. Let’s make sure to give them lots of happy thoughts.

1. Susan Milius, "Smart from the start," Science News, Vol. 176(4):26-29, August 15, 2009

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bouncy Houses Full of Lead

You know those inflatable bouncy houses for kids, a common staple at fairs, flea markets, and children's parties. Well it turns out that some of them contain dozens of times the amount of the federal legal limit of lead, according to a suit filed by California Attorney General, Jerry Brown. The manufactures have responded by down playing test results and recommending that children should wipe their hands and faces after jumping to get any lead off. It is also uncertain if, and how much, would actually make its way to the kids who use it.

So what is a parent to do? For lead conscious parents this could create quite a conundrum at a party. You can let kids play a potentially risk a brief period of mild to moderate lead exposure, or exclude your child from the fun and risk the rage that will follow. This is a safety issues that is more of a personal choice. While not ideal, such brief, isolated exposure is unlikely to matter in the long run. (Do have your child wash up afterward if you decide to through precaution to the wind.) Also, be sure to ask about any lead in the structure before renting one and ask for a test. Basic lead tests can be bought at most stores that sell baby or child proofing supplies.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

How long do germs stay active on money?

Generally speaking, viruses stay active for only a few hours, but certain forms of bacteria can keep alive for several weeks on money or anything else. Considering the likely number of people a dollar bill has exchanged hands with over two weeks, however, and it's likely you'll encounter more live germs on the door handle to the store you walk into or the counter of the fast-food restaurant you touch. People are everywhere. They've taken over the planet. There's no way to completely avoid their germs.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Where Abductors Lurk, 7 in 10 Kids Unprepared

Strangers on the news. Strangers in the park. Lurking at the grocery store. Following behind you in their cars. With your kids at the park. Each one unfamiliar, a potential for snatching your child at any moment. We've all heard the stories of strangers, and most of us have repeated such stories of caution to our children: don't talk to strangers, never go anywhere with a stranger, and on and on. You'd think by now they'd surely get the message.

Yet according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 7 out of 10 kids will still go with a stranger despite parental warnings. Individual tests done periodically by various news stations all over the country confirm such fears, repeatedly showing that some children will willingly wander off with complete strangers under some of the classic ploys an abductor may use. And it always happens with the parents claiming beforehand that, surely, their child would never walk off with a stranger.

The problem is not that kids can't follow directions, but that they lack context for the instruction. Most parents tell their children not to talk to strangers, but provide little practical knowledge that can be applied to everyday situations. They may tell a child not to talk to strangers, but then proceed to carry on conversations with them themselves in supermarket lines. They may also tell a child to respond when a stranger at the store asks their name or inquires about their day. Of course, we the parents know the types of situations where strangers pose a potential danger. But we do a lousy job of conveying this knowledge to our children.

As a result, the child ends up getting mixed messages, and lacks the context for the instructions. The consequence is that they have difficulty discerning a dangerous situation from an everyday one. Parents need to make sure that their discussions go beyond the mere "don't talk to strangers" command. Proper stranger danger training needs to include the following:

A) Rather than telling children "don't talk to strangers"; do a slight variation on this command and tell them they can only talk to strangers when you (or another caretaker) is around. Clearly define "when I'm around" to mean when their caretaker is right there in their presence and clearly visible, not upstairs or inside the house or in a different room. Apply this rule to answering the door as well. We know of at least 3 cases (and there are likely more) where a child was snatched right from their doorstep as they answered the door alone and later found murdered.

B) Parents need to provide examples of ploys an abductor might use. Merely discussing some of the basic ploys will help children develop a pattern of recognition that will make their senses tingle should anyone use a similar (or even identical) ploy in real life.

C) Role play. This gives kids a chance to practice the correct actions in advance. Kids learn better by doing than they do by someone barking commands at them. When you give them a command, it often remains an intangible concept, much akin to remembering the birth date of George Washington. When you act out that knowledge it becomes tangible, and much more accessible in a clutch situation.

D) Put them to the test. Try to arrange for a friend or colleague that they don't know to test them and see what happens. If they fail the test, a stern (but pleasant) talking to should be enough to greatly increase their odds of acting correctly the next time around, should it ever come up.

E) Repetition. Telling a child "don't talk to strangers" once and calling it good is not enough. Once is never enough with children, who learn through experience and repetition. Our child safety books on stranger danger provide a great way to offer this repetition. You can read them online, print a copy yourself, or order a set for your household.

The good news is that these tests also inevitably reveal well-trained children who do exactly the right thing in a clutch situation. One 20/20 episode showed a girl, perhaps about 7 or 8 years old, not only saving herself but preventing her younger brother from going along with an abduction attempt. They were playing in front of their house when a stranger (who in this case was an undercover safety specialist) approached. The girl was weary, watching the situation unfold from a safe distance. Her brother was enthusiastic, and readily went along with the ploy. But big sister intervened, quite literally grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him inside the house under protest to prevent him from going to see the toys in the man's trunk. Yes, kids can and will perform life-saving feats if properly trained. The thirty percent is evidence of this. It's just that too few parents adequately get the message across.

Another thing few people realize is that there are usually numerous abduction attempts for every successful abduction. An abductor need not be successful every time, just persistent enough to come across the child who allows them to be successful once. The question is, will your child be that one? For seven in ten parents, the answer could be yes. Let's fix that.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why for Some Kids, the Lure of a Gun is Irresistible

It goes without saying, or at least parents assume it should, that little fingers should never wrap themselves around a real firearm. Just in case it doesn't, be sure to tell them anyway: If you come across a gun, don't ever touch it, don't ever play with it; run and get an adult. Yet time and time again, there are children who ignore such warnings anyway. Should they happen across a gun, they just can't help themselves...they feel a compulsive need to explore it. And at least part of this is our fault.

As a society, we must own up to the fact that we live in a gun-crazed culture; one where the use and allure of firearms is talked up, romanticized, fictionalized, and broadcast into our homes on an everyday basis. It's not just on TV, either. Many kids have parents who proudly display their gun-toting ways, not to mention older brothers, uncles, and other adult friends. Most adults who own them treat guns as a status of power and authority, further adding to the allure. Then, of course, there are jack-ass fools who show up outside town-hall meetings carrying assault rifles. In the midst of such displays~ what message is a kid to receive?

When children are surrounded by this gun-crazed romanticism with firearms, the lure of a gun can become simply irresistible. It's a classic one-two punch of psychology. We talk guns up and romanticize their power and significance, while simultaneously turning around and telling children' not to touch. There are two surefire ingredients to use to get a child interested in something: 1) Tell them they can't have it, 2) In everything that surrounds them, send a message about how wonderful and powerful that thing which they can't have is.

Some die-hard gun advocates would say the solution to this is of course to provide children with ways for safe gun usage so that they don't feel a compulsion to experiment. Yet this tends to backfire as well, leading to overconfidence and the likelihood that kids will handle a gun when they shouldn't, or 'show off their gun skills with a friend, who also might use it irresponsibly. Not to mention that since gun accidents commonly occur through everyday use, ANY exposure to a gun increases a child's risk of dying and lowers their overall safety, and that of the kids around them. The problem is not the restriction; kids can handle this when the danger is clearly explained to them. It's the romanticism that goes along with it.

Not only is this romanticism unhealthy, it's flat out wrong. The cold hard facts don't lie, and they reveal that a person is around 60 times more likely to use their gun in a tragic manner (murder, suicide, accidental shooting, etc.) than they are to use it for a legal purpose. When you further take police-officer statistics out of the equation and focus on true life or death situations as opposed to simply "legal use" (many states allow the use of a firearm against any felony, regardless of whether a person is actually in danger at the time) and the situation gets even bleaker. In terms of legitimate self-defense, the odds shoot up to at least several hundred to one that a gun will be used tragically rather than defensively. If you own a gun for self-defense, you own a gun for the wrong reasons, and your family is in more danger, not less, on account of your fun ownership.

Then there are the movies. Movies aren't just unrealistic in terms of the obviously dubious action involved, but in terms of the end result of all the gun play depicted in them. In real life, when guns get drawn, their shooters are every bit as likely to hit an innocent civilian as they are their intended target. Yet in movies and drama shows alike, hundreds of rounds can be fired off without a single innocent child going down in the process. You see people diving behind cars in the process of shooting at their target while sideways and off-balance in mid air...a shot that in real life even a professional marksman would find virtually impossible. Yet this sort of acrobatic marksmanship is quite common on TV, and it gives kids a fantasy-land mentality about how easy gun use really is. Just point and shoot, and the bullet hits the bad guy. This portrayal couldn't be farther from the truth.

As is always the case, parenting plays a crucial role. We're not an organization that advocates a prudish approach of hiding your kids from any media exposure that might be disagreeable. Violent media exposure in children should be limited wherever parents can, but it's also not as though letting your kids watch that action movie they're dying to see is destined to do them any harm. But by golly, never let such scenes in a movie or television show go by unchallenged. Television offers numerous examples of brute violence and unrealistic ideals, but this also means it provides a lot of wonderful opportunities for discussion.
So the next time your family is watching Mr. Hero do a triple back flip off a high-rise building while catching a gun out of mid-air and miraculously firing off a shot that hits the bad guy square in the chest, take a little time afterwards to talk about what actually happens when guns get drawn. Television can be a wonderful teaching tool, so long as parents use it. No matter how ridiculous it’s content, it always provides opportunities for discussion.

The good news is that many kids do the right thing, so it's not as though talking to your kids about guns is a lost cause. Far from it.
For every child who brings a gun to class, there's often a friend he's showing it to who runs off and tells the teacher. Kids who do the right thing when parents are vigilant in safety. We just need a little more talk...not only about not touching guns, but also talk to combat the romanticism and high regards in which guns are elevated to in our culture.

*For more info on some of the talking points within this post, look for our upcoming publication, 'Guns for Protection?' scheduled to be released in the next month or two.

1. Hahn, R.A. et al., "First reports evaluating the effectiveness of strategies for preventing violence: Early childhood home visitation." Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, V. 52, No. RR-14, Oct. 3, 2003

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

How Many deer to car accidents occur every year?

It's hard to get an exact number, because many such accidents are never reported. An insurance industry estimate by State Farm insurance puts the number of annual deer-vehicle collisions at around 1.5 million nationwide. (That's an awful lot of deer-jerky!) Numbers are especially high in the east, an area where white-tailed deer are abundant. Such collisions are no threat to deer or raccoons, whose large numbers hedge them from extinction. Yet such collisions can take a toll on many other endangered animals, such as the Florida panther, which just might go extinct if Grandma nails any more of them.

People, too, often come out on the losing end. Around 200 people lose their lives every year as a result of wildlife to auto collisions. Efforts at curbing these accidents, such as car whistles or sensors, have shown little success. Most experts believe the only real solution is to build underpasses and overpasses for wildlife that get all sorts of animals, deer included, across the roads safely. Of course, getting them to use them is the challenge here.

1. Thomas Hayden, "Deer Crashing," National Geographic, October 2008

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Why Parents Murder Their Children ... And How We Can Prevent It

If you follow the news at all, by now you've probably heard about the recent case of a South Carolina mom who allegedly confessed to murdering her two children. Police say 29-year-old Shaquan Daly left for a motel after an argument with her mother, which apparently started over how she was caring for the kids. (Tragically ironic) She booked into a room at around 1:30 a.m., and it was there that police say she killed her two boys in the early morning hours by placing a hand over their mouth. The older tot had defensive wounds, suggesting he had struggled.

She then allegedly strapped them into their car seats, and drove off, ditching the car in the Edisto River. She then made up a story about getting into an accident and having to walk some ways to flag someone down because she didn't have a cell phone. Police received a call about a car in the water later that morning, less than 5 hours after Daly booked into the motel.

Police say the young mother was unemployed and "had no means of taking care of her children," according to Orangeburg County sheriff Larry Williams. "She was fed up with her mother," says Williams. "She just wanted to be free. ...she truly felt, if I don't have these toddlers, I can be free." She is currently being held without bail on two counts of murder. And so it is the sad conclusion to another senseless tragedy.

Catastrophic events happen all around us, but I'm always struck by the feelings of "what a waste" amidst such stories; I mean, surely, someone out there could have wanted these children and would have taken care of them, sparing the lads such a horrible fate. For those of us who value and treasure children, the act seems so needless and tragic. It's sort of like watching someone toss valuable jewels and works of fine art into a hot lava pit while arriving just a little too late on the scene to salvage them. You just want to scream out, "Wait! Don't do that! I'll take them if you don't want them." If she had only sampled random people she met on the street, or heck, put an ad on eBay, someone out there would have been happy to take possession of this treasure. The motel owner was reportedly in tears when he heard about the news. I wonder what would have happened if Shaquan had simply brought the kids to his office and said, "I'm at my whit’s end, I can't take care of these kids anymore, will you please do it or help find someone who can?" In an ideal world, no parent would be driven to the point of premeditated murder as a way out.

Of course, we don't live in an ideal world, and our modern society often puts roadblocks in the way of such solutions, preventing more rational and accommodating escape routes for frustrated parents. Had she done such a thing, the police would have been called, and she'd be arrested on neglect charges. She'd be shamed and humiliated by an army of policeman and social workers. Little sympathy would be shown for her predicament. She would be judged, ostracized, and thrust into all new battles. It likely wouldn't solve her problems or absolve her of her parental duties, but only exasperate them. She would be met with resistance and hostility rather than support. This is why she instead hatched an elaborate plan to try and dispose of the kids and make it look like an accident. People have a tendency to take what they presume to be the path of least resistance to solve their problems.

What's also striking about this case is that Shaquan's other child, a 5-year-old girl, was left at the Grandmother's house, and thus, spared the murderous plot. (Grandma now has temporary custody of the child.) Neighbors say Daley lived with her mother in Orangeburg, a town of 13,000 about 40 miles south of Columbia. Considering the police say the fight was about the children's care, and the older girl was left with Grandma while the younger two were toted off with mom, this makes one wonder about the caregiver dynamics that were at play here. Perhaps Grandma was willing to help with the girl but not the boys, or maybe she simply found the younger children too much work to take care of. (As most readers are probably aware, there is a world of developmental difference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old. Infants and toddlers demand constant and intense attention, making it hard to do anything else, whereas a 5-year-old is much more autonomous and can largely care for themselves with limited supervision.) Maybe mom wanted and loved her daughter but found her sons to be too much work and a source of continued frustration. (Police were unable to locate the father of the dead children.) We can only speculate as to the specific family dynamics that played out, but one way or another, we ended up with a situation in which two kids were left out of the mix, with no one vying to care for them.

Time and time again, we watch as situations like this unfold. This wasn't the first such incident, and it won't be the last. In our quick-to-judge society, it's easiest to demonize this mother and her actions, but that doesn't get us anywhere or do anything to help kids in the future. The reality is that people are imperfect, some parents are better than others, and some parents find themselves in situations where they can't take it anymore, and need some type of escape. This doesn't make them monsters, even as barbaric as this mother's actions were; it makes them imperfect, frustrated parents at their breaking point, parents who need some kind of help and act in their own self-interest~ And there are a lot of such parents out there.

We got a glimpse of the scope of the problem when Nebraska’s recent safe-haven law, which was meant to allow for the safe abandonment of newborns at area hospitals, unintentionally made it legal to abandon any child at a hospital, because the law failed to specify age. Thirty-six children were abandoned in a period of three months before the loophole was fixed. None were infants. Sadly, when legislators saw what was happening, rather than address the underlying problem, they merely rushed to put the genie back in the bottle, plugging the loophole and burying the problems from public view again. Nebraska is a fairly small state, at least population-wise, and they were on pace to have an annual abandonment rate of around 150 kids. Which means nationwide, there are tens of thousands of kids in similar predicaments, with their parents at their breaking point and desperately needing assistance. From this sea of unacknowledged frustration come tragedies such as the recent one.

These are parents and children living right underneath our noses, and society isn't doing much to acknowledge or address the issue. Nor is traditional state intervention by CPS the answer. Our child protection system is an oxymoron if there ever was one; bogged down in the normal government bureaucracy, exhibiting the normal incompetence, and built around an antagonistic philosophy that causes children far more harm than they prevent. It is our utter lack of informal resolutions that poses the biggest problem. What we need is not more bureaucracy that works against parents - precisely the opposite. We're so caught up in laws and formality and punishment and finger-pointing and a community that operates at a distant arms-length that, for a few select individuals, disposing of the kids through one means or another seems an easier solution than obtaining the relief they so desperately need.

We need to make it easier for someone, anyone, to be there for such parents and provide care for their kids during times of need in an informal capacity ... without the government feeling a need to complicate the procedure with persecutory laws, criminal charges, and licenses/ paperwork/procedural guidelines from here to the moon. Moreover, such a support network needs to work with parents (not against them) to provide relief on the fly when they desperately need it, and it needs to be as easy and painless as ordering a cheeseburger, so that no parent ever considers murder the easiest way out. The Nebraska safe-haven law was not necessarily wrong, in principle. In fact, it uncovered a hidden problem with enormous need. Something similar with a few fundamental tweaks and alterations could provide a support network that keeps children alive, and offers frustrated parents the support they need.

This may sound like a romantic vision, but it's hardly unworkable. I remember as a child a campaign of helping hand stickers on houses, which were meant to be safe places for children to turn to if they needed help. We need a similar type of informal support network, in every community, that parents can utilize to seek help...whether it be to drop off their kids for a couple days, seek support on an ongoing basis, or otherwise alleviate the stress and keep such children safe. It needs to be readily available and widely known about. Similar programs, known as 'crisis nurseries,' are already available in certain communities to individuals who have already been cited for child abuse or neglect. There are precious few of these available, but those that do exist have been the most successful and child-friendly abuse-intervention programs to date. Yet we can't wait for someone to be arrested for child abuse to offer such help, and we can't link help with criminal prosecution, judgment, or disruption of parental rights if we truly want to assist families in crisis.

We need to stop pretending that those who injure children are monstrous individuals who enjoy being evil, as opposed to people who for one reason or another have reached their breaking point. This mother's actions were horrific and inexcusable. But we're not exactly doing all we can to prevent such tragedies, either. We need to worry less about laws and rules and procedures and persecution, and start worrying more about building a supportive community. People will always act as imperfect people do, and for those parents at their breaking point, we can expect they might do injurious things out of self-preservation. This is basic human nature. Expecting every parent to be wonderful and selfless and skilled in handling their children at all times and out of every situation is simply foolish and naive. Not all people were equally cut out for the parenting role, especially when under severe stress. We need a system that offers better support for all levels of parents, especially those who are less skilled, caring or devoted to their children. This will not occur by snatching children away from their communities only to thrust them into an abusive bureaucracy, but by making support available, and readily available, at the times and in the places and in the ways they need it.

I don't know about you, but I'd gladly join some type of register and submit to background checks, and would be happy to help provide care to those invisible children in our community whose parents are surviving on the margin of sanity, in order to prevent those kids from being beaten or murdered. And I’m sure there are enough other parents or retired grandparents who would be willing to do the same, so that we could have a crisis drop-off house on every block. One way or another, we need to build a support network into our communities, so that no parent ever feels that murdering their children is the only (or easiest) way to obtain the relief they need.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

The Purse Invasion

You do your best to make your castle a safe place for the children to play. You get safety latches for the cupboards and plugs to cover the outlets and safety gates on the stairs. You be sure to set all knives, medicine, poisons, matches and lighters, etc., safely out of reach. You childproof your living spaces in every way you can, so that prying little fingers won't be able to get their hands on anything that could hurt them.

Yet one of the most prominent dangers is often something most parents completely overlook: the purse. It's dangerous for several reasons: First, as any parent knows, young kids love to get into it. It sits there like a kiddy magnet, sending out mischievous vibes and calling out to any child with a curiosity that happens to be in the vicinity, beckoning them to inquire as to what's inside. Second, what's inside can often be dangerous to kids. People commonly carry medicine or lighters or pepper spray or stun guns or other little things that can pose a big hazard. Finally, this bag of potential death and danger easily breaches the security of your fortress. It's carried right through the front door and often set on the counter, a bar stool, or even right on the floor within easy reach of little fingers.

A significant number of accidental poisonings occur when children get into grandmas purse during a visit, which is often filled with medication, as elderly people in general are much more likely to be on some kind of medical regimen. Since they don't have small hands prying in their purse themselves, they may not think twice about what's inside. Furthermore, medications kept in a purse are often removed from their childproof containers. Adults often make a "traveling pack" of medication, keeping pills in a pouch or another container that a child can easily get into. A young child who discovers their stash pops a few pills, and the next thing you know you're rushing little Suzie to the hospital.

Children who die in house fires they started while playing with fire often retrieved their fire making tools from an ill-placed purse or handbag. A number of choking deaths can be linked to children swallowing trinkets found inside a purse. There's also the occasional accident with handguns, self-defense weapons, or the other potentially dangerous items people carry around with them. With so many dangers lurking inside such a small bag, there are several things parents can do to avert a potential disaster:

1. When you have guests, be sure to ask them if they have anything dangerous in their purse that the kids might get a hold of. Or just keep all purses and handbags in a clearly visible area where both they and the kids can be monitored.

2. Consider setting aside a high cupboard in which to keep your own purse or those of guests, so that children aren't able to get into them.

3. Another idea is to install a high shelf directly above the entryway for which to keep purses, car keys, or other materials. It also makes a convenient spot for hanging notes.

These precautions aside, simply be aware and vigilant. Extra awareness that purses pose a danger is the first step in proactively ensuring they don't. Always be aware of what's in your own purse or handbag and where these purses are in relation to any prying little fingers that may be around.

For more child safety information visit

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Does Too Much Sugar Turn Children Into Violent Criminals?

Parents: A strict warning--you'd better withhold that bowl of fruity pebbles from your child, because if you don't, they might grow up to be a violent criminal. Or at least, that's the nonsense that some out there would have you believe.

A recent (2009) study from Cardiff University in the U.K. found that children who ate more sugary foods were more likely to commit violent crimes as adults. Sixty-nine percent of violent offenders were daily sugar eaters, they say, compared with 42% of non-violent people. Therefore, sugar must be turning our kids into future delinquents.

But before you rush to rid your home of the devilish powder, we thought we'd shed a little light on the subject, because it annoys us when people misuse science to create fantastic headlines in order to gain media attention that will mislead the public while scaring them about a whole lot of nonsense. Phew...that was a long sentence.

We start with the first rule of research: correlation does not equal causation. Just because two things can be linked together does not mean one causes the other. This is all the more true when something has no established mechanism for the outcome. That is to say, there is no credible evidence indicating how slightly elevated levels of sucrose in a child's body would alter brainwaves in order to change their behavior and lead to violence.

Claiming sugar causes violent crime is a bold statement. So does sugar really have such powerful effects? Unlikely. Let's talk about the more rational causes for such a correlation:

A) Those with higher daily sugar habits are also those who are likely to exhibit less self-control. Less self-control is an established link to violent crime and delinquency, and it is the lower inhibitions that lead both to increases in crime and increases in sugar intake.

For example, the famous marshmallow experiment at Stanford University provides the perfect analogy. Researchers put children into a room with nothing but their own devices to entertain them. A marshmallow was placed on the table in front of them, and the preschoolers were told that if they waited until the researcher .came back into the room to eat it, they would be given a second marshmallow. About a third of the kids managed to hold out the full 15 minutes, a third ate the marshmallow right away, and around a third broke down somewhere in-between.

Years later, a follow up study was done when the kids were young adults. (2) It found that those in the most impulsive group scored significantly higher on delinquency rates and significantly lower on general life measures. Those kids who as preschoolers had waited the 15 minutes to earn a second marshmallow had significantly higher marks in education and everyday life skills. So does this mean eating marshmallows causes future delinquency? No. It means that a lack of self-control in childhood, as evidenced by the marshmallow test (or impulsive sugar intake) is a predictor of future delinquency.

B) Those parents who largely fail to monitor a child's diet when young are likely to also be parents who are less-competent and caring in general. Less competent parenting is a proven link to crime, and low parental caring is a proven link to antisocial behavior. So those who were able to eat candy for breakfast would tend to be those with more irresponsible and less involved parents.

C) Low socioeconomic status (SES) is a proven link to crime; and there is also an established link between low SES and poor, higher-fat, higher sugar diets; simply because junk food tends to be cheaper and more readily available than healthy food.

The idea that sugar alters behavior in kids is a widely held myth. At least a dozen large-scale trials analyzing what children eat have been unable to detect any differences in behavior between the children who ate sugary foods and those who hadn't. Even studies that singled out children who were labeled as having "sensitivity" towards sugar found no behavioral differences between a high-sugar and sugar-free diet. If a child was an obnoxious twerp before downing a bag of skittles, they'll be one afterward too. And if they were calm and in-control before ice cream, they won't suddenly grow devil-horns afterward.

No doubt there are parents out there convinced that sugar makes their kids hyper, and they are no doubt gritting their teeth reading this.
Such parents have been the subject of study too. In one example, researchers divided children and their parents into two groups. In one group, parents were told their children were being given a drink that was full of sugar. The other was told their children's drinks were sugar free. In truth, both groups received sugar-free drinks. The parents were then asked to grade their children's behavior. Naturally, parents who thought their children had received a sugar-boost graded them as more hyperactive than the other. (6) Our beliefs shape our perspectives, and create an altered version of reality. We find evidence for what we expect to find, while ignoring evidence to the contrary.

Of course, too much sugar does do many unhealthy things: it rots your child's teeth, leads to obesity, and is generally the sign of a poor diet, because too much of sugary foods generally means not enough of the other, healthier variety. But turn children into budding psychopaths it does not. Moderation and self-control are the keys. In fact, I'd wager that the kid whose overprotective parent never allows them any sugary treats is more likely to go insane and become an ax-murderer than those reasonable parents who allow sugary treats in healthy moderation.

1. Discover Magazine, 'The Bad News,' December 2009, p. 16

2. Y. Shoda, W. Mischel & P.K. Peake, "Predicting adolescent cognitive and social competence from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions." Developmental Psychology, 26, pp. 978-986, 1990

3. M. Kinsbourne, "Sugar and the hyperactive child," New England Journal of Medicine, 330(5): 355-56, 1994

4. D.A. Krummel, F.H. Seligson"& H.~. Guthrie, "Hyperactivity: is candy causal?" Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 36, (1-2): 31-47, 1996

5. M.L. Woolraich et al., "Effects of diets high in sucrose or aspartame on the behavior and cognitive performance of children." New England Journal of Medicine, 330(5): 301-07

6. D.W. Hoover & R. Milich, "Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 22(4): 501-15, 1994

For more information on child safety issues visit

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Cell-Phone Stalkers

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, the only thing that telephones did was allow people to speak to one another. Those times are far past. Nowadays, cell-phones take pictures, read email, surf the web, play songs, offer games, GPS, a calculator...about the only thing it can't do is cook your dinner-yet. But all that technology requires computing power, and with computing power comes the ability for people to do not so nice things with it.

One of those sinister things is to use stalking software to track your every move. A teenage girl and her family were surprised when they started to receive threats and intimidating phone calls by an unknown person. "I know what you're doing," he said. "I know where you are." And somehow, he always did. It turns out this girls' stalker knew about all the conversations she was having, and all the places she had been.

So the family went to the police with their complaint. The police told them it was impossible for anyone to do what they were describing. Unfortunately, the police were wrong. Not only is it possible, but it's surprisingly easy. Anyone with $400 to burn and moderate IT skills can download software that will allow them to tap into any modern cell-phone, effectively hijacking your phone-and everything you do with it. They can read your email, listen in on your conversations, and track your web surfing. If your phone has GPS, they can even use it to know exactly where you are at any given time. A bit of information no professional hit man or neighborhood stalker should go without.

It's therefore our recommendation that you stop using your cell phone immediately. Yeah right. We thought you'd get a good chuckle out of that one. To be honest, there's not a whole lot you can do about it right now, nor are we an organization that goes around trying to scare people about the thousand different things that could go wrong. We just wanted to make sure parents are aware of the danger. Anyone can tap into your phone and track everything you do with it. So it's best to keep those deep-dark intimate secrets (which you happen to be sharing among friends) to land lines. That way, the only person listening in will be some bored technician from the National Security Administration.

Visit for more safety information.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why do children need a booster seat?

Children do not have the same pelvic anatomy as adults, so regular seatbelts tend to ride up into their stomach area. Their hips are more rounded and less boxy. They also have a tendency to scoot forward in the seat so that their legs hang comfortably over the edge, which further causes the seatbe1t to ride up into their stomach area. This puts all their vital organs in that area at risk.

Children ages 4 to 8 who no longer ride in a booster seat are 25 times more likely than younger children to sustain serious abdominal injuries. Such injuries have become one of the most common injuries, and serious injuries can occur even in slow crashes. Internal bleeding can occur and vital organs can rupture. Booster seats prevent this by sitting a child higher up in the car and guiding the seatbe1t so that it rests near the child's hip area where it should be, and not on their stomach.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Is It Safe to Show Family Pride?

There has been a heated debate over the use of personalized family bumper stickers, window decals, and other personalized merchandise. In many areas, it's become all the rage to get a personalized window sticker for the car that lists all the members of ones family alongside little stick figures, including the names of the kids. Some even list the children's ages. Other parents use personalized return address labels that list the members of the family. Such displays are done as a way to show family pride. But wait...many safety advocates have come out against such things, saying that advertising your family or your children's names in such a manner is like putting a target on their backs. You might as well advertise them to kidnappers and molesters with a sign that says "come get me," or so they say. Are they right?

We hate to go against our brethren in arms and contradict the advocacy trends, but we must cry foul on this one. It's one of those areas where an overactive imagination and hyper inflated fears lead to bogus conclusions. The reason for advocating against personalization on things such as a child's backpack or clothing or lunchbox is because some abductions are crimes of opportunity. A potential abductor targets a lone child walking home from school, and in such cases, knowing their name can be an advantage. The chances of this ever mattering are remote, but why take the risk if it isn't necessary, right?

Here's an area where a different situation renders this common advice completely irrelevant. Unless you're going to be leaving your child alone in the car while you shop, (in which case they have much bigger safety issues to worry about) the crime of opportunity setting doesn't apply. Unlike a backpack, a car is something that the family drives around in together, and something that would be tethered to the child's parents or other caretakers. The lone-child element and crime of opportunity is removed. As far as the likelihood of someone stalking your family or targeting your children because of names on a bumper sticker or address label, this is an imaginary fear. It's not at all hard to get a child's name in about a thousand other methods. I could walk around the grocery store and get you the names of just about every child in there. Just wait for the first "Jessie, put that back" or listen for siblings talking amongst one another. Or heck, just smile big and ask the child's name in front of their parents while in line at the checkout counter. The bottom line: it's not as though your child's name or identity is some guarded secret that nobody can find out unless you advertise it. The only time it will ever play a role in abduction is if a stranger happens upon your child alone in the right place and time, and can befriend them easier because of the big name tag. This is why it's not a good idea for your child's name to be engraved across the back of their backpack or on the front of their shirt. In all other situations, it matters not in the least, and a bumper sticker depicting your family doesn't make it any easier to snatch a child.

So go ahead, show your family pride. It doesn't jeopardize your children's safety in the least.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Taking the kids to the playground? Bring a rake.

As we point out in our publication 'Community Risks & Those Menaces to Society,' although people spend a lot of time worrying that a sex-offender might be lurking around their parks, waiting to snatch their child away forever, few recognize that the playground itself is actually a much bigger threat; killing around 30 times the number of kids on an annual basis that registered sex-offenders do. Kids need play spaces, and this should not discourage parents from using them, but it IS meant to drive home the point that a little effort redirected towards playground safety would be time well spent; and is far more likely to save a child's life than worrying about any sex-offenders that may be living nearby.

"The top three things to pay attention to at a playground are surfacing, surfacing, and surfacing," says Gary Smith, a pediatric emergency physician with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "It's everything." *1 The reason for this is that most serious playground injuries and deaths occur from falls from the equipment. Much like a helmet can save a child's life in a bike crash; proper playground surfacing could save a child's life or prevent serious injury during a fall.

But who is paying attention to this life-saving surface? The answer, quite often, is nobody, especially when it comes to public parks. Once a public playground is built, its maintenance is left to the parks and recreations department. While they will usually fix something obvious when it breaks or may replace the surfacing once every couple of years, on a day-to-day basis the upkeep is often left to its own devices. The current recession has likely only made things worse, with communities everywhere slashing their budgets on basic state maintenance.

Those who use these play spaces can take it upon themselves to do some basic maintenance of their own. One of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the risk of playground injury is to pay attention to the raking of the surface. As kids use the play space, natural bare spots form amongst high-traffic areas, often displacing the surface down to bare earth. Unfortunately, these high-traffic spots also tend to be the areas that pose the greatest danger for falls; such as below the slides or the areas underneath the swings. As children drag their feet underneath to stop themselves, the surface is worn bare. We say one playground at a child care center which had large exposed rocks and compacted dirt underneath their swings. It's precisely in this area that a protective barrier is most needed.

So the next time you take your kids to the park, try to remember to bring a rake. Rake some of the wood chips or other surface material that builds up in the lesser used areas back towards those spots that really need it. You're trying to create an even surfacing cushion all around. Even using your feet to kick wood chips or other surface material from one spot to where it’s needed can help. Try to make this a regular habit. Every time your child gets on the swing, or as you are swinging them, kick the material that builds up around the edges back underneath the swing. The same goes for other climbing equipment. You want to try to keep the surface as uniform as possible, so that a child has cushioning to land on wherever it is they may fall.

Children can be killed by falling from a bike, being thrown from a horse, or by taking a tumble off a swing or a slide. While most falls DO NOT end up so serious, all it takes is the wrong landing on the wrong surface. One of these scenarios can be easily prevented by ensuring kids have the right surface to land upon. ~o~ every death or injury can be eliminated. But if we all do our part, we might be able to knock these serious accidents down quite a bit further.

Reference for quote:
1. Liz Szabo, "Playgrounds: they're safer but still can be dangerous," USA Today, p. 4D, 7-30-09

For more safety information visit

Sunday, May 9, 2010

BPA Lurking Where You'd Never Think to Look

Many parents are taking steps to limit their family's exposure to BPA, worried by studies showing its potentially harmful effects. Since BPA is most commonly a plastic additive, that's where the focus has been, on plastics; particularly food containers and baby toys, where the chemical might leach out of plastics and be ingested. Yet it's important to note that the chemical can also be absorbed through the skin.

As such, there's a newly discovered and unlikely culprit in the battle against BPA: cash receipts. According to early data from the Warner Babcok Institute for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, Massachusetts, cash register and credit card receipts are one of the most toxic sources of BPA. Spot checks typically turn up between 60 and 100 milligrams of BPA per receipt--a level well above what has been found to leach from PCB plastic food ware. "The biggest (BPA) exposures, in my opinion, will be these cash register receipts," says the institute's co-founder John C. Warner.

What is this world coming to? You can't even choose between paper and plastic anymore. It's important to note that we still know little about which forms of exposure are the worst, so we don't know if touching higher amounts on paper might cause less of an exposure than ingesting lower amounts through our food. So it's probably not necessary as of yet to say you should bring gloves to the grocery store, although pregnant women should avoid contact as much as possible.

You can read more on this topic with our article: “The BPA Debate: Are Plastics Poisoning Your Children?” available on our website.

Reference for quote:
1. Janet Raloff, "BPA in womb linked to childhood behavior," Science News, Vol. 176(10): 12, Nov. 7 2009

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Should Pregnant women wear a seatbelt?

Yes. A study done by the University of Michigan, published April of 2008 in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, determined that roughly 200 of the 370 fetuses killed every year in motor vehicle crashes in the United States could be saved if all pregnant women wore seatbelts. You're not doing yourself or your unborn baby any favors by foregoing the safety restraint. You're much more likely to damage your baby by going without a seatbelt.

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bees to the Rescue

Studious little insects, they are. Pollinating plants of all kinds and providing us with much of the food we eat. Protecting plants against pests. Creating delicious honey for our enjoyment. Organizing themselves into sophisticated colonies and formulating ways of arriving at group decisions to do what's in the best interest of their colony. Using the "waggle dance" to communicate with other bees. It seems they also wear suits to work, have furniture in their tiny bee houses, and are each assigned a different position at the corporation that employs all bees. I saw that in a movie once, so it must be true. Amidst it all, scientists have found yet another use for this busy little insect.

It turns out that bees also have an extremely keen sense of smell, and can pick up scents that canines can't. And because of this unique talent, scientists are currently working on ways for bees and wasps to hunt down hidden explosives, screen luggage at the airport, or sniff out trace amounts of drugs. Wasps are 74 times more sensitive to fungi than the current mechanical devices, and 94 times more sensitive to plant odors.

So it's possible they could be trained even to snuff out anthrax spores or other potential biological attacks. They might be used to detect old land mines, which in many parts of the world maim and kill thousands of children each year. Just release tens of thousands of bees in a field, and they should swarm towards the hidden devices and form a bee-blanket that pinpoints a mine's exact location, so that it can be safely destroyed.

In case you might be contemplating how one would go about training a bee, they are trained in the same manner as Pavlovian dogs. The bees are taught to associate a certain scent with a sweet reward, so that whenever they detect the scent they are conditioned towards, say a small amount of TNT or trace amounts of drugs, they will swarm towards it. Follow the swarm of bees, and you find the loot. "The general premise is, if it smells, we believe we can train our bees to detect it," says chemist Robert Wingo of Los Alamos Stealthy Insect Sensor Project.

I thought airport security lines couldn't possibly get any more stressful or invasive. I was wrong. Just wait until passengers are forced to walk the bumblebee gauntlet. Security officials say they are only eying the insects for use in detecting bombs in luggage or at the post office, but you know some NSA official somewhere is thinking about it, especially after all the recent fears of shoe bombs and toothpaste explosives. The thing I like most about this story: go get your kids and tell them that bees are being trained by the National Security Administration to hunt down bombs and fight terrorists. They'll think you're so full of $%?#, and yet it's totally true. Crazy 'ole world we live in.

1. Susan Gaidos, "Sting operation," Science News, vol. 174, no. 7, pp.
17-19, Sept. 27, 2008

Friday, March 26, 2010

News Briefs: Childhood in Germany; Chimp Rehab; Vitamin D

Saving Childhood in Germany
Kids in Berlin can play freely again, after the city government ruled that making noise is "an essential part of a child's development." Grumpy residents living near playgrounds and other kid friendly places had long complained that children make too much noise; even going so far as forcing some day care centers to close. The new ruling declares the noise of children falls into the same category as tolerable nuisances such as church bells or street cleaning vehicles. Berlin children must still observe quiet times at night and all day Sunday, however.

Chimp Rehab
A Chimpanzees at the Rostob Zoo in southern Russia made headlines recently, after he was sent to rehab for alcohol addiction. Zhora the chimp became hooked on both alcohol and cigarettes when visitors repeatedly gave the popular attraction the substances for their own amusement. "People laugh when they see an animal drinking and smoking," said one zoo staffer. "But viscous habits damage his health, and many do not understand this period."

Still not enough 'D'
A new study has suggested that most babies receive a daily supplement of vitamin D, after finding that only 5% to 37% of American infants meet the standard criteria for vitamin D intake set by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Vitamin D strengthens bones as well as the immune system, and also helps prevent other health problems. Infants can receive a daily dose via inexpensive drops. Consult your physician for further advice. To learn more about this subject, read our article: Vitamin D Deficiency in Children.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Novelty Lighters & the Danger They Pose to Kids

I remember from my high school days (back in the 1820s) how Zippo lighters were all the rage. Like a lava lamp, there was something transfixing about popping the lid open and shut, watching as the flame lite and extinguished at your command with the flip of a finger. By observing those who smoked, you'd get the impression that playing with the lighter was as addictive as the cigarette itself.

It turns out such novelty lighters can amuse more than a crowd of stoned adolescents. They can be mesmerizing to younger kids too. To make things worse, manufacturers have recently started marketing the lighters in figurines that look like little toys. They come in little animals, miniature cars, mobile phones, cameras, fishing lures, stacks of coins, markers, doll accessories, and just about any other little trinket you can think of. These hot commodities are tons of fun for the adults who buy them up. The problem is they're tons of fun for any kids who might get a hold of them as well.

Playing with matches and lighters takes more young lives every year than does playing with guns. While most people would never leave a loaded .44 magnum lying around, they often hardly think twice about what they use to light up with. When you combine a dangerous tool with an attractive, kid inviting package, it makes for a potentially deadly situation. At least two children have been killed from such lighters thus far, and several states have moved to outlaw the gadgets altogether.

Our advice to parents: If you smoke, stay away from such novelty lighters and stick with the boring kind. It's not worth the risk. The added allure could mean the difference between life and death. Of course, any fire making tool needs to be kept track of and regarded with the same-dangerous potential as a gun in-so-far as children are concerned.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Window Treatments and Child Safety - Guest Post

Window Treatments and Child Safety

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced this past December that since 1990 more than 200 infants and young children have died from unintentionally strangling themselves with window blind and shade cords. A national recall was ordered for about 50 million units and the Window Covering Safety Council is urging those with small children to “go cordless” with their window treatments. Fortunately, the window treatment industry now offers a number of control options that do not necessitate these long, hazardous cords.

Going electric is the first option. Most window blinds and shades can be motorized now, totally doing away with the need for cords. With electric window treatments, you have the choice of a remote control or a wall mounted switch. You can also decide whether you want the treatment to be plugged into the wall or battery-powered. For child safety purposes, it may be best go with a battery since a cord plugged into the wall may draw your child’s attention to the power outlet. This is the most expensive child-safe control option and may be out of the question depending on your budget.

An alternative option that is significantly cheaper than motorizing is using a pole to open and close your window treatments. With this option, there is a hook on the end of the pole that fits into a small hole on the handle used to push the treatment up and down. You will more than likely still need to pay a little bit extra to have this option added, but not nearly as much as the cost of motorization. Almost all styles of custom ordered shades and blinds are able to have this option added.

The option that will cost you the absolute least amount of money is just going with window treatments that do not require cords. As far as style goes, this may limit your options, but it will give you peace of mind about your child’s safety and not cost you an arm and a leg in the process. An everyday curtain or drape will work for this as they can just be opened and closed by hand. There are also some types of blinds and shades that do not need cords; you just have to do some searching. The main thing is that if you have small children in your house, it is crucial that you go cordless with your window coverings.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

School Violence Put in Perspective

School shootings and classroom violence have captured the public's attention in recent years, starting with Columbine and continuing with a host of periodic school shootings that have taken place since then. The most recent is the shooting at Deer Creek Middle School in Colorado. It has many parents questioning the safety of their children during the time they spend in class. Aside from the fear of abductions, this threat has to be second on the list in terms of stoking a parent's emotions. Nothing is more anxiety producing than the thought of sending our kids to school in the morning only to have them never return home. So let's take a quick look at the statistics, and examine exactly how concerned parents should be.

From the July 1992 to June 2000 period, an annual average of 29 homicides and five suicides occurred throughout U.S. schools. This may seem like a lot, the equivalent of about 2 1/2 Columbines per year, but not when you look at the larger perspective. These numbers represented less than 1% of the homicides among youths aged 5-19 years and less than 0.5% of the suicides among youth in the same age group. Considering that kids spend around 30-35 of their waking hours a week in class during those times when school is in session throughout the year, such numbers overwhelmingly indicate that your child's time at school is far safer than their time away from it.

The picture becomes a little less clear when talking about non-fatal crime, however. In 2003, approximately 740,000 violent crimes were committed at schools against adolescents aged 12-18 years, a rate of 1.3 incidents per 100 students each year. Of these, approximately 150,000, or 20.3% of the incidents overall, were classified as "serious." The period of getting to and from school can also pose a potential risk. Research shows that a disproportionate amount of crime occurs during this relatively short period of time. Kids from school often take this opportunity to fight or bully each other, and children also become more susceptible to muggings and other crime.

Although violence at schools captures the public spotlight and garners a great deal of media attention, it is but a small representation of the violence that occurs in society as a whole. The research overwhelmingly shows that your child is much less likely to die a victim of violence while at school as they are in the world at large.

1. J. DeVoe et al., "Indicators of School Crime & Safety: 2005," Washington, DC: US Gov't. Printing Office; 2005 (NCES 2006-001/NCJ 210697)

2. Robert Hahn et al., "The effectiveness of universal school-based programs for the prevention of violent and aggressive behavior." Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 10, 2007, vol. 56, No. RR-7, CDC

For more child safety information visit

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ear infections - Premature Birth

Ear Infections
A new study finds that air pollution appears to increase the rate of frequent ear infections in children. The study of 126,060 children found that ears with high levels of sulfur dioxide, the rate of chronic ear infections (3 or more in a year)increased from 6.6% to 8%. They theorize that pollutants may increase the likelihood of infections by increasing mucus levels in the ear.

A Link to Premature Birth

A new study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Chicago found infection fighting genes may be linked to premature birth. In one out of every three premature births, the mother has an infection in her uterus but no symptoms. The genes that fight infection may also cause fetal rejection, but may help more than they hurt overall.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Your World In Review: Vaccine-autism link removed, toddler terrorist, Toyota advise

Here are some recent headlines you may have missed.

And Now It's Official
The one and only study finding a tenuous vaccine-autism link, the study that started it all, a study that for many years has been discredited by all it's original authors except Dr Wakefield, has now been officially and voluntarily withdrawn from the Lancet. In voluntarily removing the study, all it's authors agreed that "several elements of the 1998 paper are incorrect." So will this stop the vaccine-autism debate? Unlikely. It's a lot harder to erase irrational fears than it is to create them. Look at the number of people who still search a child's Halloween candy for razor blades.

Toddler Terrorist
The PSA made headlines recently when it confiscated a toddlers play-doh. And thus, I think it's safe to say, the terrorists have won.

Advise for Toyota Users
By now you are probably aware of Toyota's mysterious accelerator problem. If you own a Toyota, you should be aware of what to do if it happens to you: 1) Apply the breaks forcefully with both feet if necessary, 2) immediately shift the vehicle into neutral and bring it to a safe stop. If you can't get it into neutral, turn the engine off...but don't remove the key. If you remove the key you loose your breaks and steering. You might want to practice this maneuver a couple times under safe conditions, so that it becomes second nature and you don't panic should an emergency arise.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Steak-Knife Fugitive

Every once in a while we get busy (I'm sure you know the feeling) and something slides under the radar that we mean to address at the time but never get around to. Eventually, if that something is such a thing of enough importance, we'll revisit it later, or perhaps again and again and again, until you get so sick of it you want to puke. This is one of those things we meant to write about at the time, but never got around to. It's one of those things we just couldn't let go without mentioning it. Even though the original event happened in December of 2007, it snuck under the radar in many places and will probably be new to most of you reading this.

You see, a 5'th grader at Sunrise Elementary School in Florida, packed a lunch for a special outing at school. And in this lunch she packed a steak. (Which could be a story in itself. I'm lucky if I get a soggy, crushed PB & J in my lunches, but that's a whole new article.) In this lunch where her mother packed her a steak, she also packed her daughter a little steak knife for which to cut it with. That's when all hell broke loose.

When teachers discovered the girls’ attempts to eat her steak with this "dangerous weapon," they called the police on her. No joke. The Police responded, and Florida Police, having nothing better to do than to scare the living daylights out of little girls, forcefully handcuffed her, arrested her, and took the crying, distraught child to a juvenile detention facility. She was kept in a cell until her mother retrieved her, and was also suspended from school for 10 days, under the guise of "bringing a weapon onto school grounds." (Me thinks the real reason behind all of this is that the teachers were just jealous...they were all packing Lunchables.)

Sort of reminds you of that KFC commercial, doesn't it? The one where the lady is trying to eat lunch in her office and a coworker screams "she's got a knife!" as everyone ducks behind their cubicle? The school of course cited its no tolerance policy, which essentially means no tolerance for reasonable thinking. 0-tolerance policies are just another way of saying "we're sorry, but our staff possess the intellect of a retarded chimpanzee, and can't possibly be expected to use independent thinking and reason to discern benign situations from legitimate threats. These types of stories happen periodically, but what's really disturbing about this incident is how far it was taken.

Police? Physical force? Handcuffs? Prison cells at juvy hall? Seriously? What is this girl, like 6 foot 8, 295 pounds and the attitude of a hardened criminal? Wouldn't a simple call to the parents have sufficed? Such actions are not benign little procedures, you know. In our society, we've gotten into a bad little habit of thinking of abuse as "things." (Rape, physical abuse, molestation, etc.) But it's really the elements of such things, not the things themselves, which actually matter. Rape isn't harmful because it's rape. It's harmful because it inherently involves pain, fear, conflict, force, a lack of regard for the victim, and a loss of control. The more pronounced such elements are, the more severe the harm. It has little to do with the sex act. Another situation without the sex but that produces these same elements can be every bit as harmful.
What these officials did may not have qualified as child abuse according to our prejudicial category of "things," Yet the conflict, force, fear, anxiety, loss of control, imprisonment, embarrassment and social hurt any child would feel in such a situation makes our labels irrelevant. Those involved can pretend they were merely following procedure, but in real-world terms, this was nothing short of child abuse.

We hope this little girl recovers Ok. We also hope her parents have decided to sue. It’s discouraging to know that school officials would ever behave so nonsensical, and in a way that blatantly injures a child who is merely trying to eat her lunch.

Story derived from (Fox News, 'The Big Story,' 12-18-07, 4:00-5:00) For more information on the laments of abuse and how things not labeled as abuse compare to those that are, read our upcoming book 'Child Maltreatment: A Cross-comparison,' due out shortly.

For information on child safety issues visit

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eating Cotton

Sounds delicious, doesn't it? Bet you can't wait to get yourself some. I'm sure you've all anxiously awaited the day when the phrase "cottonmouth" could be more than just an analogy.

Yet to the more than 1 billion malnourished people in the world, the idea of eating cotton may be the best news involving cotton since the invention of cotton candy. You see, cottonseeds also happen to be a rich source of protein, and the current cotton crop would yield enough seeds to meet the daily protein requirements for half a billion people...if only it could be edible.

The problem has always been that the seeds also contain a toxic chemical called 'gossypol, which must be removed through an extensive refining process to make cottonseeds edible for people. This chemical agent can't be stomached by humans and most animals, but that's sort of the point. Gossypol is crucial in protecting the plant from pests, who would otherwise devour any crop yields before they could be harvested. When scientists genetically engineer the crop without it, the plant doesn't stand a chance in the field, which has always prevented the cultivation of cotton seeds for food.

Now for the happy news: Keerti Rathore, a professor at Texas A & M University, has recently found a way to bypass this problem through genetic engineering. The breakthrough utilizes a process that turns off the genes which produce gossypol in the cottonseeds only while the rest of the plant continues to produce the chemical as a defense against pests. Field trial data released in the second half of 2009 shows that the process appears to be a success: the modified cotton appears to be normal in every other way except that it contains edible seeds.

But how does it taste? The flavor has been compared to chickpeas. Seeds will probably first see their use as a supplement to animal feed, yet this would still free up other grains for the food supply and boost overall food production. They'll also need FDA approval before making their way onto people's dinner tables. We'll try to keep you updated, but if this works, it could be a major breakthrough in food production for a starving world. Considering how dire food shortages are predicted to become in the near future, it's a welcome revelation.

Other quick facts:
*Around 44 million metric tons of cottonseed is produced each year.

*23% of cottonseed is protein

*The plant has been cultivated for its fiber for more than 7,000 years. Today it is grown by more than 20 million farmers in some 80 countries.

*Cotton accounts for nearly 40% of the fiber used worldwide to make clothing.

*Scientists used a new technique called RNA interference (RNA is similar to DNA but regulates chemical signatures -as opposed to proteins) to construct a genetic sequence that blocked the gossypol-producing enzyme in the seeds only.

For child safety information visit

Saturday, January 9, 2010

New Study Links Prenatal BPA Exposure to Child Behavioral Problems

A heated debate over the safety of biphenyl-A (BPA), a plastic additive used in many common household products from baby products to food liners, has been going on for quite some time now. The chemical mimics the hormone estrogen, and has been linked to numerous problems in animal studies. The FDA claims it is safe; most of the scientific community disagrees.

Human studies are only beginning to come out, since the research is relatively new and it's much more difficult to study exposure in humans (and more expensive). Despite these challenges, some human research is starting to trickle in. A recent study by Joe Braun of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, and their colleagues monitored BPA exposures in 249 women, beginning early in their pregnancies. They've continued to study the children, who currently range in age from 3 to 5 years, and were able to find a link between prenatal BPA exposure and later behavioral issues.

More than 99% of the pregnant women in the study tested positive for BPA in at least one of their three urine tests. This isn't surprising . . . we've known for some time that exposure is pretty much automatic, since BPA is used in so much of what we consume. Using this data, the team was able to find a correlation between a mother's BPA levels and later gender-specific abnormal behavior. The higher the level of BPA in the mother during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, the more likely the child was to display atypical behavior. In girls, this was marked by heightened aggression. In boys, it meant they tended to become more anxious and withdrawn.

The behavioral deviations from the norm averaged about 2 to 6 points higher (as measured on the 100-point 'Behavioral Assessment System for Children-2' scale) for every 10 – fold increase in the early BPA levels of mom. The team also found that BPA levels later than 16 weeks of pregnancy did not appear to link in any way with later behavior. Lanphear notes that the significance of these changes is similar to the subtle IQ drops caused by lead exposure in U.S. children.

Of particular concern is that these findings replicate what has been found in animal studies. Research in rats has found that rat pups who were prenatally exposed to BPA tend to show more aggression and hyperactivity than those who aren't exposed. This seems to indicate that the chemical affects humans in the same way as it does rats, which means that all those scary animal studies produced might be just as threatening towards humans. Other studies have shown everything fro reproductive problems, early puberty in girls, and cancer and obesity risk from the chemical.

You can learn more about the potential dangers of BPA, and what parents can do to limit their family's exposure, in our article: “The BPA Debate: Are Plastics Poisoning Your Children?” available on our website. We'll also continue to keep you posted on any future developments on this blog.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Our Strange Universe

This post is more than a little off-topic, but I think it's something that every person will find interesting and enjoyable. It starts off with a little background in science, leads into some of the latest theories in quantum mechanics (which are more interesting than they sound), and ends with some intriguing thoughts about life, death, and those we love.

For those who aren't familiar, the physics and theories of quantum mechanics are weird. Really weird. They leave even the smartest scientists scratching their head. Many experiments are underway to better try to understand the quantum world. You may have heard stories in the news about that big expensive 'Large Hadron Collider Project' in Europe, whose only mission is to spin particles around at 99.99999% the speed of light (or something like that, pardon me if I missed a decimal) only to smash them into each other. It's the biggest, most expensive scientific toy ever built, all in the hopes of learning more about the quantum world. (And no, it won't create a black hole that swallows the earth. Similar collisions are taking place all around us every day; scientists are merely building the equipment to control and measure those collisions.) It's the biggest question in science right now, and the race is on to better understand the quantum world.

The principles of quantum mechanics are so weird that many are tempted not to believe them. Except for the fact that these same laws of physics are at work throughout the world we live in. Be it nuclear technology, photosynthesis, solar panels, or the cell phone in your pocket, many principles of quantum mechanics are at work all around you. Although still a ways off, scientists are even in the preliminary stages of building quantum computers. I won't pretend to understand it all, but here's a few of the things that leave even the geniuses of science scratching their head:

Physics on the quantum scale seems to ignore all laws of the larger physical world. For example, one of the rules of quantum mechanics is that particles can simultaneously exist in two different places at once. Don't you wish you had this trick? A quantum particle can also seem to skip dimensions in space and time, disappearing one moment in one place only to reappear somewhere else. Again, a useful trick that would come in awfully handy. Quantum theories tell us there might be at least 11 dimensions to the universe we live in, with many parallel universes. Yet another particularly weird aspect of quantum mechanics is that of quantum entanglement. Einstein called this principle, "spooky action at a distance." The gist of it is that particles can become intrinsically linked absent any physical connection, and can thus interact with each other and affect each other from large distances...say, halfway across the universe. It's the equivalent of stomping your feet in Chicago and making a splash in a puddle in Florida. The smallest particles seem to be able to ignore and circumvent the laws of the physical universe we big things live in. If you were a quantum particle, you could watch your sons’ football game while also attending your daughters PTA meeting. You would be at the exact same time in two different places. You could freeze time when desired, or rather, simply 'hop into' the place and time you wished. You could wave your arm in an empty desert and push someone down who is 13 light years away on another planet, all while hopping out of one dimension and into another, only to reappear at your house in time for dinner. Like I said, weird.

The really intriguing thoughts and interesting possibilities come when you realize that our brains are essentially quantum computers. Theoretically, all those particles of thought created by neurons in your head can also be in two places at once. They may share the space within your head while simultaneously existing in a place halfway across the Universe in a galaxy far, far away. Which, come to thin~ of it, may explain the behavior of many of the people I've met. They can also theoretically jump in and out of different dimensions. Of particular interest for this article, they are, in theory, subject to the same quantum entanglement; meaning that as they interact with other particles of thought in other brains, they can become entangled; initiating the potential for this "spooky action at a distance" Einstein was referring to.

Let's go on to another area of science we know preciously little about: the brain. Sure, we understand its basic anatomy, and we can pinpoint certain areas of the brain and link them to certain thoughts or actions with fMRI scans or electroencepholography. We can dissect brains and look at neurons under a microscope, and we even know how the different chemicals work in the brain to influence our moods and emotions. Yet we still know precious little about how that 3 pound garbled lump of gray jelly--a mixture of blood, neurons, electricity, chemicals, white matter, and glial cells, among others--works to compose thought. We know even less about consciousness. It's not for lack of effort. In fact, scientists have even created a mathematical theory for consciousness. The problem is that it is so complex that all the current computing pow3er in the world, if put to the task, couldn't even calculate the state of awareness for even the simple roundworm, let alone deal with the complexity of the human brain.

One thing we do know is that when a person is placed under an fMRI machine, which monitors brain activity in almost real time, (a second or two delay) their brain seems to be altered by outside influences. This is evidenced by the brain "lighting up" in response to others. If a person watches a movie, that movie plays the persons brain like a puppeteer, with the deep brain areas responding to what they are witnessing just as if it were actually happening to them. When people watch others' facial expressions, their own emotional areas light up in response, "feeling" what the other person feels. Our brains come equipped with what are called 'mirror neurons,' which essentially mirror what they witness. First discovered by accident in monkeys, they are neurons in the brain that respond to what others are doing or feeling, thus attempting to mirror (or copycat) their actions, feelings, or state of mind. So we can feel what others feel, share their thoughts and emotions, and seemingly interact with each other through thought alone.

The field of quantum physics doesn't mingle much with that of psychology. So you can call me loony, but the activity observed while monitoring the brain (the quantum computers inside our head) seems eerily similar to some of these principles of quantum mechanics, especially that of entanglement. Our brains seem to be influenced, at a distance and without any physical connection, by our interaction with others, as if these neurons are reaching out and mingling with the world around them. This is why I was intrigued by an article in Scientific American, by science writer George Musser. It was about advances in the quest for quantum computing, but a particular segment leaped out and caught my eye:

"In the modern view that has gained traction in the past decade, you don't see quantum effects in everyday life not because you are big, per se, but because those effects are camouflaged by their own sheer complexity. They are there if you know how to look, and physicists have begun realizing that they show up in the macroscopic world more than they thought. "The standard arguments may be too pessimistic as to the survival of quantum effects," says Nobel Laureate physicist Anthony Leggett of the University of Illinois.

In the most distinctive such effect, called entanglement, two electrons establish a kind of telepathic link that transcends space and time. And not just electrons: you, too, retain a quantum bond with your loved ones that endures no matter how far apart you may be. If that sounds hopelessly romantic, the flip side is that particles are incurably promiscuous; hooking up with every other particle they meet. So you also retain a quantum bond with every loser who ever bumped into you on the street and every air molecule that ever brushed your skin. The bonds you want are overwhelmed by those you don't. Entanglement thus foils entanglement, a process known as decoherence.0

Most scientists tend to ignore ideas about quantum mechanics and the potential implications when it comes to the brain or thought, because it all seems, as this author notes, hopelessly romantic. I'm also a natural skeptic; one has to be to maintain a sense of logic, and most of the things people attribute to supernatural experiences can be easily explained through natural events or laws of randomness. That said, once in a while events in this world seem to defy all explanations, even those skeptics would provide. There are cases where a twin seems to know when her other half is in trouble, and with details that far exceed anything which could be produced through chance randomness. There are cases where a petite little mother gains instant superhuman strength to lift a car off her child. While there are physical explanations for this, (the body is capable of extreme things under stress), it shows that we have hidden abilities that can occasionally be tapped into. There are also so-called "near death" experiences. The ones I find particularly interesting are those among children, who are by nature open and honest, and lacking the knowledge, understanding or inclination to lie about such experiences. These children sometimes describe, in accurate detail, events that were happening in another room down the hall while they were clinically dead. They’ll often describe other things that would be impossible for them to know, such as a bald spot on the top of the head of a doctor they had never met, or the things ER techs were doing to resuscitate them at a time during which they had no brain activity and thus could not have been conscious of anything, according to science.
And to bring up another point, even the way anesthesia works, to this day, is somewhat puzzling to scientists. The subject of consciousness itself is still very much a mystery.

The latest theories coming out of quantum mechanics might allow for such extraordinary possibilities while also explaining the inconsistencies and inabilities to harness such superhuman powers. Quite obviously, we're not all mind readers. In fact, there has never been a documented case of a true "psychic." When put to the test and analyzed with scientific scrutiny, all self-proclaimed psychics fail miserably, even on simple tasks. Yet an inability to harness such telepathic abilities is not necessarily proof that they couldn't exist, and it does not preclude the possibility that our thoughts and minds are connected on some much deeper level that transcends space, time, and yes, perhaps even death. Yet as a result of all the "white noise" so to speak, these connections would be largely obscured.

I remember watching a television show where a woman solemnly proclaimed that her belief in God or something beyond death was shaken, because, after a close loved one had died, she "had not felt anything" at the time, despite it happening while she was alone watching TV. Simply put, she felt that she should have been able to sense that something was amiss, and the fact that she hadn't shoo~ her very foundational beliefs to the core. When I read this other article I also thought of her, and I'm sure such feelings are not unique. So to those out there in similar predicaments, take comfort: the potential for such telepathic connections to happen certainly doesn't mean that they will, and the fact that they didn't does not mean they can't exist.

The laws of the quantum world, the rules governing the smallest building blocks of life, that which comprises everything we see and touch, would seem to imply that we are all interconnected...much more so than we imagine. Not only to each other, but to the very Universe we live in. Principles of quantum theory have also been implicated in explaining photosynthesis by plants and the magnetism-sensitive molecules that birds use as compasses to guide their navigation. There are also other spooky things throughout the animal world that would imply some sort of invisible connection. For example, schools of thousands of fish will all move in precise unison, changing direction in a miniscule of a if they knew what fish number 2, 798 was going to do before he did it. As if their very thoughts were somehow connected by an unseen force. Animals can sometimes seem to sense an earthquake before it happens. Certain dogs seem to know the precise moment their owner heads home, even when that moment is chosen at random and differs from the person’s usual schedule. I believe it was a 20/20 episode that documented this. With synchronized watches, the owner headed out. Later in the day, when the owner was randomly told to go home now, video cameras caught a sleeping dog that suddenly and excitedly got up, tail wagging, and walked over to sit by the door. Another show documented a hospital cat that seems to know when someone is going to die within a few hours, and will go to sit and comfort that person in their last moments of life. In fact, these strange abilities have led some to suggest that it is the very intelligence of our species that drowns out our ability to sense such things.

At the end of the day, none of us truly knows for sure, and perhaps that's precisely the point of this article. Can parents sometimes sense their child's thoughts or predicaments from far away? The answer could be yes, although the amount of interference in the way would render such telepathic links obscured and useless in nearly all situations. Could one of these extra dimensions mathematical equations tell us exist be some sort of 'heaven?' One can only speculate. Could our minds (which are distinctively different from the brain) survive death? We don't know enough to be sure either way. What's interesting is that the more we learn, the more clouded such answers seem to become. If anything, the latest science is only expanding the realm of possibilities, not closing them down. Since both space and time are relative (and this is a documentable theory, not a hypothetical one) could those we have loved and lost be mingling with us right now at a different point in time? (Since time is dependant upon the illusion of space and speed, all times, in essence, are always in existence at once.) Might we meet up again in some other dimension, with the totally awesome ability to hop into places and times all around the universe?

Of course, this is all little more than speculation, and is likely to remain such for some time to come. Even trying to wrap ones feeble brain around the idea that time ceases to exist if one moves fast enough or steps "outside" of space-time is enough to make the average person dizzy. Yet contemplating the possibilities, and all the strange new doors being opened up, gives a geek like me a smile, and I figured there might be other geeks out there too. Regardless of what the answers to such questions may be, and regardless of whether or not we ever answer them, one thing is for certain: what an amazing, wonderful, intriguing place this part of the Universe we all live in is. At a time of the year when magic is in the air and many out there are remembering those they may have loved and lost, perhaps spending a little time just thinking about the possibilities will give some out there a little comfort. With every day that goes by, science is showing us that magic truly is all around us.

1. George Musser, "Easy go, easy come," Scientific American, Vol. 301(5):
25-26, November 2009

2. Christof Koch, "A theory of consciousness," Scientific American Mind, Vol. 20(4): 16-19, July/Aug 2009

3. G. D. Pelligrino et al., "Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study," Experimental Brain Research, 91, 176-80, 1992

4. K. Oschsner et al., "Reflecting upon feelings: An fMRI study of neural systems supporting the attribution of emotion to self and others." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 1746-72

5. Tom Siegfried, "Success in coping with infinity could strengthen case for multiple universes," Science News, Vol. 175, No. 12, pp. 26-28, June 6 2009

6. Charles Q. Choi, "Quantum afterlife," Scientific American, Vol.
300(2): 24-25, February 2009

David Z. Albert & Rivka Galchen, "A quantum threat to special relativity," Scientific American, Vol. 300(3): 32, March 2009