Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Death by Nanotoxins: A New Threat To Your Family?

By now, most people have heard about the new scientific field of nanotechnology. In case you've been out of the loop for a while, it's an emerging area of physics that hopes to build all sorts of wonderful things by designing and putting them together, particle by particle, at the smallest levels. A nanometer is a unit of measurement, and it's extremely small. How small? Well, if you were to take a typical human hair and slice it up into 100 slices of its original width, you would have the measurement of a micron. (One-millionth of a meter.) And if you were to take that micron and divide it again by 1,000, you'd have something measuring one nanometer.

Nanotechnology refers to any type of product designed at these microscopic scales. The technology is still in its infancy, and at this point the field is as much hope and conjecture as it is practical application. Thus far scientists have successfully created nano-fibers; essentially a super-strong type of thread. They're still trying to scale up the process, possibly to create super-light bulletproof vests or clothing, or maybe cables that could support an elevator to space. (No, we're not making that up.) Others promise nano-size robots that would essentially eat unwanted toxic waste and turn it into something useful such as fuel. A lot of work is being done on nanotechnology in medicine. Imagine going to the doctor and getting an IV of cancer-eating nanobots that could restore you to health in a few days. Another team of physicists also managed to put together a crude nano-engine and car, though it proved difficult to control and was more amusing than useful. (It relied on chemical reactions between the molecules to propel itself.)

Though miracle uses for nanotechnology are still theoretical, other less impressive uses are far more here-and-now. In fact, more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanotechnology are already on the market and available to consumers in the United states. Yet some scientists are raising concerns about the safety of this technology.

Some fears are straight out of science fiction movies, such as the concerns expressed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Billy Joy in his essay, 'Why the World Doesn't Need Us.' He argued that self-replicating nano-robots might spiral out of control, consuming everything they encounter and spreading like a virus, transforming the world as we know it into a clump of "gray goo." (Let's hope that doesn't happen.)

Yet another more immediate, and more likely concern may be that the materials created are just plain toxic to humans (or the environment). It's a familiar story: The potential dangers of chemicals such as BPA or Phthalates or lead or asbestos are either downplayed or just plain ignored. Each time, the public is exposed for many years before the government recognizes that we are being poisoned. Then we backtrack. The same concerns and then some exist for nanotechnology. With nanotechnology, we're not only creating new chemicals; but we're actually building entirely new molecular structures that don't exist in nature, and extremely small ones at that.

What do we get when we design entirely new microscopic structures to create nanotechnology? Nobody really knows, and that's precisely the issue. If you bind two oxygen atoms together, you just get good-old oxygen. Add a hydrogen atom to the mix, and you get water, a life-giving resource. But swap out that hydrogen atom and replace it with a carbon atom, and you get Co2, a noxious gas, which is why it's not a good idea to leave your car running in the garage. That one little atom and the manner in which it is arranged can make a big difference in what you end up with.

Moreover, even ordinary materials can display unique properties at the nanoscale level, so even nanometer-size bits of an otherwise benign material might turn out to be toxic. Even naturally occurring nanoparticles can be harmful to human health, because their sheer size makes it easy for them to invade areas of the body where larger particles of matter can't go. For example, when it comes to air pollution, it's been found that fine particles seem to pose the greatest health risk, particularly those 2.5 micrometers indiameter or smaller. Nanotechnology works on a scale hundreds or even thousands of times smaller than this.

Will these nanoproducts prove harmless like water, or will some be toxic like arsenic? Only time will tell. But there's more than a little reason to be concerned. After all, the track record of regulatory agencies over the past century has not been too encouraging. The old "poison you first, ask questions later" philosophy has become a well-established routine that government regulatory agencies play alongside drug or chemical manufacturers.

The good news is that in response to these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced they were launching a research strategy to study the health and/or environmental effects of nanomaterials, something concerned scientists have been pressing for in recent years. It's a good start, and we can only hope they remain diligent in their task.

Just as worrisome as any potential toxic threat unleashed is the public backlash that could be caused by such a health crisis, should regulatory agencies fail in this due diligence. Nanotechnology has immense promise, and a public health scare could stifle progress and hamper the industry. Just because one form of nanotechnology is noxious doesn't mean they all are, yet the public has a tendency to think in such categorical terms. Procter & Gamble, for example, has already halted R & 0 on nanotechnology, citing the long-term risk of litigation. Public distrust might provide a roadblock towards its miracle uses, which is why it's so important for the EPA to work proactively.

At this point there isn't a whole lot you can do about it...other than hope for cures for cancer and run away from any self-replicating gray goo you come across. So don't waste worries on uncertain dangers that may or may not come to fruition. We just thought you might be interested in knowing about some of the health issues which are unfolding all around us, as technology continues to expand into new realms.

For more information on child safety topics visit

Friday, April 15, 2011

Finally, An Air-Bag You Want Near Your Children

Automobile air-bags have always been somewhat of a mixed blessing. While they work well in most cases, they can be deadly to children and even small adults. This is because when airbags deploy, it's not exactly a gentle process. They inflate with a tremendous amount of force, which for little ones, hits them in the head and neck area rather than the more durable torso. Hundreds upon hundreds of kids have lost their lives to this safety device, and each case is frustratingly tragic. I can think of nothing more horrible than to lose a 5-year-old boy or girl in a minor fender bender that barely causes any damage to the car, all because he or she happened to be sitting in the front seat when the air bag deployed - a storyline in numerous deaths we've followed. Which is why you don't sit children in the front seat of a car that has air bags.

After more than a decade of development, Ford motor company is about to launch the first airbag designed primarily with children in mind. It's an airbag sewn directly into the seatbelt itself, with bags that pop out into sausage-shaped tubes in a crash. The breakthrough involved working out a new type of cold gas system that inflates the tubes. A cylinder underneath the seat (much like a Co2 cartridge) shoots its contents of cold gas through a special safety-belt buckle and into the bags in the event of a crash. Because of the way they expand, it spreads the force of the crash out over 5-times as much area, which will greatly reduce the jolt children experience, and thus, the degree of injury they sustain.

The seatbelt air bags should be especially helpful in combating seatbelt syndrome - a condition where a child's spine is broken in a crash and they become paralyzed. This happens because of the way in which the seat belt sits on them, which causes an uneven distribution of force. (This was a primary reason for the invention of booster seats, which were intended to combat this problem by better adjusting the way shoulder straps rest on a child. Lap belts alone, however, can be even worse, causing a whiplash action right in the child's midsection.)

As an added bonus, Ford spokesman Wesley Sherwood says that more than 90% of those who tested the belts rated them at least as comfortable as conventional belts, and many said they were even more comfortable because the thickness of the bag folded inside the belts makes them feel softer. This may assist in the battle to get more rear-seat passengers to buckle up; something government data reveals only 61% of rear-seat occupants to do, compared to 82% in the front seat.

These back seat airbags will be optional, at $395 extra, on the 2011 Ford Explorer, which hit dealers this past December. Eventually, Ford plans to include the feature globally in other models and seating positions.

We seldom get all googly-eyed over a safety feature, nor do we generally openly endorse a commercial product. But this is one that, if it works as planned, could help spare at least some children the torment of a debilitating spine injury.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Your World In Quotes

Sometimes a sentence or two speaks volumes. Here are some notable quotes about issues pertaining to child welfare from around the world:

"In the US, they treat teachers like pizza delivery boys and then do efficiency studies on how well they deliver the pizza." -- Educational specialist Dan MacIsaac, speaking in Time magazine about the broken state of the US school system. He has spent time observing school in Finland, where teachers have more freedom and fewer restrictions. Despite adopting an unconventional educational philosophy (the exact opposite of the "Tiger Mom" approach)Finnish schools recently ranked second in Science and Reading, third in the world in Math, proving that a good education does not demand children spend their childhood engaging in boring drills.

"If your not bruising you child at times, your not spanking the child enough." -- And Independent Fundamental Baptist minister, encouraging his followers to engage in child abuse, claiming that passages in the Bible demand that parents beat their children.

"I'm going to kill you all!" -- Wellington Oliveira, 23, who killed 12 students at an elementary school in Brazil and injured at least 12 others before turning the gun on himself. He apparently roamed the halls of his former elementary school, lining children up against the wall, and shouting this before going down the line shooting them in the head at point blank range. Cell phone videos posted on UTube captured some of the malay, as screaming student attempted to flee for help. The dead included 10 girls and 2 boys in what was Brazil's worst school shooting. We've been monitoring safety for many years so not much shocks us anymore. This sickening event was the exception.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Babies On Ledges

Babies and ledges--they are two things that seem like they should be diametrically opposed to each other. Yet researchers in child development love to put babies in all sorts of precarious situations to find out what happens, and hopefully learn more about the way children think in the process. The latest shenanigans tested how infants and toddlers of different ages deal with height perception, and suggests that there is a period shortly after they begin crawling/walking in which they may not recognize their own physical limitations.

A 2010 study by New York University developmental psychologist Karen Adolph suggests that young children need to learn (and re-learn) a fear of heights that properly corresponds to their motor skills as they enter a new phase of mobility. Unlike mountain goats, which are born knowing where they should and shouldn't climb, human infants learn their limitations partly through trial and error.

To test this, Karen placed 12- and 18-month-old infants at the top of a wooden "cliff" that could adjust to various heights. They were then beckoned over the edge by their mothers. (Researchers were on hand to safely catch any who actually took the tumble.) It was found that babies who had been crawling for several months generally did not go over drop-offs that were too big for them, even when coached, nor did toddlers who had been walking for a while. But those in the transition phase--the ones who had just started walking or crawling--readily marched right over drop-offs that were beyond their capabilities, including the highest, most hazardous 3-foot plunge. Like teenagers who think they're indestructible, the study suggests that as kids master a new skill, their perception of physical limitations may not keep up with their own ambition.

This doesn't necessarily mean young children are completely without a fear of heights; other research demonstrates that babies do indeed possess a certain amount of innate fear for large drops. (This wasn't the first study to place babies on some sort of ledge and see what happens.) One in particular devised a long, elevated platform for babies to crawl across, while their mothers stood at the other end. In the middle of the platform, the visible "bottom" dropped out, leaving only a glass surface as the floor. When babies encountered this "visual cliff" as an obstacle, they innately sensed danger and looked to their mothers for cues about what to do. Babies whose mothers gave a reassuring look continued right on their merry way. Babies whose mothers were instructed to look worried, however, were able to sense this emotion. They stopped dead in their tracks, sat, and started to cry.

So although young children may possess some innate fears of heights (and may also be coached into disregarding these inclinations if mom says so), the newest study suggest there is a definite learning period, during which tots may lack the proper judgment about what types of terrain are within the capabilities of their new-found mobility. Much like the eyes may want more than the stomach can handle, a baby's brain may envision larger feats than the body is capable of accomplishing.

So as your little one enters one of these windows of recalibration, it's a good time to be extra vigilant. You don't need to protect them from every little spill, but you don't want them taking a 12-foot tumble down the stairs, either. The ledges on stages, landscaping dividers, and playground steps are other potential problem areas. Watch the fall hazards as your tot is learning just what amazing feats their developing mobility can accomplish.

You will find interesting child safety information, teaching materials, books and more on our website at