Simplifying Science

Why I Wrote Dangerous or Safe?

During the seven years I spent in private practice as a pediatrician — while I checked 30, sometimes 40 or even 50 kids each day; while I took phone calls in the middle of the night and worked weekends in the hospital and the office — I also became a mother. And believe it or not, despite my education and my ability to keep up with the newest research available, I found myself swirling in the eddies of parental rumor just like everyone else. I was vulnerable to the same worries and certainties about every possible thing that could harm my children, just like every other parent out there.  Read More... I worried at first, but then I could do something about it: I could read the studies and understand the data and I could come to rational conclusions. I could do this, but I didn’t have enough time in the office to pass all of this information along to my patients and their families.

The checklist of To Do’s during a checkup visit is a mile long (Do you brush his teeth? Is he wearing a helmet when he rides a bike? Is the car seat properly installed? Have you baby proofed the house? Is he walking? Is he playing sports? How many words does he have? How much TV is he watching? Is he engaging normally with others? How are his eating habits? How are his bowel movements?) If a parent remembered to ask the $64,000 question of the day, then they struck verbal gold.

“Do I need to throw away all my baby bottles, even if they have BPA?” an anxious mom might ask.

“Whew, I am glad you remembered to ask that one” the dad would chime in.

Multiply this by lead, cell phones, DEET, antibiotics, milk, organic produce, water, and vaccines. Multiply this question in every possible direction — covering foods, drinks, chemicals, inhalants, topical exposures and ingested chemical additives — and then you begin to face the mountain of parental questions about how to raise children.

Because doctors don’t have time to cover it all, parents have taken it upon themselves to seek out answers. They do their own research, which can mean anything from a detailed Internet search to asking a friend at the park. Once a question has an answer, somehow the answer seems to stick. It doesn’t have to be right; it doesn’t have to be from a reliable source. Sometimes it feels so good to just have an answer—and something to do—that the answer, right or wrong, is transformed into fact.

And so I wrote a book with the real answers. Or at least, with the answers that are proven by data and scientifically measured. I knew parents really just want to do what’s best for their kids, and could use a resource to help guide them. Certainly, it helps that I tend to be non-alarmist, because parents have exhausted themselves with worry. But it’s not just me. Science supports level-headedness. Most of the studies about most of the hot button issues out there today suggest that with everything in moderation, we are all going to be okay. Moderation has a real meaning — there is an answer to “How much is too much?” — and there are things that are unsafe which should be avoided. But by-and-large, studies show that you can take a breath and relax a little.

I left my practice on a Friday and I started writing the following Monday. I knew what I wanted to write because I knew what parents wanted and needed to know. It was an incredible and indulgent year being able to uncover the reason why something is safe and something else is dangerous.

I hope that parents find relief with Dangerous or Safe?. I hope that they read it and take a long, deep breath. I hope it changes a few behaviors, but more importantly I hope it affects perspective. Consider the source. This is something that was hammered into us in medical school. Look at who is being assessed in a given study; at where the data is published; at the funding stream and the potential biases. Parents, too, need to consider the source. Before panicking about every little thing, consider the source. And then pick your battles.